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Sam Edelman on resilience, innovation and his greatest hopes and dreams for the brand

For decades, Sam Edelman has been a game-changer in the fashion industry, one successful shoe brand at a time. At Spirit to Sam & Libby to his eponymous brand, Edelman and his wife, Libby, have crafted coveted, high-quality, affordable kicks loved by generations of customers by innovating every step of the way.

How has innovation played a crucial role throughout your career?
For me, innovation is about adventure and creativity; if you take risks and believe in yourself, it can lead to incredible opportunities. When I was 25, I had a feeling that Brazil would be the perfect place to make shoes. I had the opportunity to work for Doug Tompkins, the founder of Esprit, who was one of the most innovative and creative people I have ever met. We started with an office that only had a dirt floor and a basket of shoes – shoes I had found all over the world and shoes I had designed. From this small office in a foreign country, I knew we could execute things that had never been done in the industry before. I built this office for Esprit with 50 employees; a decade later, I returned to that same city and opened an office for our Sam & Libby brand which has grown to over 100 employees.

Your eponymous brand has always offered ambitious shoes at affordable prices. Why is this important to you?
Libby and I found a way to interpret luxury with incredible understanding for people who love fashion, but have so many other things to spend their money on. We have a true understanding of luxury – from our equestrian roots to lifelong travels around the world, not to mention my story as a third-generation leather designer and Libby’s story as a stylist and editor for top industry magazines. Our process has been the same for nearly 50 years. It always starts with Libby as my muse, my co-founder and our fashion director. She guides what will be the fashion trends for the brand each season. She focuses my gaze.

Sam EdelmanCaroline Fiss

What early-career innovation are you proud of?
When I was president of the footwear division of Esprit, we designed a corrugated plastic box. It was way too expensive and complicated to make, and we could have easily given up on the idea and gone with a regular box. [Esprit’s] Doug [Tompkins] gave me the best advice: “Trust your heart. If you believe in something, if you think it’s special, take the risk. At that time, the box cost almost as much as the shoes. No one was doing anything like that, but taking those risks is what helped make Esprit shoes the biggest junior shoe company in America.

What about your Sam & Libby days?
When we launched the brand in 1987, the ballerina had never been successful in America as an everyday shoe. When we put the bow on this ballerina, it changed the industry. We sold 7 million pairs and became the most popular single shoe in the United States with the Bow Ballet, a feminine and seductive ballerina in a multitude of colors. Women of all ages simply loved it! Then, about 10 years ago, we saw a void in the market for dress shoes, which were not our focus; we had designed a few pumps here and there, but we were still the best at designing flats. When it came time to design the Hazel, we went straight to Italy to learn from the greats, people who really understood the anatomy of a shoe. We ended up creating a pump that to this day is the #1 dress pump in America. The Hazel is beautiful, with integrity, quality and incredible cut, all at an affordable price; it is built on true luxury at its heart. Sometimes innovation is about bringing great minds and skills together.

What did you enjoy about co-founding and running a business with your wife, Libby?
The happiest part of everything we’ve done is watching our own son, Jesse Edelman, grow through the business. He is responsible for all operations and sales for our division, overseeing not only Sam Edelman, but also Circus NY and Sam & Libby. As parents, this is the greatest joy. And we have about 60 people working with us, each one feels like family to us. I could tell you about high school, college, hometown, hobbies, and the story of how each person made their way to work with us at Sam Edelman. It makes me so happy to come to work with my wife, my son and 60 other people who I consider my family. The happiest part of everything we’ve done is watching our own son, Jesse Edelman, grow through the business. He is responsible for all operations and sales for our division, overseeing not only Sam Edelman, but also Circus NY and Sam & Libby. As parents, this is the greatest joy. And we have about 60 people working with us, each one feels like family to us. I could tell you about high school, college, hometown, hobbies, and the story of how each person made their way to work with us at Sam Edelman. It makes me so happy to come to work with my wife, my son and 60 other people who I consider my family.

What challenges have you and Libby faced professionally?
At Sam & Libby, we saw the absolute peak with our hugely successful Nasdaq public offering; only a few years later we experienced the financial demise of the brand. To start Sam Edelman in his 50s, we came out of retirement, sold everything we had and launched the brand in our living room – a risk we took knowing we risked losing everything. I remember at the age of 54, Libby looked at me with concern, one of those days when everything seemed to go wrong – the shoes were late, the warehouse was difficult, the factories were not sympathetic. Together we have seen it all, the highs and the lows. The real lesson is that when the going gets tough, we fight together, we get through it, and we don’t give up. We believe in the talent, vision and heart of everyone. With Libby by my side, we were able to pull through.

Why did you hire Naomi Campbell for the brand’s Fall/Winter 22 campaign?
Naomi Campbell has such a great story, such a legendary career and is such a powerful woman. It was to pay tribute to one of the greatest women in the history of fashion. Naomi is a pioneer, and I believe Libby and I are innovators and pioneers as well. It was just like the perfect match.

You are a hands-on co-founder who designs and oversees all aspects of the brand. Why is this important to you?
An expression that I live with in business is: “No detail is small”. I believe so much in strong integrity in all aspects of our business. The paper used in our packaging is just as important as the leathers we use in our shoes. All these little details keep me up at night. Logo placement, sock material, heel counters – the list is endless. Every detail is important, and I preach that mentality to everyone I work with.

Has your design process evolved over time?
My design process has never changed! For 35 years, I boarded a plane in a white T-shirt and jeans and flew to Europe. In a café, in an airport or on the street, I will see someone and they will become my muse for the season. Their eyewear, makeup, clothes, and shoes will energize the design process, and I’m building a lifestyle story around them. Understanding everything they eat, how they buy, and what they do for fun helps us focus on the lifestyle of those customers, and we design for that particular person. I will spend the rest of the trip hunting in small boutiques, vintage stores, department stores and flea markets. Every blanket, scarf, belt and trinket we find ends up being part of a story and part of our collection.

If not, how do travel and art inspire your creations?
Since COVID, we’ve learned that we don’t need to travel far to find inspiration. A bunch of vintage stores in Brooklyn were so inspiring and challenging for our process. That said, we’re heading to Europe soon with our first stop in Paris, and I couldn’t be more excited to begin my design process. Art is an important part of what we do, as is color.

You have mentored emerging and established designers. Why is it important to foster the talents of the next generation?
We have been mentors to many young people throughout our careers. You need so much strength because everyone will tell you why you’re wrong, why you’ll fail, and why the things you want to do can’t be done – and you have to believe in what your heart tells you to do and then go out and do it! One of these mentees is [LoveShackFancy founder] Rebecca Hessel Cohen. How did you two meet? Rebecca’s mother, Nancy [Hessel Weber], is the first person I met when I came to New York to start a shoe business with my father; she was fashion director at Seventeen magazine. We first hired “our daughter” Rebecca as a consultant when she was 25 years old. She did an amazing job working with our design team and helping the brand’s foray into dress shoes early on. I hope I was a kind of “great uncle” for Rebecca.

You have expanded into many lifestyle categories. And after?
I’ve always designed for all the women in my life, but I’d like to embrace my own personal aesthetic with a line for men. From casual to dress, creating a men’s collection is one of my aspirations. Another aspiration for Libby and I is to create a collection of household items; it would be a dream come true.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds