Knowing Your Lane: In Conversation with Steve Madden

Steve Madden is known for defining and defying, falling, climbing back up. Although much can be and has been said about the self-proclaimed creative businessman, he is, at the heart of it all, a man that knows his customer inside and out. Before his talk at SCADstyle, I had a chance to chat with the man behind the eponymous brand.

Since Madden is primarily known for his hustle and ambitious business practices, the question that dominated my curiosity was if and how creativity and business could coexist. Did one take away from the other? Were they mutually exclusive or two sides of the same coin? For Madden, the dilemma I faced was neither a dilemma nor a complicated dichotomy he lost sleep over. With an immovable certainty and no delay, he stated, “I think it’s pointless to create a shoe for the sake of art. I don’t want my shoes in museums. I want people wearing them.”

Simple, easy, straight to the point. I suppose a nearly thirty-year career can cement some personal truths for anyone. And to that effect, thirty years is a long time to get to know those people he wants wearing his shoe. Since his breakout hit in the ‘90s, the chunky Mary Lou, Madden’s clientele has always primarily been the young girl obsessed with rocking the latest trends, a girl with parties to attend, people to impress and internships to land. “I don’t think my clientele has changed,” said Madden.

And it may be this type of focus that has generated a multimillion dollar legend. He lends an open ear to his customer, allows her to dictate what she wants. In fact, that’s exactly what inspires him. When asked about any rituals he uses to generate ideas, he answered with a wryly amused smile, “I like meeting people. Listening to people talk.” People, at the end of the day, are his brand, since it’s people he wants wearing his shoes. He is simply the man dedicated to creating what they want before they know they want it.

In figuring out the best way to present these creative fulfillments to the customer through eye-catching ads like the iconic “Big Head” campaign of the early 2000s, Madden dons the coveted reputation as a creative businessman. In his world, creativity is his business, because his creativity is directed by who he designs for.

That’s the central distinction between what we are typically taught as creatives and what we learn in the stumbling beginnings of entrepreneurship. Create for yourself and your customer will find you. Eventually. Madden doesn’t wait for eventually. He aims for his target without falling prey to the distractions surrounding it, like the concerns of other targets. Even when I asked if the rise of this environmentally concerned generation affected his approach in any way, he replied quite matter-of-factly, “My clientele isn’t necessarily worried about the environment. We have some vegan shoes now, but we’re looking into expanding that sometime in the future.”

Madden knows what he’s in the business for, knows what lane his creativity rides in. He’s undaunted by the ever changing fashion climate that can often overwhelm young designers just breaking into the industry. Time and tough life lessons can do that to you; but those lessons don’t mean much if you let them change you instead of strengthen what you already believe in.

More Stories
Styling Sustainably