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Teri Agins has over 25 years of experience reporting on fashion, including pioneering the fashion beat at the Wall Street Journal. Below, she introduces an excerpt from her recent book, Hijacking the Runway, on the enduring retail brilliance of Vince Camuto, who passed away this Wednesday at the age of 78.
The fashion designer who manages to break through and succeed in the marketplace is the stellar exception. And every once in a generation, a fashion legend comes around, soars straight to the top—and stays there for a long time. Such was the path of shoe guru Vince Camuto, the co-founder of Nine West in 1978, the pioneer footwear that revolutionized fashion for millions of working women in America. Nine West was a billion-dollar juggernaut when Camuto sold and exited the brand in the 1990s.
Camuto was well into his sixties when he was driven to score an encore in the new millennium. In 2005, he launched MTV reality show star Jessica Simpson into fashion by way of trendy (and walkable!) platform shoes, turning her trademark into a million dollar lifestyle brand in less than a decade. Likewise, designer Tory Burch knew she had a leg up when she partnered with Camuto, who created her best-selling Reva ballet shoe—more than five million pairs sold after only eight years—positioning Burch as the hottest women's label in America. Lightning would strike again as Camuto, now in his 70s, kept nailing it: This time with very own Vince Camuto-label footwear and fashion collections. Neither the competition from new young designers nor fast fashion broke his stride.
I, along with the rest of Seventh Avenue, was stunned last Wednesday with the news of the passing of Vince Camuto at age 78. I had interviewed him for years, most recently for the chapters on Simpson and Burch for my 2014 book Hijacking the Runway, How Celebrities are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers. We spent a long afternoon at Camuto Group's headquarters in Greenwich, Ct., where he showed me around the vast creative studios where shoes from Ann Taylor to BCBG and Banana Republic were created.
The most popular guy in shoe-dom, Vince was giddy when he told he how he'd been hounded by so many well-known celebrities (aww, he wouldn't drop names!) who beat a path to his door, hoping that he'd take them under his wing and turn them into the next Jessica Simpson. But he turned them all down as he was preoccupied with a new frontier: his own menswear collections. His plate was full—for the time being.
The fashion world lost a giant with the passing of Vince Camuto. He left a stellar legacy of creative excellence and real fashion priced right.
Vince Camuto at a Nordstrom event in 2012. Photo: Getty.
Vince Camuto's Meteoric Rise
In the 1960s, Bronx-born teenager Vince Camuto dropped out of high school to help his widowed mom cover their daily expenses. He gravitated to a sales job that offered good commissions and the promise of fast advancement: shoe salesman in Midtown Manhattan at I. Miller, the toniest women's foot wear retailer in the business.
Back then, women's footwear choices were a narrow selection limited mainly to leather—black and black patent, shades of brown and bone for Easter and summer—with matching handbags. I. Miller was a lofty, intimidating retailer that catered to the Junior League set, who loved Italian imports and alligator pumps. Salesmen—always authoritative and dressed in suits back then—painstakingly measured a woman's foot with a metal contraption before she tried on shoes in order to achieve the perfect fit. Women weighed their shoe purchases carefully and confided to their favorite salesmen like a girlfriend or a shrink: Would the black peau de soie pumps be dressy enough for the chiffon cocktail dress I just bought for the country-club party?
Vince Camuto, a handsome fellow with a ready smile and patient demeanor—he and his mother talked about everything at home, so he was accustomed to listening to women—developed a real talent for selling shoes. He paid attention to women, their desires and insecurities. And he sold-boxes and boxes of shoes to I. Miller patrons—as he quickly rose to top salesman in the store. "I really liked selling shoes to women, and I was good at it," he recalled to me in 2012.
With his experience of listening to the customers, he belonged in the merchandising and design end of the shoe business. He became a fashion merchandiser for a shoe manufacturer in Miamiy. In reviving the company's factory—revamping everything from logistics to design—he made it profitable. Many job offers followed, and he became the head of an import division for a footwear retailer. His next move was entrepreneurial when Bank of Sumitomo in New York asked him to start a business in Brazil importing private-label shoes.
For shoes, the label MADE IN BRAZIL was beginning to become almost as revered as MADE IN ITALY. Bank Sumitomo decided Brazil and its shoes were a good investment, and so was Camuto. Camuto became a pioneer of sorts, shuttling between New York and Sumitomo's Brazilian factories. He soon met Jerome Fisher, another American in Brazil hired by Sumitomo. The pair decided to go out on their own, creating Fisher Camuto, making private-label women's shoes for department stores, using Brazilian contractors.
Vince Camuto in his Nine West days. Credit: Courtesy of Vincent Camuto from his personal collection. Photographer unknown.
When they opened their New York office in a high-rise office building at 9 West Fifty-Seventh Street, Camuto looked out the window and saw the large red 9 sculpture in front of the building. "That's how we came up with the name Nine West," he told me. Nine West became the name of the midpriced shoes they sold to department stores, and they started to roll out Nine West stores in 1983 in Stamford, Connecticut, the company's corporate headquarters.
Before Nine West, there was an elite layer of expensive fashion shoes—trendy labels like Salvatore Ferragamo, David Evins, Charles Jourdan, Susan Bennis/Warren Edwards, Joan & David, and Maud Frizon, with shoes that sold for between $150 and about $400. Below them were the private-label department-store shoes that most women wore (and that Fisher Camuto made starting in the 1970s)—fashionable styles priced from $19 up to $200—as well as the footwear marketed by independent boutiques.
Nine West set a new fashion standard for working women's shoes by introducing real variety: trendy pumps, sandals, and boots in many shades and novelty styles, priced affordably, from $20 to about $100. Nine West designers traveled to Italy and France scouting for unusual boutique styles they could reinterpret for American customers. Fashion footwear was in huge demand after millions of American women entered the workforce in the 1980s. By the late 1980s, footwear experts believed that every woman in America owned at least a couple of pairs of Nine West shoes.
Camuto became chief executive officer of Nine West in 1993 when the company went public on the New York Stock Exchange, with annual sales of $552 million and Brazilian factories turning out 130,000 pairs of shoes a day. Sales climbed to more than $1 billion as the company added labels and acquired other brands such as Easy Spirit and Pappagallo. By the end of the decade, the two biggest apparel makers on Seventh Avenue—Liz Claiborne Inc. and Jones Apparel Group—were locked in a bidding war to acquire Nine West, which Jones eventually bought in 1999 for $1.5 billion.
After Nine West was sold, Camuto had to wait two years before he could go back into the shoe business, as stipulated in his noncompete agreement. He spent that time in Greenwich, Connecticut, enjoying his family and his second wife, Louise Drevenstam, a former Miss Sweden and first runner-up to Miss Universe in 1989, as well as thinking about his next professional moves.
Camuto Group, his next venture, became an expert resource to footwear retailers. And Camuto's retail executive friend Alex Dillard convinced him to start manufacturing again: private-label shoes for his family's Dillard's department stores, the three-hundred-store chain based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Camuto Group launched four new shoe brands for Dillard's, and Camuto's footwear licensing deals grew over the years to include major retail chains such as Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and BCBG Max Azria.
Jessica Simpson at the World Shoes and Accessories Convention at The Las Vegas Convention Center, 2006. Photo: Getty.
It was in fact in his Greenwich home in 2003, on an ordinary evening hanging out in front of the TV with his thirteen-year-old son, John, that Camuto told me he first laid eyes on Jessica Simpson. "We were just flipping channels and we happened to stop on MTV when Jessica was on," recalled John in 2013, now twenty-three and manager of product and retail development for Camuto Group. "She's such a beautiful woman, so that got our attention. And she was this personality, really bubbly; she was awesome, so that just kept us on that channel."
Vince Camuto had a good hunch about the possibilities for Jessica as a brand, but first he did his research, which led to meeting with her for the first time over dinner with her mother, Tina, in Manhattan. They hit it off immediately.
After Jessica Simpson jeans stumbled out of the gate, Camuto picked up the pieces, taking over the master license agreement. His first order of business was to sever Jessica's association with the failed jeans line, which had begun to tarnish her image. Being Camuto, he naturally redirected her into the business he knew best: shoes. It just so happened that footwear also was the fashion category with the buzz of the moment and the healthiest profit margins, so the timing was fortuitous.
Sex and the City had already created mass lust for stiletto pumps. But millions of women couldn't afford to wear Carrie Bradshaw's $600 palrs of Manalo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, or Jimmy Choo high heels, which left a huge, slavering market for sexy high heels with a younger edge that cost less than $100.
Camuto turned them out en masse, and they were a runaway (not runway) hit. Camuto went with Jessica's trademark look—those thick cork platforms that women used to playfully nickname "fuck me" pumps for their former association with hookers. Jessica's beauty and innocence had transformed that faded streetwalker stigma into respectable fashion that was hip and gave short women (Jessica is just five foot two) real stature. In paparazzi shots, Jessica could be seen tooling around town in those heels, tossing her long blonde hair and wearing big sunglasses; a minidress, shorts, or tight leggings; and carrying a big designer satchel over her arm.
Vince Camuto and Jessica Simpson in 2005. Photo: Getty.
Jessica's fame now centered less around her Brigitte Bardot cuteness and more on her struggles with boyfriends and her steady weight gain that took her from voluptuous to zaftig. The tabloids couldn't get enough of her, especially for the two years she dated Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who she proclaimed "the love of my life" on the cover of People magazine. On the eve of Jessica's twenty-ninth birthday, Romo broke up with her. She was crestfallen, and so were women across America.
Women liked not only her shoes, but also that they could relate to her pain, which made her so approachable. She was their celebrity mascot—blonde and bruised and struggling with her weight. Of course, the shoes happened to look pretty good. Camuto's design teams dreamed up many iterations of stilettos and platforms in a rainbow of shades and materials—priced to move at $69 to $89.
A secret to the popularity of Jessica Simpson platform shoes was that they were designed for comfortable walking. It was what Camuto's expert technicians had worked on for years—the perfect balance of form and foam: the more foam rubber, the more comfortable.
And as fashion trends pushed the height of those platforms to five inches or so from 2009 onward, the pitch and balance of the shoes was even more important. When it came to platform shoes that all the twentysomething gals loved wearing to clubs, the Jessica Simpson brand ruled, with estimated retail sales in the hundreds of millions.
Today, Jessica Simpson shoes are worn by women all over the world, especially in Greece, where high platform shoes worn with short dresses are a club uniform. She's even a hit in markets like South Korea, where women have never seen her on TV nor have any idea who she is.
In fact, it could be said that Jessica Simpon's biggest fashion achievement is having become invisible. Finally she can let the shoes—and the rest of the merch—do the talking.
From HIJACKING THE RUNWAY: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers by Teri Agins. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Teri Agins.