In early March 2018, Valerie Paley, Director of the Center for Women’s History and Chief Historian at New-York Historical Society, sat down with shoe designer Stuart Weitzman to discuss his collection of historic footwear, now on display in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery. This condensed interview now comprises the audio guide to Walk This Way: Footwear from the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes, on view through October 8, 2018. You can read Dr. Paley’s introduction to the show’s catalog, “Standing in Heels, Standing on Principle?” here.
Let’s begin with the 2002 Academy Awards, which were a tipping point for shoes on the red carpet.
Year after year, our wonderful shoes were hidden by long dresses, and nobody talked about them. We heard about the dress, we heard about the jewelry, but we never got to the shoe, and one year as a team we decided to brainstorm how were we going to get noticed. And so we made the most expensive shoe ever made. Laura Elena Harring wore it; she was starring that year in Mulholland Drive, her first movie. Well, this million-dollar sandal was made with Kwiat diamonds. And it had 464 gorgeous diamonds and because you all need a pair, there were two 10- or 12-carat drops, one on each foot, so it gave them great value, and they were gorgeous. And the exciting thing about it for me was that, as I always knew, footwear comes first and foremost; and this lady, Laura, was wearing a 75 million-dollar diamond on her neck. And Joan Rivers never even asked her about it, but she did yell across the red carpet, “Laura, get over here! Everybody wants to see that million-dollar sandal.” And from then on it was history. No one ever told us why, but in succeeding events there was the right-hand corner of the screen focusing on footwear when the shoe was visible. And the interviewers of course asked about it, so part of the wardrobe for the public then became not just jewelry, and not just dresses, but also the shoe.
Usually it’s very difficult to give a pair of shoes as a gift. Size, fit, style, and comfort are very hard to judge. But in your life, special occasions have been marked by gifts of shoes from businesswoman and philanthropist Jane Gershon Weitzman, your wife. And that’s how your collection came about?
You know how many times people have said, “Oh, I don’t know what to get him or what to do, he’s got everything, it’s just going to pile up in a closet.” So, my wife recognized there was not much she hadn’t bought me. She had bought me a Ping-Pong paddle and my roller skates (I always wanted a new pair), and all that kind of stuff–and that was history. So, she started buying antique shoes for me to inspire me to make modern designs from what was done hundreds of years or a century ago. And that became my present from her throughout the year, with an occasion, without an occasion, birthday, holiday time, whatever. And 300 pairs of shoes later that’s what I ended up with. I have used them through the years to inspire me, for modern takes on them, and also to inspire me on construction, and on how well they were made. And as we mechanize, we tend to lose some of those technical things, and some of those design touches. These shoes have been a great part of my career, as well as having been assembled into a beautiful collection that you just don’t normally get a chance to see.
Perhaps the most iconic shoe of all is Cinderella’s glass slipper. Your version here, which was worn by Laura Osnes in the Tony Award-winning 2013 Broadway production, uses sturdier materials, including clear vinyl and Plexiglas.
Cinderella was the type of shoe I made to get started. We kind of got known for transparent shoes, and so we were asked to make something for the rebirth of Cinderella. It opened I guess about eight or ten years ago. Disney was re-promoting it, and I made this beautiful shoe — they liked it so much they asked for a second pair, and it was put on display in the entrance to the theater. And every little kid got their picture with it. I don’t know if they were there to see the show or if they really wanted a picture with that shoe. And it was, of course, as the shoe is in the story, one of the stars of what goes on — and probably the first hero that every little girl gets to know because in the story, the prince is — he’s okay — he’s there, right? But without the shoe, there is no prince. So, it’s their hero.
Until the end of the seventeenth century, high heels were favored by aristocratic European men. Not only did heels add stature, they were also associated with horseback riding and cavalry. But with only stacked leather and wood as materials, heels were limited in height and shape. These decorative heels illustrate how new technologies allowed twentieth century designers like yourself to revolutionize the high-heeled shoe.
I mean women don’t realize that a king is the guy who orchestrated the high heel — or the higher heel, let’s say. (We didn’t have steel rods and titanium in those days, so they were made out of wood; and that limited their height. And when the new technologies came in, of course, they enabled stilettos and shoes as high as the arch would allow.) Louis XIV was too short — he had a complex, I guess–and needed a higher heel, and he was the only one in his court that was allowed to wear it. But it seems women picked up on that and, hey, until something else is invented that makes a good pair of legs look great or a great pair look fabulous, that does it better than the high heel, the high heel will always be with us.
Here we see one of over 24,000 sketches that Arsho Baghsarian produced during her long and successful career as a shoe designer. Would you talk a little bit about her work with you?
Arsho Baghsarian was a very successful lady shoe designer. Again, working for men. First for I. Miller, then for Jerry Miller, who came from that family but went out on his own. And she did the shoes that were in Bendel’s year after year. And when Jerry retired, he said to me, “I’m going to do you a favor.” I said, “Okay. I love favors.” He said, “Hire Arsho,” because he was retiring and closing his company. So, of course, I did. She worked for me for over fifteen years and had some wonderful ideas for us that were certainly successful. And she’s still around, living in New York — a wonderful lady. You could say, “Arsho, we are missing sexy strap shoes” and expect the next week to get a portfolio of them. Next morning, we would get the portfolio. That’s how prolific she was. And I remember her designing a lot of thongs one year — one summer collection. I said, “Arsho, how you going to — we can’t keep that on the foot.” She said, “Have you ever tried to wear a thong?” I said, “No.” She said, “Girls know how to use their toes to keep it on their foot.” I said, “I don’t think so.” And I didn’t do anything with it. And, of course, the flip flop, you know. I don’t know how many of those type of shoes every woman owns. So, she kind of moved me along also into accepting attitudes about footwear that only a woman could appreciate. That a man, and a businessman like me, would look at and say, “That’s foolish. We’re known for fit. I’m not going to make something that’s going to fall off.” But it doesn’t. As you know, if you own any flip flops, you learn how to wear them. So, Arsho was a great help to me. We had great years together.
New England was the cradle of the American shoe industry because it had a pool of laborers available. First, there were women looking beyond their own households and farms for jobs, and later, immigrants supplemented the workforce. New England states also had links to East Coast cities and the South, and then railroads to the Midwest. The shoe industry grew to become one of the largest industries in the United States.
The industry starts with one little company. And some entrepreneur in that company decides, I don’t need to work for him, I’m going to open one of my own. And it builds, and then suppliers come along to open heel factories and sole factories and bow factories, and that’s how an industry developed. And at the time that my father opened his factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts, there were 200 shoe factories in our area. That was 1955. If you go 15 miles away to towns like Lynn and Lawrence and Lowell, you find another three, four hundred. And across the border in New Hampshire, another 150. So, 80 percent of all women’s footwear in the United States was made within 50 miles of Haverhill, Massachusetts as well as within Haverhill. And that’s where my father opened his factory. He had experience there in another plant that was making the shoes for the A. S. Beck Corporation, whose stores and design he was running, so he had a home, and just like as any other business will evolve, someone leaves a company, starts something else, and then someone in that firm leaves and starts something else. And over a generation, you’ve got a great industry.
Here we see three pairs of shoes made by your father, Seymour Weitzman, known as “Mr. Seymour.” As you mentioned, he opened his high-end shoe factory in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1955. That’s where you were exposed to the processes of pattern-making, production, and distribution, as part of the family business.
My father was a terrific shoemaker and designer. His goal was to have his own business, and he opened one with my brother, who was a lot older than me. I was very good at drawing. It was a hobby, and I would build things and paint things and whatever, but never thinking I would be going into footwear. I went to the Wharton School of Finance and my hope was to end up on Wall Street. But when my dad died; my brother asked me to help out. Maybe I could design some shoes until he found someone else. And women bought them. I was so excited. I don’t know how I can describe seeing something you make being worn by someone for whom you made it. And when I asked at one of the stores that I saw them in, the I. Miller store, which is today Bulgari on Fifth Avenue, 57th and Fifth, ground zero for fashion at the time, they told me they were placing a re-order, which in our industry means we’re repeating it, it was so good. “We’re going to buy some more!” Well that was it. I decided I was going to try this for a while, and that was the end of Wall Street for me. And I became a shoemaker and a shoe designer.
In the 1970s, Stuart Weitzman was one of many shoe companies to move overseas, relocating to Spain, where this pair of sequined evening shoes was manufactured. Can you speak a little bit more about what prompted that decision?
You know, when we needed a stitcher or we needed a laster (which is the term for pulling the shoe over the mold) we had so many factories to choose from, it was a question of paying a dollar more a week maybe, or the worker was closer to your town than where you had to travel to every day, so you never really had a labor issue. Until, that kind of famous expression, you know, from generation to generation– from success to shirtsleeves. And that’s what happened. It starts with shirtsleeves. Somebody builds it up, and by the next generation, it’s over and you’re back in shirtsleeves. And that’s what happened to the shoe industry. The owners did the best they could to get their children in the best colleges, so they no longer wanted to work in the shoe factory, and eventually, we didn’t replace the people who built our industry. I remember when I worked for my brother there, saying to him, “I don’t think there’s a stitcher here under sixty years old.” He says, “Nobody wants to stitch.” And I thought, I can’t tie my career to this. We should be looking to where the industry is going. And eventually, we went overseas.
Historically speaking, a lot of the best-known shoe designers have been men, from Roger Vivier and Charles Jourdan to Christian Louboutin and Manolo Blahnik. Why is that, and how has the industry changed?
You know, when I got into this industry, men owned factories, and their wives were not involved. So, men became the makers of shoes that women wore, as they were the makers of dresses, and other parts of the wardrobe. But particularly shoes, because it is a complicated manufacturing process and requires years of experience and skill to make it work. And year after year after year — I was not really part of this because it was before me and started to end when I got into the industry — but men would dictate what a woman would put on her feet. And it was never with a concept of practicality. It was always with the man’s sense of desire in mind. You know when a guy tells you your legs look great in those shoes, he’s not talking about your shoes. And yet a woman who sees you in a shoe and compliments you, you feel good about that because you know it’s true. Eventually the wives of manufacturers became designers, and then designers who came up through the schools were also women, and the industry today is pretty much split between men, gay men as well, and girls who are doing a great job. I would say the first renowned American shoe designer that was a lady was Herbert Levine’s wife Beth Levine. And it’s kind of interesting; they put his name on the shoe, not her name, even though she was the creator. But that began to change when Jerry Miller, who had the shoe business at Bendel’s–which was the coolest shoe store in New York City–when he married [shoe designer] Margaret Clark. He compromised, and the brand became Margaret Jerrold, so it had her name and his name. And other ladies are now designing their own brands, and I think we are past the era when it was a man’s world in footwear.
Finally, here we see the results of our high school shoe design competition, where you picked the winners and actually made their designs a reality. When you saw the finalists’ work, what did you think?
To pick the winners was harder than deciding which shoe to promote for the season. They were very, very creative, and the designs are very challenging. I will tell you that to make them was a lot harder than to have designed them because these are 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids who are not shoemakers but have an aesthetic and a design and a nice hand to draw, or some even made them out of clay and other materials. These kids just did what they thought was beautiful or appropriate for the theme without thinking, “How the heck can you produce that?” So, I challenged my factories in trying to make these shoes. And I am pretty sure the kids will be very excited when they see that their design is actually now a real shoe. It was a great contest. And you will love what they’ve done.
The New-York Historical Society exhibit of antique silver was the initial inspiration for my design. However, I wanted to make my design have more of a modern and industrial feel.
I know that sometimes I take my education for granted, and some girls and women all over the world are being denied something that I’ve had so easily available to me for my whole life.
This shoe communicates the story of the African American struggle. Despite being bound by rope and shackle, they fought back for centuries, showing strength. Like black diamonds, their lives were just as precious as every other human soul.
Any parting thoughts, as we leave the exhibition?
I remember one of my hopeful high school girlfriends who I couldn’t get a date with — ah, but she was so nice about being busy that I thought, “Well maybe she’s just not turning me down because she doesn’t want any part of me,” and I was persistent. Then I gave up. And one day she said, “Are you going to ask me out this Saturday?” I said, “Well, you know, how many times have I asked you — I’ve gotten the message.” “No, no. I really have been busy, Stuey.” So I borrowed my brother’s car, and when I went to her house to pick her up, she opened the door and she was wearing a high-heel pointed-toe pump in red patent leather. And I thought, “She doesn’t want to go bowling.” That was the first time, I think, I ever got the message that a shoe can tell you something about somebody. And it does. It really does.
– Valerie Paley, Chief Historian and Director, Center for Women’s History
Top image credits: Seymour Weitzman (1910–1965), designer. Pointed-toe slingback shoes, ca. 1964, Pointed-toe lace-up pumps, ca. 1965. Pointed-toe pumps, ca. 1964. Haverhill, Massachusetts. Stuart Weitzman Collection.