Friday, March 24, the Office of the Provost welcomed Stuart Weitzman, a famous American shoe designer, to the Tucker Hall auditorium. Students, faculty and Williamsburg residents alike gathered to take advantage of the abundance of advice and career insights offered by the acclaimed designer and entrepreneur. After the event, Weitzman spoke with The Flat Hat about his career and life lessons for college students.
Addressing the students in the room, Weitzman’s primary piece of advice for recent graduates was rooted in practicality; he recommended working for an existing company before starting an entirely new business endeavor. He drew from his own life and stated that, by following this guideline, he built a solid network of fabric producers and customers to drive the supply and demand of his own venture before it even started, as well as a tactful team of like-minded individuals.
“Now I will tell you, and any business person will tell you, it can take you five to ten years through several hirings to get three great people,” Weitzman said. “I got them in a team because I knew them for five years where I was. Those are tremendous advantages.”
Weitzman pointed out that experience, invaluable to starting a project, continues to be a vital asset for seeing a project through to a successful finish. He cited the important statistic that although 90% of all first-time ventures in the United States end in bankruptcy, 80% succeed when tried again a second time due to lessons learned the first time around. Not only is this a lesson for the weight of experience, but it also serves as a testament to this tactic of tenacity.
“That’s a good lesson,” Weitzman said. “Be persistent. Be determined. If you believe in something, don’t give up on it. You can make it happen if it’s really your passion, and you believe you have a great idea. And those numbers don’t lie there.”
Another key point in his discussion was the importance of imagination, which was particularly potent in Weitzman’s advertising department. His “A Little Obsessed with Shoes” series back in 2002 capitalized on quirky creativity by centering on visuals like a dalmatian doused in shoe-shaped speckles and a jack-o’-lantern carved in heel framed holes. This series earned Weitzman the Clio Award, given only to those who exemplify innovation and creative excellence in advertising and design. This kind of artistry was followed up in 2016 with another successful campaign, which modeled Gigi Hadid, Lily Aldridge and Joan Smalls after the famous Neoclassical sculpture, “The Three Graces.”
“I will say we got so much publicity from the editors because when you do something creative that is art-like inspired or some other wonderful way inspired, that particular piece of advertising becomes so much more valuable,” Weitzman said. “They love stories, and they wrote about it as such an original way to do it.”
With that in mind, Weitzman urged others to embrace out-of-the-box thinking as well. He recalled a story about a little girl in kindergarten who was once asked by her art teacher about what she was trying to draw. When the girl replied, “God,” and the teacher told her no one knew what he could possibly look like, the girl answered they would all know once she had finished her drawing.
“That’s the imagination you’re born with,” Weitzman said. “But you lose some of it. You lose it because you want to fit in. You follow norms. You get into a company, try not to. I don’t think there’s anything you can have that will separate you from your competition that’s more valuable than a great imagination.”
Another part of imagination is structuring one’s particular business angle and perspective as a response to gaps in the industry. Weitzman explained that the popularity of his product arose because he was doing something both appealing to the general public and not yet done by others. Specifically, custom-made designer dresses were a fashion tradition when it came to the red carpet, but shoes were not celebrated to the same degree, so he decided to offer footwear that was meant to look just as defining as the quintessential dress.
“I thought, if I can do what the dressmakers do and make custom shoes, well, maybe I can get my shoes on these people and have them continually look to me,” Weitzman said.
As time went on, Weitzman continued his quest for conquering uncharted territory in the worlds of fashion and business alike. When he realized his original customers were getting older, Weitzman designed his patent Thigh-High boot to connect with the next generation. Although he got much of his inspiration from Julia Robert’s raunchy knee-high boots in the movie “Pretty Woman,” it was his authentic vision to make classy shoes that do for the feet what leggings do for the body.
“It became the biggest boot in the history of the industry, and we were credited for creating it,” Weitzman said. “And I say, I don’t think I have anything I’m more proud of than creating a whole new product that was never there before and has always been there ever since.”
An extra element to the story behind the Thigh-High boot was its unexpected gains. Weitzman had originally set out to appeal to younger audiences by hiring renowned supermodel Kate Moss, but it was through the process of trying to find adequate shoes for her that he discovered the need for new styles like the Thigh-High. Another example of added earnings was how many more retailers wanted to collaborate with Weitzman after he worked with the elite clothing company Scoop, when his original goal was merely to convince Jennifer Aniston to wear his shoes.
“You can associate yourself with someone and get a lot of mileage out of it,” Weitzman said. “And if you do it well, you can get even more mileage than you think. Don’t let it die. Think about how else you can exploit it.”
Weitzman mentioned that another key to keeping good business is maintaining a good public perception and image. Weitzman advised the audience to learn when to say “no” to a business deal that will only hurt you in the long run despite its short-term appeal. For instance, he remembered when he had to decline an agreement proffered by Dillards so as not to threaten his brand with luxury level retailers and customers.
“You want to have a wonderful perception in your life, in your career, with your kids, in your business, with your friends,” Weitzman said. “It’s a very, very key truism not just to career, but to life.”
According to Forbes magazine, Weitzman sold Stuart Weitzman LLC to Coach for $574 million in 2015. Weitzman insisted that he is at peace with the decision, and he holds neither fears nor specific wishes for the company going forward now that he is no longer in the driver’s seat.
“There’s an expression [that] you can’t dictate from the grave,” Weitzman said. “The grave I’m not in, but I’m not in the company, and I’m not going to tell them. They’re not going to listen. They’re going to do it how they know how to do it. So I don’t ensure, or worry about ensuring, that it remains the same or gets better. It’s not something that bothers me.”
Now, Weitzman often engages in philanthropic endeavors. In addition to visiting 19 schools this year including the College of William and Mary, Duke, the University of Virginia and Emory, he has also hosted multiple charity events, global education efforts and youth outreach initiatives.
“I often shy away from ‘giving back’ as the expression because there’s so much more to get out of it for yourself if you become part of the community while you’re helping,” Weitzman said. “That’s how I live my life.”