After hiatus, shoe designer Sam Edelman has returned to the top

After hiatus, shoe designer Sam Edelman has returned to the top

April 28–NEW YORK — As he plotted his return to the footwear business about a decade ago, Sam Edelman found himself having to prove he still had his mojo — that he wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder whose ballet flat with a big bow made a splash in the late 1980s before petering out.

Fast forward to 2013. These days, his offices in midtown Manhattan next to Carnegie Hall are buzzing with dozens of employees working on extensions of his namesake and related brands, and he’s in the midst of one of his most successful times in his 30-plus years in footwear.

Footwear News recently named Sam Edelman the brand of the year. He opened his first flagship store in Soho in October, with plans to follow it up with several more boutiques in major cities in the next few years.

He’s been posting double-digit sales increases and is aggressively pursuing more brand extensions, including a men’s footwear line, to make it into a full lifestyle brand.

Not to mention the fact that he’s about to re-launch the brand that first made him a household name a couple decades ago — Sam Libby — with an exclusive partnership with Target that hits stores May 5.

“It’s a very, very, exciting time,” said Edelman, 60, in a recent interview at his office. “I’m actually beyond humbled by our success. Sometimes the stars align, and you just have to be so happy about it.”

Last year, Edelman’s wife, Libby, 59, with whom he’s worked as a team over the years, joined him in the company.

An important ingredient in his recent success has been what Edelman refers to as a marriage with St. Louis-based Brown Shoe Co. After taking a minority interest in 2007, Brown Shoe bought the remaining 50 percent interest in Edelman Shoe in 2010 for $39.6 million.

“They let me concentrate on being creative and took away the pressure of the backroom,” Edelman said. “I think that has been the key. There were naysayers in the beginning. There were some who questioned the round peg in the square hole. But I think that (Brown Chief Executive) Diane Sullivan, myself and the balance of the team have shown those naysayers a good lesson.”

Sullivan was unavailable to comment. But the CEO has raved about the performance of the brand in recent earnings calls, calling Edelman “red hot.”

None of the other brands in Brown Shoe’s wholesale portfolio really pop out like Sam Edelman does, says Christopher Svezia, an analyst with Susquehanna International Group.

“Really, Sam Edelman is the shining jewel of their footwear business,” he said, noting that it’s a $100 million brand.

Svezia noted that Edelman was an early adopter of the trend to put embellishments such as spikes and studs on heels, which has since become quite popular.

“That goes to show some of his capability — of really having his finger on the pulse,” he said.

Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with the NPD Group, who does some consulting work for Brown Shoe, said the secret to Edelman’s success has been introducing new and innovative styles at the right price point.

“They’re not overpriced designer shoes,” he said, adding that they’re not out of reach for the aspirational customers.

Ellen Goldstein, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said many people didn’t necessarily remember Edelman or what he had done, when he was trying to make his comeback several years ago. But you have to have thick skin to make it in this business.

“So he was starting fresh,” she said. “That, I think, humbled him.”

And it made him work even harder, she said. So he came back stronger and better — and more determined than ever.

“He’s learned from a lot of his mistakes,” she added. “He has said it himself. You really have to look at the trends and be at the forefront.”


After co-founding Kenneth Cole Productions and working with Esprit, Edelman launched Sam Libby with his wife in 1987.

Their ballet flat, which reflected a trend in Europe, made a big statement at a time when loafers and the like dominated.

“It transformed the way we look at flat shoes,” said Cohen. “It was one of those trends that leaped into consumer acceptance and stuck around for quite a while.”

But eventually, the ballet flat went out of favor and other trends took over.

“They didn’t do a good job of bringing the next wave,” Cohen said. “It lost a lot of momentum.”

As his company fizzled, Edelman found himself at early retirement at the age of 44.

“I just got really tired,” Edelman said. “I felt the industry was dominated by a couple of customers, and I thought it was a difficult time. I just had had enough and I wanted to take a break.”

So for six years, he bought and sold competitive show-jumping horses. He was successful at it, too. But then three weeks before his 50th birthday, he was seriously injured while horse back riding.

He spent the next two years in hospitals, wondering if he would be able to walk again. It was during his recovery that he decided to return to fashion.

At first, he reached out to one of the “major players” in the juniors footwear market to see if they could work together.

“But he didn’t want to hire me,” Edelman said of the designer, whom he did not identify. “We had five meetings. And at the fifth meeting, I remember sitting there in a coffee shop, waiting to hear if he wanted to do something. And finally, I just got the check and left.”

So with the help of a design student, he set about launching his own brand. He wanted to bring an original and trendy approach to contemporary footwear, finding inspiration in the tribal and bohemian aesthetics.

“At the time, the fashion world was led by Prada,” he said. “Everybody was following Prada. I said, ‘I’m not going to copy Prada. I’m going to do something unique and special.’ ”

It was not easy re-starting his footwear career — especially since he was walking with the help of a cane while also traveling with four cases of shoes on wheels everywhere he went. But he was determined.

“I was back to being a kid again,” he said. “If someone wouldn’t give me an appointment, I’d wait in the hall until they walked outside to go to the bathroom and I’d say ‘I want to talk to you.’ And they all said, ‘Sure.'”

There were serendipitous moments, too — such as the series of events that led him to hook up with Brown Shoe. As Edelman tells it, he had been running his business out of his home in Connecticut at the time when he decided to invite his neighbor over for dinner. He still remembers the meal: lemon chicken.

The next morning, the neighbor called to see if he could repay the favor. The neighbor happened to be an investment banker. Edelman mentioned that he was looking for an investor to help him take his business to the next level.

A week later, the neighbor had arranged a meeting for him with Brown Shoe.

Since teaming up with Brown Shoe, lots of things have fallen into place and come full circle. One of them is getting back the Sam Libby brand. Last year, Brown Shoe bought it from the The Jones Group, which had owned it for several years.

“It just fell into the wrong hands,” Edelman said. “Sam Libby is a very personal concept. It belonged back in the hands of the Edelman family.”

Analysts are waiting to see whether the exclusive partnership between Target and Sam Libby that hits stores next month pans out.

But Edelman says he thinks it could be one of his biggest successes to date.

A Target spokeswoman said this would be the retailer’s first designer partnership dedicated to shoes. It will last for at least a year, she added.

Ironically, when the folks at Target first approached him about teaming up, Edelman said, they didn’t know much about Sam Libby.

“The average age in the room was 25,” he said. “To be honest with you, they didn’t know a lot about our past. But they knew a lot about Sam Edelman today.”