Steve's Jobs: Madden Opens Up

The founder sounds off on success, family.

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Steve Madden

Photo By Courtesy Photo

On a summer Friday afternoon in New York’s bustling Soho neighborhood, locals and tourists alike stroll along Broadway, many with multiple shopping bags in hand.

But one of them clearly stands out. Steve Madden, sporting jeans and a baseball cap, is walking purposefully. Planted right in the middle of the crowd, the designer stares at their feet.

“I always have to look at what people are wearing,” he says, moving quickly toward the door of his Manhattan flagship. “A lot of times, it’s Steve Madden. We’ve made so many shoes over the years.”

Inside the packed store, the top 40 tunes are blaring. A crowd of shoppers ranging from trendy tween girls to young moms with strollers check out the latest fall styles and summer looks on sale.

Madden surveys the scene, greets a few employees with a quick “what’s up” and inquires about the sales of a new bootie. A few seconds later, he darts behind the cash register to find a report detailing the day’s performance.

It isn’t easy to keep up with the designer today. Then again, he’s never been one to stand still.

In many ways, the 56-year-old resembles his younger self, the brash upstart who launched his eponymous business 23 years ago. He’s still super-high energy, product-obsessed and fiercely competitive.

Madden also continues to search for the true meaning of success, despite the fact that his company has grown into a multibranded industry powerhouse and shows no signs of slowing down.

A Wall Street darling, his $1.2 billion firm, Steven Madden Ltd., just turned in another impressive quarter in a difficult retail climate. As it continues to expand its flagship brand into new categories, the company also is finding success with the overhauled Betsey Johnson label, the Olsen twins-backed Superga and its Mad Love brand for Target. And Madden said he is on the hunt for more brands, particularly in the contempory space.

But the founder still worries about not moving fast enough. He stays awake at night “thinking about staying relevant, making sure I’m staying creative. I think about keeping the business strong financially. And I worry about retail, that’s the hardest thing.”

Those professional concerns aren’t the only things keeping him up these days. He’s now the father of three young children: Daughter Goldie was born in March; fraternal twins Jack and Stevie are 5.

“As you get older, there’s a lot more on your plate. Now I have children, karate lessons. It’s a lot to juggle,” he said.

It’s a dramatically different life than the one he was leading more than a decade ago, when he was sent to a Florida prison for stock fraud. Madden said that while he doesn’t mind talking about that experience, it was a long time ago now.

He gets philosophical when summing up his journey so far. “The moment where despair and grace intersect, that’s the moment where I am right now,” he said. “I’m very hopeful.”

Below are excerpts from two recent interviews with Madden, who sounded off on a range of topics, from dream collaborations and social media pitfalls to his upcoming big-screen moment.

How have you changed during the past few years?
I haven’t changed enough. I wish I had more patience. It’s frustrating trying to keep up and win, trying to be the best, trying to keep the stores busy. It feels so bad when someone has better shoes than I do.

You’re now a dad of three. Has having a family made you a happier person?
I have a good family, that’s for sure. I guess I’m happy. It’s sort of an existential moment for me. You get to a certain age, you have success and you try to keep it going. ... One thinks when they get a certain amount of money, that’s going to get them a pass into the happy club. But it doesn’t, so that in itself is a little bit of a bummer. You have to search and find out what is it that makes you happy. You have to trigger new ways to motivate yourself. That’s sort of what I’m thinking about right now.

Has work become less important?
No, it’s more important. First of all, it’s how I feed my family. I also have a responsibility to thousands of employees. I love it as much as ever. I still get such a huge thrill from seeing people walk down the street in my shoes.

What has been the biggest professional highlight of the last year?
Seeing the fruits of the acquisitions we made. We’ve watched them all sort of blossom and work out on the financial front. I wouldn’t be able to do it without [CEO] Ed Rosenfeld. I am lucky to have someone who can executive my vision. He knows the numbers like I know the shoes.

What is the most pressing issue facing the industry today?
The dearth of talent. There aren’t a lot of young people [on the executive side] who really know and understand the shoe business. And in terms of designing shoes at our prices, the young kids just don’t get it. Designing at our prices is a lot harder than designing $1,000 shoes.

Are you concerned about the shifting retail landscape?
The market takes care of itself. It is what it is. There might be fewer stores, but I can’t worry about that. The dot-com giants have replaced the old independents. It might have been more fun to go sell to a store in Riverdale [in the Bronx], but it’s just different now.

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