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Stuart Weitzman talks about his step into success

Courtesy Jeff Fitlow

By Juliana Lightsey     2/20/24 10:00pm

There’s an iconic photograph of Aretha Franklin accepting her award for Favorite Soul Album at the 1983 American Music Awards. In it, the singer beams as she clutches her award in one hand and holds up a pair of glittering high heels in the other. Emblazoned on the insole of the shoes are the words “Stuart Weitzman,” a name that Franklin thanked in her acceptance speech alongside her producers and colleagues. 

The name might have a familiar ring to the fashion forward, evocative of the high-end footwear brand whose sole struts rampant on red carpets and adorns celebrities such as Gigi Hadid, Sofia Richie and Jennifer Aniston. Perhaps less familiar to our cultural lexicon is the man to whom the name belongs: Weitzman, founder and designer of his eponymous shoe brand. Weitzman visited Rice Feb. 12 and spoke about his entrepreneurial journey to business students in McNair Hall’s Shell Auditorium. 

No stranger to personal style, it was apparent that Weitzman has had his fingers (and perhaps, his toes) in the design process of his footwear company. The freshly retired CEO sported an all-white ensemble paired with a flashy set of chrome sneakers, as he narrated his role in the company’s innovations, both in advertising and developing their most iconic shoes. 

“I had absolutely planned to go to Wall Street,” Weitzman said in an interview with the Thresher. 

The aspiring entrepreuner’s intended career path, following graduation from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, soon changed trajectory after seeing one of his shoe designs, which he had sketched as a favor for a family friend’s company, sold out in the window of a Bergdorf Goodman.

“[It was] as if you wrote a song and you hear it on the radio for the first time — that’s what it was like to see this design of mine on 5th Avenue in one of the finest shoe stores in New York City,” Weitzman said. “That took care of Wall Street for me.”

At his talk, Weitzman was accompanied by a PowerPoint detailing what he considered foundational tenets, or “truisms,” that defined his journey following the founding of his company in the 1980s. Speaking to an audience of mostly women, Weitzman was accompanied by bold, black capital letters emblazoning the words “Risk,” “Imagination” and phrases such as “You can’t do it alone.” Weaving a narrative that reflected both an innate passion for design and an insightful navigation of the business world, Weitzman explained how he mobilized his roles as CEO and head designer to engineer the brand’s monumental success.

Entering the footwear industry, Weitzman said he recognized the need for a distinguishing factor in an oversaturated market. He found his niche in designing bridal shoes.

“Once you’re in the closet, they make more room for you,” Weitzman said.

After establishing his brand, Weitzman expanded his horizons towards red carpets and celebrity endorsements. He noted in his talk the importance of the iconic Aretha Franklin moment, explaining how the singer’s enthusiasm in displaying the shoes and thanking him, in front of a broadcast audience of 13 million, worked wonders for his brand’s exposure.

Weitzman recognized his keen ability to have his finger on the pulse of the fashion world in the earlier stages of his career. In such a dynamic industry susceptible to trends, he said that designing with a healthy mix of creativity and timeless staples allows his brand to evolve at pace with the fashion world.

“I always create a collection that is 70% evolutionary — if you looked at what I made last year and [compared that with] this year, you would see I evolved a bit,” Weitzman said. “But I need the other 30% to be revolutionary. If I made 25 revolutionary looking shoes and two of them clicked, that was success … and the evolutionary shoes, they always sold.”

Although Weitzman had undeniable success in keeping his customer base engaged, he admitted that one crucial mistake he made was not recognizing the fashion industry’s shift towards a younger generation of consumers. 

“I woke up one day and realized our customer, who is very loyal, is now 15 years older,” Weitzman said. “Younger gals are starting to spend the money … how do I get that new market?”

Weitzman was quick to find his solution, through a combination of skillful advertising and paying attention to contemporary style influences. He explained how a particular style of thigh-high black leather boots became a best-seller with a younger demographic after he took inspiration from Julia Roberts’ shoes in the 1990 movie “Pretty Woman.” Weitzman combined the resurgence of ’90s fashion with his signature employment of celebrity endorsement, designing a special pair of the thigh-high boots for Taylor Swift that became a staple in her 1989 tour performance wardrobe.

The process of designing and advertising products primarily to women generates curiosity about how Weitzman, as a man, so successfully catered to a female demographic. He did this, Weitzman said, by listening to the female voices around him in order to understand his customer base. 

Weitzman said that of the 73 managers in his company, 71 of them were women. To him, the presence of so many female perspectives allowed the company to make informed decisions about both visual appeal and comfort, a combination that came to define the brand’s appeal in a time where aestheticism and functionality were virtually irreconcilable in fashion.

“If a girl likes the way a shoe looks, she’ll shove her foot in and she’ll suffer … that didn’t seem to be necessary to me,” Weitzman said. “I have a wife and two daughters, and they would say, ‘Why can’t you make comfortable shoes that look great instead of old lady shoes that are comfortable?’ So I put that into my career.”

Weitzman retired in 2017, selling his namesake company to the fashion brand Coach for $574 million. When looking back on his career, however, Weitzman said he chooses to define his accomplishments through his personal values, not material milestones, a quality he emphasized to the audience at the conclusion of his talk.

“Everybody’s success can be defined by other things in their career,” Weitzman said. “But if the people who are supposed to love you do, then you’ve been successful … all the rest is extra.” 

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