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Milestone: Q&A With Steve Madden

An in-depth look at the man and the company he built.

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It’s been five years since Steve Madden walked out of a Florida penitentiary. He’s no longer as buff as when he was released. Nor does he describe prison life as colorfully — and as frequently — as he did soon after being freed.

Much has changed.

The hard-charging founder of Steven Madden Ltd., by his own account, is very content. And that’s with good reason.

The company Madden began bankrolling 20 years ago with just $1,100 in personal savings is thriving, hitting $500 million in sales last year, and his personal life is on equally sound footing.

Madden is now married, with two children who regularly take private yoga lessons. At home on a Friday morning in late January, he is dressed in an untucked white T-shirt, jeans and bare feet, with no baseball cap — a Madden hallmark — in sight. Music from Corinne Bailey Rae plays softly in the background, as traces of incense scent the living room of his multistory Manhattan brownstone. The place, with neatly stacked books along the perimeter of the first-floor, has the clear markings of a softer, feminine touch.

It’s a stark contrast for Madden, a fidgety, street-smart New Yorker known throughout the industry for his charisma, calculating business moves, blunt talk — and, of course, for being convicted in 2002 of securities fraud and money laundering, which sent him to federal prison in Florida for 30 months, followed by a stint in a Bronx halfway house.

The executive is visibly comfortable in his home, even at ease. But that classic, raw Madden is never far away.

“I like to fucking curse,” he says to start the conversation. “It’s real, it’s how I talk, and it’s how we grew up talking.”

For the iconic front-man, who often says what’s on his mind, such unscripted talk engenders fierce loyalty among company employees — his first hire, David Cristobal, for example, still works for the firm as a warehouse manager — and among retailers, who Madden makes a point of glad-handing and schmoozing at every opportunity.

The 52-year-old boss is as popular with retailers as consumers. And he’s built a business on knowing what both want.

“The No. 1 goal in our company is to make cool products,” Madden says, “to make products girls and guys want to buy.”

Here, in a candid wide-ranging interview — covering product to profit and prison to parenting — Madden talks about the rise of his company and what it takes to become an American entrepreneur.

FN: What do you think is the biggest misperception about your company?
SM: I’ll tell you what it is: We design shoes every day, and we are as creative as Prada. We are creating as much as the Pradas and the Chloés of the world. Do we make $900 shoes that are in Neiman Marcus? Have we made shoes just like that, which are less than $100 and have been great? Yes, we have. We’re out there creating and designing every day, making and building a meal for our customers. That creativity is not appreciated, and I would argue that what we do is harder. I could design an $800 shoe line; it’s easy. You use the best materials and you can make beautiful shoes. It’s easier than making great shoes for $90.

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