Staying in STEP High-energy designer Steve Madden knows the way to a woman's heart is through the soles of her shoes. @

October 01, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The last thing Steve Madden needs is more caffeine.

In his midtown New York showroom, the disheveled, ultra-now shoe designer darts from phone, to generic Starbucks drink, to client, to generic Starbucks drink, to bathroom, to generic Starbucks drink, occasionally pausing to calm himself by singing "Stand By Your Man."

"The Attention Deficit Disorder part of the day is happening now," the 40-year-old Madden says in his raspy Long Island accent.

It's market day, a day for him to check up on the progress of his products, and for local retailers to review the new lines, do some buying and share some gossip.

The showroom, filled with shelves of his clunky, retro creations, looks like a Shoetopia for young women high on the nosebleed platforms and other funky footwear that represent Madden's uncanny instincts.

"He's always looking, he's always watching," says Gina Campbell, his personal assistant. "He lives, eats, sleeps shoes."

Cobbler and cult figure, Madden is more than a faceless emperor of a Nine West-esque shoe conglomerate. He's not a one-trick fad-milking pony either. This ain't L.A. Gear.

He's the scrappy, Danny Bonaduce-esque head of an $80 million company. With his name on the sole of every one of his irresistible shoes, he's become an institution that has cracked the female Gen-X and Y market wide open with a product and strategy that bring attitude to new altitudes.

But winning blends of commercialism and creativity rarely blossom in the most stable conditions. And Madden's manic commune of a showroom is no exception.

"Anything goes. If you kinda don't have that attitude, you won't make it," says customer service and showroom rep Abby Loewenstein.

Madden doesn't have much time to sit down and chat.

He needs to get his priorities in order if he's going to get anything done today. First on his list as always: product.

"The second thing is worrying. That's the second most important thing I do," he says, smirking underneath his baseball cap. "I'm always worried."

There's an irate retailer in the middle of the room right now, a guy in a loud yellow shirt and thick gold chains, screaming expletives at Madden because the shoes he's selling in his Soho boutiques aren't doing as well as he expected.

As the client blusters, Madden remains uncharacteristically calm. slings his arm around his client's shoulder and draws him into a confidential huddle. Business will pick up after Labor Day, he assures him. Look at the latest boot. It's sure to be an enormous seller. Under Madden's salesman spell, the guy leaves markedly less irate.

"One of my customers, you know, crying to me," Madden says wearily. "Business is tough."

But Madden has hit his stride, even if some of his clients stumble occasionally.

"He's widely respected as a great visionary and designer," says Steve Marotta, vice president and footwear analyst for Wasserstein Perella Securities, who has been following Steve Madden Ltd. for more than two years. "He's like Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. He's identifiable as a person."

Plus, he's surrounded by beautiful young female assistants and employees who watch out for him, like an extended family.

Has he eaten yet?

Make sure you get him before he has chocolate.

Madden inspiration bursts through the chaotic chorus of ringing phones and shoe shop talk.

"I just got such a great idea for a shoe you don't even know," Madden blurts to his crew, hand over a telephone receiver. He was engaged in an unrelated telephone conversation, but the muse has taken over. The shoe will have the same bottom as his popular slide, the "Slinky," but will have a closed toe.

"You know what we're going to do? You know the toe that we like? Hang on a second, don't move a muscle," he orders and shuffles out abruptly to grab an example.

Before the bustling bulldog returns with the shoe-parts to illustrate his new idea, Campbell says, "Did you see what he just did?"

Glowing and genuinely proud, she continues, "He created a shoe in his head. Now he's going to call the factory, tell them to make a sample. He'll change it three more times, then he'll put it into production. It happens like that."

But she does remember a time when his personality was overwhelming.

"I wasn't quite sure where he was coming from, but I got to know him," she says. "I just didn't think I could keep up, because he's a very 'right now' type of person. He's an Aries, and that's what they're like."

And he had a mom who had "Stevie" in her late 30s. After raising two other sons, she had altered her child-rearing style a bit by the time he was born.

"When he did something that wasn't right, I said, 'What the heck, let 'em.' When you get older, you say, 'All right, stay up,' " says Sydelle Madden, 76.

Regardless of who shaped the self-described "schleppy" shoemaker from Long Island, Madden's personality and vision have made him an accessible, if unlikely, celebrity with a focused passion that runs counter to his out-there demeanor.

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