Mad for Madden

An exclusive interview with Steve Madden and president Matthew Guthartz.

by TAYLER BRADFORD    ★    DEC. 1, 2017

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As the stainless steel elevator doors slide open, a black wall illuminated by metallic letters that spell out “Steve Madden” comes into view. I step out of the elevator in my Steve Madden brown booties and officially enter the NYC headquarters. Turning the corner, Steve Madden, 59, confidently walks into the large showroom lined with racks of his namesake shoes and decorated with iconic images. 

Inspired by couture designs, Steve Madden is a chic, affordable alternative to luxury brands. Madden’s interest in the fashion industry sparked when he worked at a shoe store in his teens. “I realized I wanted to pursue a career in fashion during high school,” Madden said. “I felt like that pretty much right away.”

Working in shoe stores gave Madden the necessary experience to build his empire. “My advice [to young people] is if you really want to learn practical knowledge, then you should work in a store,” he said. “You learn what women, or whoever that customers is, want and what they like. It was invaluable to me. Also, it teaches you humility and selling tactics.”

Following his passion, Madden founded his business in 1990 with an $1100 initial investment. “It just came to me like boom. Just call it Steve Madden. What else?” he said. At 31 years old, he drove around the city selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. “I found myself early on when I started the company,” Madden said. “I sort of figured out that I had a special gift, because I’m good with people, and I’m good with shoes. I also knew how to run a business.”
Madden finds inspiration everywhere. “It could be a bunch of girls at Governors Ball, it could be on TV, it could be walking on the street,” he said. Known for stopping people on the streets of NYC to take pictures of their shoes, Madden spends most of his time on the streets and in his stores. “I like going to my stores. Seeing a busy store is my favorite thing to do without question. It’s the greatest feeling,” said Madden while admiring racks of his shoes, many of which are sneakers.

Sneakers with fur are on trend this season, according to Madden. “We just got 50,000 pairs of brand new sneakers that are going to delivery on December 1. I’ll get them in after Black Friday, just in time for the holidays,” said Matthew Guthartz, 49, the president of Steve Madden. The president, executive vice president, chief merchandising officer, sales manager, head of production and Madden himself are all involved in making shoe decisions.

“It is a collaboration,” Guthartz said, “and Steve is the impetus for that. He’s like, ‘Look, I don’t give a sh*t if it’s selling or not. We need something different. Let’s buy 50,000 pairs of these sneakers here. If they don’t sell, I don’t care, but we can’t sit here doing nothing.’”

The sneaker trend started in 1917 when the Converse All-Star basketball shoe was created. Superego came next in 1925 and the triple-striped Adidas sneaker in 1950. The Adidas Stan Smith followed in 1964. You probably own some, if not all, of these sneakers. Although initially produced for sports, sneakers are not worn casually. “Sneakers are great. It’s a new trend for us. I love it,” said Madden.

The edges of Madden’s lips tilt upward, revealing his white teeth. “My goal is to have as many people wear my shoes as possible,” he said, “but [the brand] didn’t start out like this. It started by putting one foot in front of the other and building. You just have to keep building.”

Wearing his black baseball cap backward, Madden exits the room filled with shoes and walks toward the same stainless steel elevator doors I had entered through an hour before. He is running an errand before going home to his family. The next day, he wakes up, drinks two cups of coffee, goes to the office and builds.

Tayler Bradford