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Introducing Racked National's newest feature, The Breakfast Club, wherein we convince all sorts of people in the fashion industry to eat breakfast with us and, totally beknownst to them, we plonk a tape recorder in the middle of the table while they eat.
Today's Breakfast Club victim is Seth Campbell, the founder of UES—a retro-inspired, fashion-forward footwear label that's beloved by the likes of Diddy, Gwen Stefani, Miley Cyrus, Carmen Electra, and Fergie.
"I never smile for pictures," says UES founder Seth Campbell.
In the last three years, Campbell has created one of the most in-demand casual shoe brands in the world. Celebrities are routinely photographed wearing Campbell's bejeweled and studded UES sneakers, the shoes grace covers of magazines and newspapers all over the world, and they consistently sell out at the brand's stockists—an impressive list that includes Hirshleifer's, H. Lorenzo, and Brown's Focus.
Campbell has recently partnered with legendary shoe master Steve Madden and now works out of Madden headquarters in Long Island City.
We breakfasted with the New York City native to find out how it all happened, what it was like launching a new business based on one strong concept, and what Campbell's label's all about.
Campbell: Sneakers have always been a major thing for me.
I grew up in New York—hence UES. After my second or something year at NYU, my dad was like, "Get a job," And when I didn't know where to get a job, he was like, "You're going to China."
My father's in the sourcing industry, so I've grown up around shoes my whole life—children's shoes, mainly. He's done things like L.A. Lights, Reebok, and Disney.
So I went to China and I lived in the factory for the summer. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, mentally, probably. It was hot, it was miserable, but it was also the most incredible experience of my life—it helped me realize that this was also a true passion of mine.
I lived in the dormitories in the factory about an hour outside of Guangzhou. The dorms have six beds in them, chained against the wall along a little hallway. The factory had basketball courts, a wedding chapel—it was an incredible place. The only privilege I got was that I was able to eat in the manager's cafeteria, which was a plus.
Even in the nicer cafeteria, the food was pretty shit. I realized that the only good thing was fried rice. I noticed the cook in the kitchen was always eating these little toffee candies. I realized there was a canteen-type store, like you have at camp or something, for the workers to spend their money. Anyway, I went there and I bought her a bulk bag of these candies. I brought it to her and basically explained that all I wanted her to do was make me fried rice. So for the rest of the time I was there—breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I had fried rice.
Campbell's left arm
While I was there, another partner who used to work with my father started his own company and I went to him and told him I had this great idea for a shoe that my friend and I had.
My friend's father was in the jewelry business and we were both into retro sneakers. We thought: All these companies like Nike and everybody is selling retro sneakers for $500, why not make a shoe that looks retro—that has a retro feel with gold chains, big heavy white leather shoe—but make the quality worth spending $500 for in full grained leather, with 18K gold chains.
That's how I started making shoes.
One thing led to another, and he made me a sample, and I took the sample and went out to stores and sold it, and that's how the business started.
Puff Daddy wore it—we sold to this store H. Lorenzo and he bought four pairs and he was on the cover of the New York Post wearing it and that's really what jumped off the whole thing.
That was the only men's shoe I've ever made.
Why do you have your sister's initials tattooed on your arm, Seth? "Because I love her," Campbell says. "She a good person."
Now I have 10, 15 styles, and some boots now—they're like a sneaker boot. For me, it's about designer casual stuff. The concept of shoe-lery, that's still part of the brand. But we're not pigeon-holed to just that. We can do anything that's casual.
We're probably in two dozen, three dozen stores—mostly in New York and LA, but we just got into six Neiman Marcus doors—Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, DC. And we'll be on Saks.com coming up. We have the best stores. We're still a small business but it's a cool business.
There's a lot to do, now that I'm partnered with Steve Madden. We have a few cool things we're making. The more time I'm focused on product, and the less time I have to do the administrative type stuff, the better the product will get.
I have his whole office helping me. Everyone's been so amazing. the more time I can focus on the product and the branding, the better it will be, and the more opportunities will come.
If you're good at something, you should do it. If you're not good at something, you should not do it.
I think the thing I'm good at is conceptual design—the marketing, the branding, the designing. It all goes back to that conceptual thing. I just do what I like, to be honest. There will be a point where I'll have to be pulled from that a little bit. Steve will ultimately do that when it's time to make some money.