Shoe aficionados, brace yourselves! Stuart Weitzman is showcasing a third of his incredible, 300-pair-strong personal collection of antique shoes at the Flagler Museum. The exhibition, Walk This Way: Historic Footwear From the Stuart Weitzman Collection, runs through May 10th. The Daily recently caught up with the iconic designer at The Breakers Palm Beach.
Walk us through how this breathtaking array of antique shoes came about! How did you start collecting?
I didn’t. It was my wife’s doing! I thank her every day, 300 times, for the pairs we’ve accumulated. [For gifts,] she would buy me a tie or a shirt, which half the time I returned. She didn’t know what to get me. So one year, she bought me a pair of antique shoes. I said, “Wow! That’s fabulous!” At every occasion, she bought another pair of shoes; at auctions, flea markets, wherever she saw something beautiful.
Enough were accumulated that a story was able to be told through them. They’re from so many periods in American history. The shoes truly tell the story of each decade’s zeitgeist. It opens with shoes that are a few hundred years old. What I think women will notice when they see that first little bridal shoe is that it’s straight; there aren’t left and right shoes. For forever, women have said, “Why do my shoes kill me?” Can you imagine if your shoes didn’t shape to each foot!? Well, that’s how it was done until 150 years ago.
Wow. Why were shoes designed like this?
Because it only took one [shoemaking mold] to make the shoes. It was a cost saver. Obviously, men were making these things. They didn’t care or pay attention; they just wanted you to look as beautiful as they could. As with all good inventions, someone figured out a better way and made left and right shoes in the 1860s, 1870s, but it took about 15 years for all manufacturers to follow that lead.
Did any particular style or era influence your own designs?
The d’Orsay pump. In the flapper era, [hemlines] started to move up. Women were fighting for the right to vote, and became more independent. They no longer felt imprisoned by the men who made all their clothing and footwear. They spoke their own mind and showed off their ankles, and the shoes therefore were visible. Shoes were no longer just
foot coverings; they were statements. Cutouts were popular — like the T-strap, with open sides and beautiful filigree on the front; the d’Orsay pumps, with open sides, closed front and back. We made lots of them. It was a wonderful, successful shoe for us, and opened up a whole new design pattern for me.
Do you have a favorite shoe in the exhibition?
A spectator pump in white and cognac brown that was owned by Joe DiMaggio’s girlfriend, way before Marilyn [Monroe], when he was a 20-, 21-year-old kid. He was a rookie on the Yankees that year. He said to his girlfriend, “I’m gonna get you a baseball signed by the Yankees,” and she went, “Why don’t they just sign my shoe?” and gave him this pair, which all the All-Stars signed. It was so exciting for me to have that pair. That’s when collecting one-of-a-kind shoes became a hobby.
How did you enter the shoe business?
My dad fell into the shoe industry during the 1930s, when there wasn’t much work to do. It was the Depression, and he happened to be artistic. He was hired as a shoe designer for a national chain of stores and began creating their in-house collection. Growing up, there were hundreds of shoes all over the house. I was fascinated by them. I remember taking apart one of my mom’s favorite pairs of shoes. Oh, did I get in trouble for that! But my dad saw [potential in me]. I worked summers with him while I was at university, and then ended up in this industry. I didn’t plan on it.
What was your first design?
One summer, I made a sketch of a shoe with a high-cut throat line, not a regular pump throat line. I remember putting the prototype on the model in my father’s factory, and she couldn’t get her foot in. So I cut the throat line from top to bottom, about an inch and a half, which opened up like a collar. The model put it on and it looked so pretty, she actually said, “Wow, that’s sexy. I like that!” Well, I don’t have to tell you how proud my dad was, right? That was my first shoe, and my dad produced it. I think it sold pretty well.
How do you think you’ve achieved such great success?
It was my business side. I was the CEO, as well as the creative director. Every shoe has to fit beautifully and has to function. Even a high-heeled platform has to be better-fitting than a woman would expect. If you get someone who only designs, not a businessperson also like I am, they will draw beautiful shoes on paper and let the engineer make it; however, they don’t even know to think that that strap shouldn’t go there, because it’s the wrong place if you know the anatomy of the foot, what is good and bad for the nerves. If you bought that first pair of shoes from us, and it killed your feet, you’re never gonna come back. These things became part of our DNA, and it paid off.
So, what is the must-have shoe that all Palm Beachers should have this spring?
This season, the perfect must-have shoe is the shoe that makes you have to have it. The shoe that makes you feel fabulous when you wear it, for whatever reason. You’re glad you bought it. It isn’t a particular design. We no longer create a look and you have to have it. Sure, there are trends in fashion that we launch, but I maintain it’s never fashionable unless you buy it. We create many looks for many personalities, and you have to find the one that drives you crazy.
After revisiting decades of shoes for this exhibition, what do you predict will be the biggest trend of the 2020s?
Casual shoes, particularly sneakers, have defined the past couple of years and will define the next few years. It’s absolutely brought comfort and casualness to the forefront. We see men wearing white sneakers with tuxedos on a red carpet. Sometimes what we see as strange and unusual becomes beautiful after you see it long enough.
I think it’s a continuation of women saying, “I love high heels for an occasion, but I’m not going to be straitjacketed into them like my mother was.” Now, you wear them when it feels right, and you’ll put on a cool-looking pair of sneakers when you want to feel good, or maybe make a statement. You can make a statement with a pair of sneakers as well as you can make it with a high-heeled flashy shoe.
Has the epic success of any specific style surprised you?
When I made the shoe you’re wearing, the Nudist, I didn’t know it was going to reshape the entire red-carpet industry. Today, 12 years later, half the girls are still wearing the Nudist on the red carpet, whether it’s mine or a copy; it’s that style. You voted for it! You made it the must-have shoe. I didn’t. We made one for Michelle Obama on a block heel, with the same sexy cut, but more daytime and chunky, around two inches high instead of five, which appealed to her.
I have the Nudist in several colors! It’s the best shoe for Palm Beach. Do you have an all-time favorite shoe you’ve designed?
Like with children, it’s hard to have a favorite, but there are four or five styles I love tremendously, and they’re favorites because customers love them, and they’ve lasted. We have five or six iconic shoes that our company always promotes. For example, the 5050 boot, which is thigh high, with elastic in the back, covering the knee. Every model had them in America. They used to go from runway show to runway show changing into that boot, and they still do. We always put them on the hot new model to make sure you know they’re as cool today as when your mother bought them 15 years ago.
I don’t think there was a woman who didn’t own a pair. I own several! I also wore Stuart Weitzman heels to my wedding.
And they’ll always be in your closet. No one throws away their wedding shoes!
Exactly. Just for kicks, we’re dying to know if you were a shoe, what kind would you be?
A tennis shoe; I love them. Sports are as much of my life as anything else; they invigorate me. I play ping-pong, too.
If you had to be surrounded constantly by one scent, one smell forever, it would be?
New leather. When new hides came into the factory, I didn’t just want to see them, I needed to smell them!
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned?
Career and life are always successful and happy if the people who are supposed to love you, do. If they do, you’ve done it right.
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