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The Business of Fashion

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Stuart Weitzman, Master of Mid-Market Glamour

By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The Stuart Weitzman showroom, located in a nondescript office building next to the brand's flagship on Madison Avenue, is impressive in its vastness. Every colour, make and material of shoe is on display: rows of above-the-knee boots, shelves of hidden-platform pumps and a corner devoted to the Nudist, a thin-strapped sandal with a 4.5-inch heel that has become a red carpet favourite.

Owning his own factories has allowed Weitzman to keep his prices significantly lower than other upscale shoe brands — by 30 to 50 percent, depending on the style of shoe. “We sell a $600 or $650 shoe for $385,” he said. “I price the product based upon the cost.” Weitzman is virtually alone in offering luxury footwear at these prices. While handbags and fashion in the affordable luxury category are plentiful, designer-quality shoes at reasonable prices are more elusive.

“Every closet that has our shoes also has pairs that cost $600, $700, $800,” said Weitzman. “But there are also women saving up for one or two pairs of our shoes each year. Someday, those women will be well off, and they’ll come to us first.”

Weitzman was born into the business. His father and brother owned a shoe factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a hub of American footwear manufacturing in the early twentieth century. Initially, however, young Stuart had no interest in joining the family firm. Instead, he enrolled at Wharton business school in 1959 with hopes of making it big on Wall Street. While working on his business degree, he made money by selling shoe sketches for $20 to a friend’s father who owned a factory in Brooklyn. “Once, I made $380, which was a lot of money back then,” he said. Weitzman graduated in 1963 and, when his father passed away two years later, he and his brother became business partners.

After a few years of working in the family firm, in 1971, Weitzman joined a shoe company called Caressa with the intention of launching a higher-end line. He insisted that Caressa own the factory where their collection would be produced, so he and the team set off to Spain to find a manufacturing partner. One factory, recommended by a Bloomingdale’s buyer, was interested in selling them a 50 percent interest in the business, which they bought. In 1986, Weitzman bought Caressa’s interest in the factory and established Stuart Weitzman as an independent shoe company selling upscale, fashionable shoes at a fraction of what his competitors were charging. In 1994, Weitzman bought out the factory owners  and took full ownership of the production operation. The brand currently operates nine factories in Spain. “A lot of people do it other ways,” he said. “We are responsible for the workers, the payroll. It’s a big investment, but there’s also a payoff.”

This year, Stuart Weitzman will generate about $300 million in revenue and the brand is growing at about 15 to 20 percent per year, according to the designer. There are 120 Stuart Weitzman stores globally — including a direct-to-consumer e-commerce store — but wholesale still makes up 80 percent of the company’s annual revenue.

As well as better prices, Weitzman’s vertically integrated supply chain also enables quicker turnaround time and flexibility when it comes to production. “If something gets hot, we can quickly start making more of that style,” said the designer, who keeps a stock of leather and also owns his own sole and last factory. While he doesn’t own the brand’s primary shipping company, he is responsible for 80 percent of its business outside of Spain. The system is so efficient that a new style can be produced and shipped in a matter days. “Once, I met with a [buyer] who wanted me to make something custom for her,” he said. “I ordered a [sample] to see what it looked like on Thursday and it was in our office by Monday! The buyer ordered it in five different styles.”

Though every Stuart Weitzman customer may not be aware of how each pair of shoes is produced, the designer has done a good job of marketing their glamour. In the early 2000s, his team began setting up gifting suites at awards shows. By 2002, he was making a pair of “million dollar” shoes for one celebrity to wear each season. Weitzman no longer needs such showboating tricks to grab attention. The Nudist sandal has been worn dozens of times on the red carpet by actresses including Diane Kruger and Blake Lively: “They tell me that it’s the only super-high heel they can wear,” Weitzman said, “and it’s not like they don’t have other options.”

While Weitzman is past usual retirement age, he still remains in creative control of the company. Every designer who interviews with him must re-sketch a shoe from his or her portfolio on demand. It’s a test Weitzman learned from his friend’s father, who wanted to make sure the young Weitzman had not traced his sketches. “Less than half the time they can do it,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they can’t draw. Maybe it took them an hour and some people don’t sketch, they tell other people what to sketch. The point is, if they claim they sketched it and they actually had help, it says a lot about their character. In this world, we don’t know what’s real. We have to be alert to what’s real.”

Weitzman is quite aware that he needs to put a succession plan into place, something made all the more important by the fact that his own children have pursued other careers. In 2004, he sold a minority interest in the company to private equity firm Bear Stearns Merchant Banking, which became Irving Place Capital after the fall of Bear Stearns in 2008. In 2010, the Jones Group bought a 55 percent stake for a reported $180 million and, in 2012, Jones bought the other 45 percent from Weitzman for a reported $250 million. Through each of these deals, Weitzman was able to negotiate creative control. And when New York-based private equity firm Sycamore Partners acquired the brand in 2013, as part of its $2.2 billion purchase of Jones Group, the firm gave Weitzman an interest in the company as part of a deal to stay on as a creative link. But Sycamore has plans to divest itself of the brand and has put Stuart Weitzman on the auction block.

As for Weitzman, he now sees an endgame. “We’re going to sell the company to a real company,” he said. “Hopefully, it will be a company smart enough and good enough to be able to learn what we all do. It’s not about getting the most money, it’s about finding the best home for [Stuart Weitzman.] A buyer always does due diligence. But I’m doing due diligence on the buyer.”

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