Vince Camuto: Nine West's founder looks back

@FortuneMagazine June 29, 2011: 1:02 PM ET
Nine West founder Vince Camuto

Today Camuto, 75, has an eponymous fashion line and designs footwear for other brands.

FORTUNE -- Vince Camuto tells Fortune how he went from shoe clerk to legend of the fashion footwear industry.

My father was an artisan who died when I was 2, so I was always self-supporting and helping my mom. I grew up in Manhattan, and after high school I became a service manager at I. Miller, a fashionable store that sold women's footwear and accessories in the early '60s. Later, when I started selling in the store, all the ladies whom I'd met in the service area wanted to buy from me. They were starlets, professional models, and wealthy women.


I started sketching shoes in my early twenties, and I met Ted Poland, founder of Sudbury Shoe Co., who became my mentor. I was hired as a fashion merchandiser in Miami for National Shoe, then took over a Sudbury factory that wasn't doing well. I designed, produced, and sold the collection, and the factory went into the black. Then I became president of the import division for Beck Industries, a footwear retailer.

In 1969 I was getting several offers when Bank of Sumitomo in New York asked me to start a business in Brazil, designing and importing private-label shoes. The bank wanted to diversify its investments, and Brazil had an incredible factory base. I liked the idea of building something new, so I took it.

In the '70s I met Jerome Fisher, who was also a contractor for Sumitomo. We started our own company and marketed ourselves as having Japanese financing, Italian design, and Brazilian manufacturing. In 1979 we moved to 9 West 57th Street and were trying to decide on a name for our label. I looked out the window, saw the number 9, and said, "Let's call ourselves Nine West."

We wanted to give women shoes with great style while keeping prices low. We became a hot brand, opened retail stores, and owned the entry-level customer. Ten years later we repositioned the brand to attract a higher-level customer.

We were among the first to offer department stores the opportunity to put a brand concept shop within their store. We made acquisitions and were opening 125 stores a year under Nine West, Easy Spirit, and various outlets. Nine West was valued at $2 billion in 1999, when we decided to sell to Jones Apparel Group. It wasn't easy being CEO, the creative director, and handling Wall Street. Still, selling Nine West was the hardest decision of my career because I was so committed to what we had built.

A week after my two-year noncompete period ended with Jones Apparel, my friend Alex Dillard [president of Dillard's Inc. (DDS, Fortune 500)] asked me to help with their brands, so we developed seven labels for Dillard's department stores.

We're now the Camuto Group. The first footwear license we bought was for fashion line BCBG. Then, in 2005, we paid $15 million for the master license to Jessica Simpson. Today the revenue for that line is about $750 million, and we've expanded it to 22 categories. In the last year we had at least 35 celebrities ask us to design their brands, but we're on to the next wave.

Now we're building Vince Camuto into a lifestyle brand that's about affordable, beautiful luxury. We've got nine categories, from footwear to jewelry, with more coming. In 2010 we took in $2.5 billion at retail across all brands and categories. We also provide design and production services for 5,400 department stores and retailers throughout the world. We attract young designers and put the right teams together to design a line. The business is a love affair for me. I love the shoes, the fashion, and the people.  To top of page

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