Hall of Fame: George Malkemus

Over three decades, Malkemus has taken the Manolo Blahnik label from cult hit to fashion icon.

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By day, he penned sparkling prose about shoes for the department store. At night, Malkemus hit nightlife haunts like Studio 54, where he befriended designers Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein — contacts that would prove invaluable years later.

After partnering with Blahnik, the young exec approached the fashion designers and asked if they would use Manolo Blahnik shoes for their runway collections. They did.

“Eventually, it became almost every name on Seventh Avenue, from Bill Blass to Oscar de la Renta to Carolina Herrera,” said Malkemus.

That’s when Neiman Marcus called. The department store bought the two shoes Blahnik designed for Calvin Klein, ordering just 30 pairs for its Beverly Hills, Calif., store and another 30 for its San Francisco door.

Oh, how times have changed. Under Malkemus’ leadership, Manolo Blahnik shoes, priced from $675 to $1,200, are now in every Neiman Marcus store in the U.S., and in select Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom locations, as well as in 14 independent retailers. The brand also has two stand-alone stores, in New York and Las Vegas.

“George is first and foremost a merchant,” said Karen Katz, president and CEO of Neiman Marcus Stores. “He approaches each new season with that perspective, knowing what the customer is looking for, what needs have gone unfulfilled, what worked in prior seasons. He works with Manolo Blahnik to design a terrific assortment of shoes for our customer.”

Case in point: When the economy first showed signs that consumers were rejecting luxury goods, Malkemus urged Blahnik to introduce a few shoes that could sell for less than a traditional pair. That advice resulted in a $395 ballerina for fall ’09 — that he said has sold well into the thousands — and a thong for spring ’10.

Those items kept consumers coming and the company’s factories working.

“George Malkemus has kept Manolo Blahnik on top even in recessionary times,” said good friend and Vogue Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley, who initially introduced Malkemus to the designer. “It’s because of the combination of George’s superior foundation, marketing and strategy skills for the brand, and the originality and creativity of the shoes by Manolo, that the organization and Manolo’s celebrity status is kept at a white-heat level.”

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