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Saluting Nina's Showman

Industry players remember Mike Silverstein.

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Mike Silverstein in 2009

Photo By George Chinsee

It took a tough retailer to say no to a sales pitch from Mike Silverstein, the charismatic figure behind Nina Footwear who died on March 12. He was 86.

Silverstein, whose Cuban cigars are as memorable as his hard-hitting sales approach, co-founded Nina Footwear in 1953 with brother Stanley Silverstein. Together, they turned the family-owned business into an international powerhouse.

“He had a great talent, personality and people liked him,” said Stanley Silverstein, who oversaw design and manufacturing, while Mike served as the sales and business head. “He was able to bring [my designs] to everyone. It was the best part of our combination. We couldn’t [succeed] without each other.”

Dick Jacobson, former FFANY president and EVP at Nina, admired Silverstein’s marketing expertise. “He never studied it, but had a unique knack of knowing the right thing to do in the business at the right time,” he said. “He was a brilliant mechanic in the way he handled the business. Even in tough times Nina did well.”

Silverstein’s unique personality struck a chord with Ann Froman, a designer at Nina in the 1960s and ’70s. “He was always very dramatic and flamboyant,” Froman said about his fashion presentations during shoe shows. She recalled the season Nina was promoting Carmen Miranda-inspired platforms, and the room was filled with baskets of fruit and had live birds flying around.

Silverstein, himself, fondly remembered those times in a 2009 interview with Footwear News. “People didn’t come to listen to me because I entertained them; they came because they walked out smarter,” he said. “They know what to do. I give them a reason to buy something.”   

Debbie Ferrée was among those who attended the legendary events during her days as a young Federated buyer. “[Mike] influenced me early on,” said the executive, now vice chairman and chief merchandising officer for DSW. “I learned so much from him.”

She recalled his now-classic speech in which he would tell retailers: “You have to listen to me on this!” “I value somebody who taught me so much about the shoe business. I value the ability to learn from a great shoe person,” said Ferrée.

Silverstein learned the shoe business from the ground up. After his family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s from Cuba, where he was born, his father, who was a shoemaker in Poland, opened a small shoe factory on New York’s Lower East Side. Although that business didn’t survive, the Silversteins used their father’s signature wood-bottom looks as the launch pad for their company.

Over the next four decades, they evolved the design and sourcing capabilities, and were among the first to produce shoes in China. Through a range of acquisitions and licensing deals, the firm added the Delman and Miss Trish labels. Today, children’s footwear and accessories are also part of the mix.

In 1994, after heart surgery, Silverstein retired and turned over the reins to son Scott, who has since left his post as CEO. (He was replaced in December by Ezra Dabah, son-in-law to Stanley.) Silverstein eventually moved to Florida, taking up residence in his one-of-a-kind modernist home. There he indulged in his other passions: collecting art and mid-century modern furnishings. He also became active in local politics and the arts.

“I quit while I was still young enough,” Silverstein told FN in 2009. “And while I resented not being the boss, I was able to do many other things in my life.”  

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