“I want this shoe to be on this bottom,” he said, pressing the beige sole onto the black top. “But my team is fighting me to keep it the way it is. I could go in there and say: ‘That’s it. We’re making it.’ But then I think to myself, we work together.”
Collaboration can be tough, sure — but it beats sharing a jail cell.
It’s been a decade since Madden was sentenced to serve 2 ½ years after a flameout fueled by drugs, alcohol and his love of money. He is now creative and design chief of the shoe empire he founded in 1990, having ceded the chief executive title to Ed Rosenfeld, a former investment banker at Peter J. Solomon Co.
Yet Madden, 55, seems more central to the brand than ever. Rosenfeld said there was never any question of his not returning — indeed, it became a selling point in ads. During the past few years the company has prospered through acquisitions, strategic partnerships and some nurturing of orphaned designers.
In 2010, the company saved Betsey Johnson, after her company was forced into bankruptcy. And he’s forged relationships with Italian sneaker maker Superga, as well as with celebrity designers such as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. This year, Madden’s transgressions will be immortalized in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” a movie directed by Martin Scorsese about the investment firm that gave Madden shares in initial public offerings that he traded illegally.
Chasing the A-list
But his past does not seem to bother his forever-young customer base.
“They have no recollection at all,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group, the consumer research company.
Madden said he is now sober. (“I can’t drink and drug safely, so I choose not to now,” he said. “But it’s not easy.”) And rich: He said he is paid too much, earning $5.41 million in 2012 and granted $80 million in restricted stock. A longtime bachelor, he is now married to one of his former office managers, has 5-year-old twins and a baby on the way.
But there is one thing drifting from Madden’s grasp: relevance. Although his shoes may find their way into closets by dint of their sheer ubiquity, young tastemakers don’t tend to tout the Steve Madden brand.
“I saw a thing, I think in the New York Post, about the top 10 style chicks that are 20 years old, and none of them mentioned my name,” Madden said. “And I know they all grew up on my shoes. You would think that one of them would cop to being influenced by Steve Madden. It’s really frustrating for me to see that.”
It also irks him that fashion’s elite snub him as a creator of knockoffs.
“We get no credit from the design community,” Madden said, his voice a low growl. “Are we influenced by Christian Louboutin? Of course we are. He’s brilliant. But we are, for the most part, creating new shoes every day, and they don’t get it.
“For our market,” he said, “we are Christian Louboutin.”
From stilettos to chunky heels
Madden, who grew up on Long Island, was always interested in shoes. He worked at a number of footwear companies before starting his own in 1993. His chunky-heeled boots and platform shoes appealed to a generation whose mothers and grandmothers wore stilettos.
His breakout was the Mary Lou, a big-toed Mary Jane-style patent-leather shoe popular with fashion-forward teens. In 1993, Madden took his company public at $4 a share, hiring Stratton Oakmont, which had been co-founded by his childhood friend Daniel Porush.
Madden said he flipped Stratton Oakmont shares for a quick profit, and shared his take with executives at Porush’s company.
“Oh, God, it was a terrible mistake,” Madden said. In May 2001, Madden pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and securities fraud and was later sentenced.
After Madden was released, he returned to the business, even though he’d been disconnected from New York culture for some time.
“My impulse was to jump right in, but I had to lay back, watch, learn and see what needed to be fixed,” Madden said. “So much of design is context.”
While he’s rebuilding his brand, he continues to be dogged by a reputation as a copycat. In 2009, he was sued by Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga. Both suits have been settled and Madden has showed no regret.
“I am not embarrassed by it whatsoever,” he said. “I mean, George Harrison was sued for ‘My Sweet Lord,’ right? And John Lennon was sued over ‘Come Together.’ ”
At least the Olsen twins, who design the trendy Elizabeth and James and Olsenboye lines, are firmly in his camp. “Steve knows more about the shoe market than anybody,” Mary-Kate Olsen said.