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How shoe tycoon Steve Madden got back on his feet

NEW YORK — Steve Madden, founder and design chief of a multibillion-dollar eponymous shoe brand, knows something about being sanguine in a tough situation.

In 2002, Mr. Madden was convicted of stock manipulation, money laundering, and securities fraud. He was sentenced to 41 months in prison. Mr. Madden had to resign as CEO of Steven Madden Ltd., the company he founded in 1990 with just $1,100 in the bank. He remains the company’s creative and design chief.

“First thing I learned in prison is to not whine about my situation. It was not helpful,” Mr. Madden said. “You can easily get into ‘woe is me’—everybody does. But you’re better off looking at the positive.”

Last fall, Mr. Madden published a memoir, The Cobbler: How I Disrupted an Industry, Fell From Grace & Came Back Stronger Than Ever, about his experiences building his company, his conviction, prison time, and recovery from drug addiction.

Mr. Madden, 62, talked to Reuters about all the lessons he learned along the way and how he is surviving this pandemic. Edited excerpts are below.

Q. What is the toughest job you have had?

A. Working in a shoe store. I started when I was 20, at Jildor in Cedarhurst, New York. It rivals prison as the longest two years of my life.

As a shoe salesman, you have to learn how to be subservient and work hard and pay attention. But the biggest thing I learned was how to sell and what women want. That was a big thing.

Q. What kept you going in prison?

A. I worked out a lot, and I read a lot of novels. I was always a reader but being able to take flight and go to another place when you read the book—it was really wonderful. I read a lot of ’70s and ’80s novels because that’s what was available to me—Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance, The Winds of War. I read all the books by Mario Puzo and Dominick Dunne. I like novels that ring true.

Q. What is your biggest challenge now?

A. Spending a lot of time alone is not the greatest place for someone who’s a recovering addict. An alcoholic by himself is behind enemy lines. So I’ve been talking to other alcoholics and addicts online.

I’ve found that a little bit of fear can help you stay sober. I know once I open that trap door there’s no coming back—and that’s very scary.

Q. What big lesson did you learn in 2020?

A. I always thought it would be bad shoes or something that would do me in—I didn’t think it would be a bug. While you’re never prepared for something like this, I think you should be prepared to lose some things.

Anything can happen. Stay somewhat humble and know that some of the gifts in our lives can be taken away.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you have received?

A. The little things are hugely important. It’s something I learned from this fellow I worked for at the shoe store. If one of the shoe displays in the window was messed up, he would just lose his mind, because what is the message you are sending about your business to the public?

There’s a line from a W.H. Auden poem that I love, “The crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” I don’t even know what Auden meant, but I know what it means to me—it’s my business philosophy.

Q. What advice do you have for those starting out right now?

A. There’s always time for a new idea, good ideas, and hard work. I can’t remember ever in my life feeling that I’d hate to be a newcomer starting out now. I don’t buy that. There’s always room for something new.

Q. What do you think work attire will look like after the pandemic?

A. Right now, I wear my pajamas a lot. I do Zoom calls and I try to wear a nice T-shirt, but I’m in pajamas. You can’t see them because you can only see me from the chest up.

After work-from-home, I think people are going to be more casual. Sneakers are going to be more important. I think dress shoes will be a casualty of war.

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan/Reuters

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