Milestone: Master Class

Madden and his newest partner, Seth Campbell, talk design.

“I used to be the youngest guy in the shoe business, and now I’m usually the oldest guy in the room,” Steve Madden quipped recently.

At 52, the design veteran insisted that he feels the same as when he first started out. “[But] you have to be careful,” he admitted, “because you realize there are some things that are unique to your generation.”

That’s why Madden is adamant about surrounding himself with young talent. The designer’s latest find is Seth Campbell, the founder of Upper Echelon Shoes, which partnered with the company last month.

“I’m just here to be supportive and show how it can be done and then get out of the way,” Madden said of his relationship with the young shoemaker.

For his part, Campbell said joining the firm has given him a new perspective on the industry.

“I’m learning to sell shoes. There is no better salesman than my father, [Bob Campbell, CEO of BBC International], but learning from Steve and Rob Schmertz is just incredible. I find myself following and watching them to see how they work.”

Here, the two designers, 28 years apart, talk about what inspires them and how they can learn from each other.

FN: What are today’s design challenges?

Steve Madden: The biggest frustration is that [the design team] doesn’t want to take risks. In fairness to them, the stakes are so high because this is a big company and there is a lot to lose. But when you don’t take risks, things get boring and tired. It’s a catch 22.

Seth Campbell: My biggest challenge is the exact opposite: I’m taking too much of a risk. Here I am putting chains and jewelry on shoes and [targeting] department stores. I’m happy with where I am, though, and that I can take those risks. Seeing the product is the biggest reward.

SM: For me, the biggest reward is being in an elevator and seeing a girl with the shoes on, or riding around the city and seeing so many people wearing our shoes on their feet. That’s fun. And, of course, there’s the money.

SC: I’m still waiting for both of those things!

SM: I’ve said this before and nobody likes this, but I make shoes for money. It’s my craft. I do it in the same way that a plumber or a taxi driver goes to work. Yes, there is art and inspiration, but what drives me is the rent.

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