Stuart Weitzman, the creative and entrepreneurial mind behind many famed shoe silhouettes, stepped onto the Martinos Auditorium stage in silver shoes last night to discuss his career’s trajectory.
Hosted by Fashion@Brown and The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, Weitzman’s talk offered students advice — and for some, the chance to walk in his shoes.
Today, Weitzman’s designs — including the brand’s thigh high boot and the Nudist sandal — populate both street style and high fashion.
But this was not always the case. Before Weitzman was a household name, he had to “think outside of the shoebox” to find his entrance into an already oversaturated market.
“You have to do something special to gain even a bit of presence, … and I knew I needed to create a niche,” Weitzman said.
Playing into celebrities’ desire to wear unique but comfortable shoes to red carpets and events, Weitzman decided to devote part of his business to constructing custom shoes for stars. It was an uncertain step, but one he saw as necessary to further his brand. “Risk is not a four-letter word. … For designers, without risk, we’re not going anywhere,” Weitzman said.
Weitzman took that risk, investing in a small custom shoe factory. His first major client was Aretha Franklin, who celebrated the design by being photographed at the 1983 American Music Awards holding her award in one hand, and her custom shoes in the other.
“Talk about a risk worth taking,” Weitzman said, reflecting on the free publicity the moment provided his brand. His custom shoe service continued, bringing his designs to red carpets and then to Buckingham Palace, when Queen Elizabeth II requested Weitzman’s service.
“She hadn’t bought shoes in 26 years, and she needed new shoes,” Weitzman said. He remembered her laughing as he traced the soles of her feet. The Duchess of Cambridge would also go on to sport his designs — specifically, two varieties of five-inch wedges — on a mountain in Australia and while playing beach volleyball, moments which both made headlines.
“If you do it in a different way you have more fun, you get noticed quicker and people write about it,” Weitzman said. “Once and a while, you get a little lucky. But unless you’re there playing, the luck doesn’t come.”
There have been many similar moments — combinations of luck and careful planning — that have advanced Weitzman’s designs. Sales exploded when Jennifer Aniston was photographed wearing Stuart Weitzman espadrilles for many days one spring, which resulted in a People magazine spread heralding the shoe’s versatility. Recently, pop-stars Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift have furthered the iconography of Weitzman’s thigh-high boots by wearing various glittering and extra-tall renditions of the style in their world-tour wardrobes.
At two points in his lecture, Weitzman invited students from the audience to model a pair of his shoes. Sasha Pinto ’21, president of F@B, demonstrated a cheetah-print rendition of Weitzman’s classic Nudist sandal. “This shoe was created in a morning. It took two months to engineer its fit. We made 19 modifications to this shoe,” Weitzman said. Another student, Yereem Chun ’22, modeled his glittering million-dollar shoe, a pump adorned with 464 diamonds that Weitzman first crafted for actress Laura Harring to wear to the 2002 Academy Awards.
But the shoe designer said that the imagery associated with his signature styles would not have reached such a wide audience without his collaborations with creatives like former Vogue photographer Mario Testino, actor and director James Franco, architect Zaha Hadid and models Kate Moss and Gigi Hadid.
In 2013, Weitzman joined Testino and Franco to create “Made for Walking,” an advertisement that featured Moss and introduced the world to his new boot styles. Strutting through London streets in multiple renditions of Weitzman’s boot, Moss turned heads to the tune of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” The advertisement cemented the thigh-high boot as a staple piece in Weitzman’s repertoire, where the style has remained, season after season.
The advertisement followed a tipping point in his career — when the daughter of a friend said she recognized his name, but only because her mother wore his shoes. “That girl said five words to me, and it changed my whole company. It did something that probably eventually I would have been forced to do, … but she changed my company,” Weitzman said. With the help of Moss and others, Weitzman’s shoes went from high-fashion staple to cultural icon. “None of you will be able to do the best you can do if you do it alone,” Weitzman said, emphasizing that his company would not have succeeded without the vision of his collaborators.
In 2015, Weitzman sold his shoe-empire to Coach, Inc. for $574 million, marking the first-ever acquisition for Coach, a brand that had experienced losses in years prior. In the fiscal year following the acquisition, Coach reported an overall net sales increase of 7 percent, according to Business Wire. Both brands are now encompassed under Tapestry, a global fashion house that also includes Kate Spade.
In early October, Penn officially renamed its School of Design the “Stuart Weitzman School of Design” in honor of Weitzman’s “incomparable support to the school of design” and following a sizeable donation by Weitzman, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported. The change received some pushback from students, who said that Weitzman’s name, while recognizable, would give a false impression of the program, which did not include a fashion design track, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.
Still, Weitzman’s donation to Penn reflected the same educational effort represented by Weitzman’s talk at the University: Since selling his company, much of Weitzman’s focus has shifted toward educating the next generation of business and fashion leaders. After Weitzman “sold his company in 2015 and transitioned out as creative director in 2017, one of his retirement ‘jobs’ has been to share his entrepreneurial expertise with students around the world through talks like these,” Pinto wrote in an email to The Herald.
“Hearing someone like Stuart Weitzman ignites our imaginations and inspires us to forge our own paths,” Pinto wrote.
Ford Bennett ’23 said he attended Weitzman’s talk because, as a first-year, he is trying to experience as many things as possible. He enjoyed Weitzman’s stories of success, as well as hearing the “countless messages and lessons that he has learned throughout his life, that can be applied to my life and other students here.”