As Stuart Weitzman increases its footfall with its first ever UK store on London’s Regent Street, we speak to the brand’s eponymous founder about breaking into the shoe business and the many highs of his career
I just like to see a good game. I often enter the stadium hoping someone will win and then find myself rooting for the underdog because I like to see a long battle.” Stuart Weitzman is full of surprises. Had it not been for the shoe designer’s soft American twang as he speaks to me on the phone from his New York office, I firstly would have believed he was a Brit, as we discuss his love of tennis (he attended Wimbledon this year) and the temperamental English weather. Secondly, had I not known he was a septuagenarian, I would have felt sure he was in his 30s or 40s. At 74, he is so full of life and vitality that he no doubt puts far younger men than himself to shame.
Weitzman’s thriving shoe empire continues to go from strength to strength, as this November sees his brand’s first ever flagship boutique in London. With Stuart Weitzman footwear currently being sold in more than 70 countries worldwide and with over 78 retail stores across the US and in Europe, it seems very surprising that this is the brand’s first foray into the UK. However, while stocked in department stores such as Harrods and Selfridges, Weitzman explains why he had previously resisted opening a store here.
“London is a city that scares you away because of the high rental costs, but our success in the big stores proved to me that we could tackle it.” After a site became available on Regent Street and with the business on a secure footing, the designer couldn’t miss this opportunity to sell more of his coveted shoes to the world. He refuses to go into too much detail about what the store will look like, but hints that it will have a cooler, “more downtown vibe” than his existing stores as the company strives to meet the demands of the modern day consumer.
“As soon as I started selling shoes, it was so exciting. I had never experienced that feeling before and I hadn’t anticipated it”
Following Weitzman’s decision to sell part of his company’s shares to Jones Apparel Group, the brand has been growing rapidly, generating substantial annual revenue thanks largely to its wholesale business. Jones Apparel Group bought the remaining shares in 2012 before the company was sold in its entirety to Coach in 2015. However, Weitzman only agreed to sell under the condition that he would maintain creative control of the company as head designer.
Weitzman possesses a strong head for business, which is no doubt why his company is the success story it is today – revenue figures at the end of 2014 were reportedly $300 million. The designer was born into the shoe industry, his father having started a factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts. However, he was initially drawn to the world of finance and so studied business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, imagining he would end up on Wall Street. However, fate had other plans for him and his father’s untimely death in 1965 instead led him to join his brother in the family business. It was then that he realised his calling. “As soon as I started selling shoes, it was so exciting. I had never experienced that feeling before and I hadn’t anticipated it,” he says.
After a few years running the business, Weitzman believed that there was potential in the European shoe industry and so went to Spain to find a manufacturing partner. He joined forces with shoe company Caressa in 1971 and they worked together for several years, before he eventually took full ownership of the company Stuart Weitzman in 1986.
Weitzman has managed to maintain his company’s unique business model – that of being a luxury shoe brand selling footwear at far more competitive prices than its peers
The designer notes how many businesses tend to shy away from investing in their own manufacturing facilities due to the strict EU regulations often hindering the process. Today, Stuart Weitzman operates several factories in Spain, but while a hefty responsibility, it has enabled Weitzman to maintain his company’s unique business model – that of being a luxury shoe brand selling footwear at far more competitive prices than its peers. “Other designers are having to charge 50 to 100 per cent more for their collections because they are making them on someone’s else plant so it inevitably adds to the overall cost,” he explains. Weitzman’s footwear currently retails from £295 for flats to £735 for boots.
Stuart Weitzman’s signature design, the Nudist sandal, was created in 2013. The shoes made their first public appearance on the feet of Diane Kruger at the 2013 Television Critics Association’s summer press tour and are now ubiquitous on the red carpet. The simple, two-strap design featuring a four-inch heel broke with convention for combining comfort and style and is why it has been dubbed “the giving sandal”. This year, Weitzman attended the CFDA Awards with singer Ciara, who wore an updated version of the Nudist. “Giuliana Rancic from Entertainment Tonight was interviewing us and Ciara was saying how much she loved her shoes, at which point Giuliana called out to the crowd, ‘Is there anyone here not wearing Stuart Weitzman?’ I think there were about 16 girls wearing them. If they’d all been wearing the same dress, it would have been World War Three!”
Weitzman's iconic Nudist heels made their first public appearance on the feet of Diane Kruger at the 2013 Television Critics Association’s summer press tour and are now ubiquitous on the red carpet
Another of Weitzman’s most iconic pairs are the thigh-high Highland boots. The designer was largely responsible for changing people’s perception of this provocative design as an elegant and sexy footwear staple – but he makes no attempt to deny that Julia Roberts' famous pair in Pretty Woman was his source of inspiration. “I love that movie. There’s a reason why that boot makes them [prostitutes] feel more enticing in their trade, but I wanted to turn it into a shoe that every girl would want. Not every hooker, but every woman.”
"I asked Kate [Moss] to try the Highland boots on and she walked over to the mirror and said, ‘wow’ and asked for a pair. I said I would give them to her on one condition – simply tell me why you want this boot and you know what she said? ‘Strong heel’. That was it"
Initially, not everyone shared Weitzman’s vision and he had to trial about 19 different designs before he struck gold, adapting the pointed toe into a softer, rounded version and the stiletto heel into a stronger, thicker style. Gone too was the tacky, vinyl leather sported by Roberts, instead to be replaced with elegant velvet, soft suede and leather materials. In a fortunate turn of events, the first person to wear the boots was Kate Moss, a woman renowned for her fearless approach to fashion.
“I brought a pair to a shoot with Mario Testino and Kate even though we had never planned on including them,” he explains. “But then I asked her to try them on and she walked over to the mirror and said, ‘wow’ and asked for a pair. I said I would give them to her on one condition – simply tell me why you want this boot and you know what she said? ‘Strong heel’. That was it.”
Moss debuted the exclusive new style in the A/W13 Stuart Weitzman video campaign, Made for Walking, and the results were instantaneous. Following the media frenzy that ensued, women of all ages were ringing Weitzman up demanding pairs. The boots appear to have ageless appeal, worn by everyone, from Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift to Heidi Klum and Jennifer Aniston.
The forward-thinking designer has always had a democratic approach to design, but only now has the industry caught up with him. “I’ve never acted as a dictator, but the industry definitely used to,” explains Weitzman. “If you’re a good designer you will make one cohesive collection with each style working with any kind of silhouette.” From round, peep toe, pointed and oval-shaped to high heels, platforms, pumps and trainers, there are endless choices now available and Weitzman believes that the internet is overwhelmingly responsible for women’s elevated confidence with regards to what footwear choices to make.
“I’ve never acted as a dictator, but the industry definitely used to”
Weitzman’s love affair with shoes appears to go hand in hand with his love affair with women and this is perhaps why he has never ventured into men’s shoes, finding the opposite sex’s options far more exciting and diverse. Weitzman first realised the power of shoes to transform the wearer when he was 16-years-old and had fallen in love with a cheerleader.
“I had the serious hots for this girl, but whenever I asked her out she told me she was too busy, but then one day she finally agreed,” he narrates, smiling. “So I borrowed my brother’s car and I picked her up in the suburbs of New York and she was wearing these red leather high heeled pumps. At that moment I got the message of how shoes can really tell you something about a woman and the message she wants to give off.”While Weitzman jokes how he considers retirement to be a dirty word, he understands that he must consider the long-term future of his company, especially given that his children have all pursued different careers. Therefore, he confides how his two-year goal is to put a strong team in place to continue his legacy.
This year, Coach announced Wendy Kahn as the new CEO of Stuart Weitzman and the former head of Valentino has ambitions plans to expand the brand into further product categories. By taking a step back, Weitzman will have more time to focus on his organisation, the Weitzman Family Foundation, which strives to support the American Jewish community and to enrich the lives of Jewish youths through education, sport, and so on.
For Weitzman, the symbolic importance of a person’s shoes can be summed up by fictional character Forrest Gump, who famously said: “My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been.” And I’m sure if you were to look at Weitzman’s shoes, they would tell a very great story indeed.