If the Shoe Fits

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Steve Madden shoes have been catching my eye across crowded department stores for years. For me, the appeal was always in the shoe itself-I owned four pairs before I even stopped to think, Hey, who is this guy? I was indifferent to the simple black lettering of his label, just amused at the consistency with which his name showed up on my insoles. (Not to gush, but his shoes are always just what you're looking for, like street-smart interpretations of the high-fashion shoes you covet but can't afford and probably couldn't incorporate into your wardrobe, anyway.) Friends my age had similar experiences, and I assumed that was the way it was: Steve Madden created great shoes for us Gen Xers, without a lot of in-your-face brand identity noise.

How naive I was.

While I doubt my favorite cobbler is sorry I own a closet full of these chunky-heeled shoes, the fact is, at 27, I'm not Madden's prime target. I just can't compete with an MTV-watching, Top-40-listening, fashion-following, independent-thinking 17-year-old girl with a healthy stream of discretionary income-as Steve Madden's core customer was described to me by a company spokeswoman.

Generation Y, Echo Boomers, whatever you want to call them, Steve Madden is more than just a shoe to these girls. After eight years in business and a healthy start thanks to an excellent product, Steve Madden, The Brand, is coming into its own. In 1993, the year the company went public, it generated sales of $5.3 million. Last year, Madden reeled in $59.3 million. Next year, financial analysts expect it to draw nearly double that. While I've tried to do my share boosting those numbers, the real honors belong to his teenage fans. Through a euphoric mixture of talent, business smarts, and marketing savvy, 41-year-old Madden has wrestled his way into their young hearts (organs notoriously lacking in brand loyalty among this group). He's grown a tiny company into a substantial enterprise by staying in touch with his clientele and by carefully controlling growth, so that each step forward not only increases revenues but also helps crystallize his image as a cool brand for hot young things.

For example, in a move widely applauded by financial analysts, Madden launched a licensing program last year that put his logo on sunglasses, jewelry, purses, jeans, and leather coats. There are underpants with a platform shoe stamped on the crotch. There are baby-Ts with cartoon drawings of the Steve Madden girl-a larger-than-life, bad-ass teen sporting various hairstyles, outfits, and, of course, the shoes. As a 17-year-old Brooklyn girl standing on line for Madden's autograph at an October promo in New York City put it, "His style is cool."

Most Saturdays, Madden can be found lurking about his flagship shop in Manhattan's SoHo district, checking out what people buy, how they act, what they're wearing. TV sets blare music videos, lights shine dimly, shoes are displayed at all different height levels (catering to teens' wandering attention spans), and chairs are clumped together in small clusters because teenage girls like to shop in packs. Considering there are about 30 million teenagers out there with a disposable income of $122 billion-34 percent of which is spent on apparel-and that by the year 2010 there will be 35 million of them, can you blame him for being interested? No, but I can be resentful. As he molds himself into an emblem of adolescent chic, does he risk losing those of us who don't have a curfew? Recently, I found myself putting a cute pair of tennis shoes back on the display rack, turned off by an overly-trendy "SM" on the heel.

This is where David Aaron is supposed to step in. Purchased in 1996, David Aaron is Madden's line for us older ladies, the 25 to 44 crowd. I could get over being deserted by the primary brand if the line aimed at me was pointing anywhere in my direction. But while I've been known to approach hyperventilation when confronted with multiple pairs of Steve Madden shoes, David Aaron leaves me cold.

The store feels unfinished, uninspired, and the atmosphere is confusing, like it's been pieced together with leftovers-both in terms of product and design-from its more illustrious sibling across the street. And the shoes don't inspire even a tingle.

Relax, the financial analysts tell me, get off Steve's back-the line is only two years old. They point to the 11 percent of total Madden sales David Aaron pulled in last year and tell me to be patient. They aren't as concerned as I feel they should be, however, so I check with Madden's assistant, Gina Campbell. She isn't that concerned, either. Acknowledging that David Aaron doesn't have a solid identity yet, Campbell explains that a primary designer for the line was only hired in September and that a marketing campaign is being tested "downtown," to be unleashed by February. What specifically that identity might be, however, she doesn't say.

And so I have to wait. Clearly the analysts think the company's doing the right thing (the equity research firm Tucker Anthony says the strength of Madden's brand image among 12-to-19-year-olds is key to its success), but still I worry. His spokeswoman's assurance that the Madden line is aimed at an attitude and not an age doesn't make me feel any better, nor do her assertions that David Aaron is "for the Steve Madden girl all grown up."

I know the company prides itself on appealing to both my generation and the following one-the Gen X-Y axis, they call it-and I suppose as long as Madden keeps producing great shoes, I'll be okay. I just hope I don't get knocked off the chart.

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