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Stuart Weitzman calls on the phone after a long day working in his factory in Spain. It's 11 p.m. there, but he's ready to talk footwear. In fact, the designer is sketching a new look while taking questions.
"When it's more a hobby, what is 11 p.m.?" asks Weitzman, 71. "I love to play tennis, so I would play tennis at 11 if I had a good game going. If I have some ideas on shoes, it's the same thing for me."
That passion has been evident since he started in his father's shoe company about 50 years ago. Weitzman's talent for design was apparent early on, but he quickly found he had an aptitude for all aspects of the business. As a craftsman, he knows how to split a pattern to save a dollar's worth of leather. And he has always focused on fit and construction as much as the look of each style.
Weitzman's expertise is one reason his namesake label is just as relevant today as it was when he founded it 26 years ago. Since then, he has inspired tremendous loyalty among consumers, selling 2 million pairs of shoes a year in about 70 countries.
"Stuart's customers are Stuart's customers," said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Inc. "We sometimes joke that we could put his shoes in a closet and his customers would find them."
Mainly an evening shoe brand at the outset, Stuart Weitzman has over time expanded to include a variety of footwear categories, as well as handbags. That's one way, the designer said, that everything stays fresh for him year after year.
"I'm always on to mini projects, a lot of which I use as groundwork and education tools for our main business," he said. "Whether they stay mini, or disappear after a few years, really is not that important."
For example, when Stefani Greenfield needed a footwear partner for her Theodora & Callum line a couple of years ago, she called on Weitzman to make some casual espadrille wedges. "People don't do startup shoe brands, but Stuart is such an amazing friend, partner and visionary that he agreed to jump on board with this," Greenfield said. "We had the best time."
The project inspired Weitzman to invest more in his own casual espadrilles, launching the super-successful Alex wedge, which has been photographed on Jennifer Aniston, Rachel McAdams and Eva Mendez. Similar casual looks such as the Minx and Corkswoon wedges have been seen regularly on fashion-icon-in-the-making Kate Middleton.
Celebrity stylist Jennifer Rade dresses her clients in Weitzman's shoes and also wears his 50/50 flat boots when she's working the red carpet. "In the footwear world, he's got amazing variety, and that's what separates him from a lot of other people," said Rade. "Stuart Weitzman is really something for everyone — I don't care if you're 18 or you're 68."
Indeed, Weitzman understands the power of footwear trends. He's been known to walk down Fifth Avenue in New York and take note of every woman's shoe choice.
"He really seems to have a great appreciation for what's going to hit fashionwise, and then creates something that is uniquely his," said broadcast journalist Katie Couric. "I have worn my patent beige pumps to death, even though I never look quite as good as Kate Middleton."
Still, Weitzman said, he will never make what he calls monster looks. "I never made ugly shoes," he said. "You have to stick to what you're known for and keep making it better."
Lane Crawford has carried his line for nearly 20 years for that very reason, said Peter Harris, president of Pedder Group, which operates the shoe department at Lane Crawford, as well as its own stores. The label is consistently in the top five at Lane Crawford in terms of sales, Harris added.
"The most interesting thing about Stuart's brand is that it's one of the most consistent in terms of performance," he said. "He's managed to remain very relevant, and he's done it through being able to read the market and move with it. There's so much credibility with that brand that when he comes up with a [new] proposal, like [boots], customers are clearly very willing to accept it."
Pedder Group also runs standalone stores for Weitzman's brand in Hong Kong and Singapore, and another location is scheduled to open in Shanghai early next year.
Global retail growth has accelerated for Weitzman, through franchise deals in India and Italy, as well as new stores in Australia, the Middle East and the U.S. The company now has 90 stores in the U.S. and abroad, and plans to reach 125 by the end of next year.
Other recent initiatives include the fall '12 launch of SW1, a high-end label with a fresh design sensibility, and the return of Young Hollywood Cares, a collection co-created by rising starlets to benefit ovarian cancer research.
Measured growth is a shared goal of Weitzman and The Jones Group Inc., which will take a full stake in the brand at the end of this year (it bought a 55 percent share in 2010).
But even as Weitzman lets go of his remaining interest, he said little will change. He will still spend half the year at the factories in Spain, act as lead designer, handle the PR and marketing team and even write orders at trade shows.