A favorite shoe brand of models, actresses, and even some Penn students, Stuart Weitzman’s eponymous company has become a staple in luxury footwear. On February 27th, the Wharton graduate visited the University of Pennsylvania to teach an “Executive-in-Residence” session, one class in a series about how to build a business.
He started off with a statistic: “Do you know approximately how many shoes women buy per year?” The answer, which may be surprising or not, was 13 pairs, compared to 1.5 for men. He then dove in.
How do you build a brand?
Weitzman began detailing how everything we use is branded–yet fashion is first a product, and then branded. “Each product has its own approach, but the product needs to be worthy, fresh, and then you can invest.” How did he build a brand, specifically? “We created a brand that didn’t have rules. It had values.”
What was his logic? Weitzman considered the difference between values and rules: values can change, but with rules, there is no thinking outside the box. “Values remained, but the way we used them changed, which bought partnerships that became a part of who we are, and helped us do things we couldn’t and wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
Weitzman also spoke about how he never wanted to be a “revolutionary.” “If you’re the most beautiful person you have a problem,” he mused, “because tomorrow someone else will come along that’s prettier and better. Except Meryl Streep, she’s figured out how to stay beautiful somehow.”
There was also a concept of being “simple.” “If you’re simple, more people can relate to you… and the best way to be simple and right, is to be sexy. Sexy works. It can be pornographic or it can be cool. I prefer cool.” He talked about how it’s not only the clothes or shoes or accessories that need to be sexy, but also the website and the lining of the shoe need to be sexy whereas the color and pattern on the outside can be simple. “You just want it to be sexy inside and out, and by doing that you accomplish your customer’s main goal, which is to get them to pick up the shoe.”
What was your tipping point?
Definitely for Weitzman, his tipping point was the “Million Dollar Sandal,” which is now worth $400 million. “This shoe was a necessity.” The shoe was mostly shown off at award ceremonies, and the game-changing event was having actress Laura Harring wear the shoe at the 2002 Academy Awards. “This was the same award ceremony that Angelina Jolie stole Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston,” he added. 400 newspapers talked about that shoe, and red carpet commentator/comedian Joan Rivers made sure everyone knew it. Jewelry designer Fred Leighton helped him make the shoe by creating $1 million worth of diamonds to be used on the shoe, 464 diamonds to be exact. The moral of the story: “you can’t win if you don’t play.”
Weitzman also talked about how you have to have both creativity and business-savvy in order to be successful, and how he ended up in fashion by accident. When he decided to start the company, he also made the decision to not have a committee, so that he could make every final decision himself. Also, the hardest part for him when starting out wasn’t getting repeat customers, but new customers. “There are more customers with more than one pair than just one, which makes sense.”
What do shoes mean to you?
“They remind you of a good evening, like prom or a wedding. And you remember iconic shoes, such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Why was that boot an inspiration?”
How do you protect what you build from a brand?
Stuart Weitzman tries to sell his shoes at a level that’s lower than the designer price tag but still attracts a luxury customer. “Would Prada copy Gucci? Hell no.” As for the people that buy knock-offs of popular and high-end brands, Weitzman said that eventually, they’ll want the real deal.
He also describes business as a dictatorship. How did he pick who to work for him? “I would think to myself, could think person lead an area of my firm? They also need to not necessarily be the most skillful, but need to be able to handle stress, make deadlines, be personable, could be my best friend, is good at communicating, and can work well with others.” He advised us to try to work somewhere else before you start your own business because you not only learn so much elsewhere but you also meet other people that could potentially help you create your business in the future.
Is there any way to gauge how successful something will be?
“No. These shoes are my children. I can’t see them the way a customer sees them.”
But Weitzman did decide to start hosting a fashion show in which he would invite editors and give them a free pair of shoes to thank them for coming. Yet he found that when he would see the editors again, and he gave them shoes that would be in style 6 months later at the next show, the editors wouldn’t be wearing his gifts. “So I decided to make something they want. I gave them 60 options, and out of 55 editors who were mostly women and super cool, 41 picked the same boot. The 50/50 boot, which had fur all around and which Giselle wore.” Yet the joke he made was that the editors didn’t even know that they were his focus group!
The year Weitzman made the Nudist platform heel, People magazine reported on it, among other magazines, and 48/55 fashion editors chose the Nudist, even though it was an unwearable show. The Nudist became the biggest sandal in dress shoe industry, growing in value from $400 to $1000. Blake Lively, Jennifer Gardner, Jennifer Lawrence, Kourtney Kardashian, Olivia Wilde, and hundreds of others have worn this heel on the red carpet and beyond.
Did you have any social influences/influencers?
The #MadeForWalking campaign was a huge success. “We went to Kate Moss, who was one of the most iconic people at the time. It never had been done, and we couldn’t afford her, but I hired her anyway.” They filmed it in London, and within 5 minutes, every news show was reporting on it. The boot was a high boot, and Moss had on a big t-shirt with the thigh high leggings. “Our goal was to make a boot that looked like clothing.” He described the first time Moss put on the shoe: she immediately stood straighter, more confidently when looking at herself in the mirror. And just like that, with the help of an iconic shoe, iconic model, and iconic photographer Mario Testino, he accomplished what no other shoe designer had ever done before.
He went on to form collaborations with celebrities such as Gigi Hadid, Jennifer Aniston, and Kate Middleton. “Gigi came to us at 19, and we hired her for four years, before anyone knew who she really was yet. And we therefore helped launch her.” Gigi became the woman of the year, and collaborated with Weitzman to create the EYELOVE shoe, which are flat mules that feature adorable Evil Eye appliqués. The shoes helped raise enough money to open six new schools.
Weitzman later contacted supermodel Cindy Crawford, telling her he wanted to send her a shoe that she could paint and decorate and just make art with. Then, he auctioned it off at a Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer event, and soon after, other actresses, actors, and athletes started to follow with their own designs–even Tom Hanks!
What’s your biggest tip?
“To think outside of the box. To try to do things that no one else has ever done before.”