Sam Edelman On Resilience, Innovating, And His Biggest Hopes & Dreams For The Brand

Sam Edelman won Fashion Innovator at the Daily Front Row's Fashion Media Awards 2022

by Alexandra Ilyashov

For decades, Sam Edelman has been a total game changer in the fashion industry, one hit shoe label at a time. From Esprit to Sam & Libby to his namesake brand, Edelman and his wife, Libby, have crafted covetable, high-quality, affordable kicks beloved 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 opportunity. When I was 25, I had this gut 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’ve ever met. We started with an office that only had a dirt floor and a basket of shoes—shoes I’d found around 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 that office for Esprit to 50 employees; a decade later, I returned to that same town and I opened an office for our Sam & Libby brand that grew to more than 100 employees.

Your eponymous brand has always offered aspirational footwear at attainable prices. Why is this important to you?
Libby and I have found a way to interpret luxury with an incredible understanding for people who love fashion, yet have so many other things to spend their money on. We have a true understanding of luxury—from our equestrian roots, to lifelong travel all over the world, not to mention my history as a third-generation leather man and Libby’s history as a stylist and editor for the industry’s top magazines. Our process has been the same for almost 50 years. It always starts with Libby as my muse, my co-founder, and our fashion director. She guides what the fashion trends will be for the brand each season. She focuses my eye.

Sam Edelman (Caroline Fiss)

What’s an early career innovation you’re proud of?
When I was president of Esprit’s footwear division, we designed a corrugated plastic box. It was way too expensive and complicated to make, and we could have easily scrapped the idea and moved forward 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.” In those days, the box cost almost as much as the shoes. No one was doing anything like that, but taking those risks are what helped turn Esprit’s footwear into the biggest junior shoe business in America.

And from your Sam & Libby days?
When we started the brand in 1987, the ballerina flat had never been successful in America as an everyday shoe. When we put the bow on that ballerina flat, it changed the industry. We sold 7 million pairs and became the most popular single shoe in the U.S. with the Bow Ballet, a ballet flat that was feminine and flirty, in a multitude of colors. Women of all ages just loved it! Then, about 10 years ago, we saw a void in the market for dress shoes, which weren’t a huge focus of ours; we’d designed a couple of pumps here and there, but we were always best at designing flat shoes. 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 No. 1 dress pump in America. The Hazel is beautiful, with integrity, quality, and incredible fit, all at an attainable price; it’s built on true luxury at its core. Sometimes innovation is about bringing great minds and skill together.

What’s been fulfilling about co-founding and running a company with your wife, Libby? 
The most joyful part of everything we’ve done is seeing our own son, Jesse Edelman, develop in the business. He’s responsible for all operations and sales in our division, overseeing not just Sam Edelman, but also Circus NY and Sam & Libby. As parents, it’s the greatest joy. And we have about 60 individuals who work with us—every single one feels like family to us. I could tell you the high school, college, hometown, hobbies, and story of how each person made their way to working with us at Sam Edelman. It makes me so happy to come to work with my wife, my son, and 60 other people I consider family.The most joyful part of everything we’ve done is seeing our own son, Jesse Edelman, develop in the business. He’s responsible for all operations and sales in our division, overseeing not just Sam Edelman, but also Circus NY and Sam & Libby. As parents, it’s the greatest joy. And we have about 60 individuals who work with us—every single one feels like family to us. I could tell you the high school, college, hometown, hobbies, and story of how each person made their way to working with us at Sam Edelman. It makes me so happy to come to work with my wife, my son, and 60 other people I consider family.

What challenges have you and Libby navigated together professionally?
At Sam & Libby, we saw the absolute top with our hugely successful public offering on Nasdaq; only a few years later, we experienced the brand’s financial demise. To start Sam Edelman in our fifties, we came out of retirement, sold everything we had, and started the brand in our living room—a risk we took knowing we could lose everything. I remember at the age of 54, Libby looked at me concerned, on one of those days when everything felt like it was going wrong—shoes were late, the warehouse was being difficult, factories were not being sympathetic. Together, we’ve seen it all, the ups and the downs. The real lesson is that when push comes to shove, we fight through it together, we make it happen, and we don’t give up. We believe in each other’s talent, vision, and heart. With Libby by my side, we’ve been able to get through.

Why did you tap Naomi Campbell for the brand’s Fall ’22 campaign?
Naomi Campbell has such a beautiful story, such a legendary career, and is such a powerful woman. This was all about paying respect to one of the greatest women in all of fashion history. Naomi is a pioneer, and I believe Libby and I are innovators and pioneers as well. It just felt like the perfect match.

 

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You’re a hands-on co-founder who designs and oversees every aspect of the brand. Why is this important to you?
One expression I live by in business is, “No detail is small.” I believe so much in strong integrity in every aspect of our business. The paper used in our packaging is just as important as the leathers we use in our shoes. All these small details keep me up at night. Logo placement, sock material, heel counters—the list is never-ending. Every detail is important, and I preach this mentality to everyone I work with.

Has your design process evolved over time?
My design process has never changed! For the past 35 years, I get on a plane in a white T-shirt and a pair of jeans and I fly to Europe. At a café, in an airport, or on the streets I will see someone, and they will become my muse for the season. Their glasses, makeup, clothes, and shoes will invigorate the design process, and I build a lifestyle story around them. Understanding everything from what they eat, how they shop, and what they do for fun helps us hone in on what that customers’ lifestyle is, and we design for that one specific person. I’ll spend the rest of the trip on a hunt at little boutiques, vintage stores, department stores, and flea markets. Every blanket, scarf, belt, and bauble we find ends up becoming part of a story and our collection.

How else do travel—and art—inspire your designs?
Since COVID, we learned that we don’t need to travel far for inspiration. A bunch of vintage stores in Brooklyn have been so inspiring and stimulating to our process. That said, we’re soon headed to Europe with our first stop in Paris, and I could not be more excited to begin my design process. Art is an important part of what we do, and so is color.

You’ve mentored emerging and established designers alike. Why is it important to foster next-gen talents?
We’ve 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 will 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 such mentee is [LoveShackFancy founder] Rebecca Hessel Cohen. How did you two cross paths? Rebecca’s mother, Nancy [Hessel Weber], is the first person I met when I came to NYC to start in the shoe business with my dad; she was the fashion director at Seventeen magazine. We first hired “our daughter” Rebecca as a consultant when she was 25. She did an amazing job working with our design team and helping the brand’s foray into dress shoes early on. I hope I’ve been something of a “great uncle” to Rebecca.

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

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