The first thing you notice about Steve Madden after meeting him is the baseball cap, which he wore backwards in a recent interview (because of the lights in the studio). Then maybe his shoulders, unusually broad and toned for corporate America. But what’s most surprising is his directness. He’s not interested in small talk. He doesn’t describe his company as “creating solutions” or “triple bottom lines.” He didn’t go to business school, and it’s hard to imagine him using the word “synergy.” A typical founder of $2 billion-market cap company this is not.
And yet despite—or maybe because of—his uncommon directness, there are few designers in U.S. history more successful.
Last year, Steve Madden the company raked in $1.4 billion in sales—particularly impressive at a time when most of retail is reeling. Millions of women have worn its signature slides, platforms, and Mary Janes. But Madden didn’t have an entirely smooth ride to the top, he told Fortune this summer (video interview above).
Madden’s founding story is quintessential Americana: He grew up on the south shore of Long Island in a neighborhood called Five Towns. He went to the University of Miami, but dropped out, explaining that he spent most of his time getting high and going to the beach. He got his first real start selling shoes out of the trunk of a friend’s car (he didn’t have a license). Before long, he hit it big with a shoe he designed—the Mary Lou, a now-iconic update of the Mary Jane. Well on his way to becoming a household name, he took the company public in 1993.
The problem? The firm that helped with the IPO was Stratton Oakmont, whose raucous culture and conduct was immortalized in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. (Madden has said that the actor who played him in the movie was a little “too nerdy.”) After the IPO and the fall of Stratton Oakmont, Madden went to prison for securities fraud. He served two and a half years.
“It was terrible,” Madden says now. “It has colored everything that I do today, frankly. It was a terrible experience.”
Now, the shoemaker is back at his still-giant company, which has plans for expansion. The secret to its success, he says, is relatively simple: “I make shoes that people want to buy. That’s what I’m all about.”
Today, Steve Madden isn’t a name synonymous with high fashion in the way, say, Prada or Isabel Marant might be. But where some designers set lofty prices with implausible fabrics, Madden’s shoes have broad appeal. (Witness the 90s cult-hit the Slinky, now back on shelves.)
Empathy with the everywoman is a lesson he thinks up-and-comers today should learn. His advice for kids these days: “Go work in a store for six months,” he says. “And really learn what it’s all about.”