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Thinking Outside the Shoebox

The new head of Jacques Levine footwear looks to revive his family business—by going beyond slippers

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The fall 2012 Jacques Levine collection at the factory. (Courtesy Jacques Levine)

But as women joined the workforce, the slipper became less desirable, and the company’s customer base began to dwindle by the 1980s. “The way I was brought up, young women were anxious to do what their mothers did,” said Jacques. “Things started to change in the ’70s, and the mothers started to do things the children did.” Further to the company’s detriment, the ’90s saw a move in fashion toward collection-driven design, rather than the item-driven model that had given the company its initial success. In 2007, Harold Levine passed away, and with no obvious fourth-generation candidate, the family considered selling the business.

Advertisements from the 1930s and 1970s
Middletown Footwear advertisements from the 1930s and 1970s (Courtesy of Jacques Levine)

But in June 2009, Calvanio—grandson of Jacques and nephew of Harold—went to Middletown and began daydreaming about saving the company. “I didn’t want my grandfather to see his life’s work come to an end,” said Calvanio. “The business had hit this low point, there was nowhere to go but up. It presented this incredible challenge to restore the brand.” By the end of the summer, Calvanio had agreed to quit his job as a marketing analyst and join the family business.

In October 2009, Calvanio began commuting to Middletown to learn the business from his grandfather. He spent his spare time shopping at vintage stores, reading fashion blogs, and listening to his grandfather tell stories about running the company: traveling abroad to visit factories with his wife, scoping out new styles overseas, and spending Shabbat in whatever local synagogue he came upon. With the help of his family and a few consultants, Calvanio revived the business. By August 2011, he was showing his first models at trade shows and selling new slippers to Neiman Marcus.

Michael Atmore, editorial director at Footwear News, says that Calvanio is moving the company in the right direction. “Sam has injected both a lot of reflective energy from their past and new energy moving forward,” said Atmore. “Whenever you have a historical brand that has so much archival connection, if you radically overhaul it they will say, ‘Where did what I love about it go?’ And what he is doing that is smart is keeping the elements that everyone who identifies with the brand knows and moving it forward from there.”

Like his predecessors, Calvanio is taking risks and trying to predict trends. For the fall collection, he’s betting on the Belgian loafer. “I had seen Belgian loafers on the street, and they were these drab, wear-to-work brown and black shoes,” said Calvanio. “I thought it would be a cool style to bring back and to reclaim as fashionable.” Accordingly, Jacques Levine’s fall line features Belgian loafers in bright blues and playful tweeds, which count among the shoes that Neiman Marcus has already purchased. In later lines, Calvanio plans to expand their offerings to a full shoe line, which would include heeled and flat sandals, pumps, slingbacks, platforms, and wedges.

But even as Calvanio works to create new slippers and shoes that appeal to a younger demographic, he remains committed to producing items that are timeless. “My father taught us that fashion is different than fad,” said Levine. “If you were able to find something every couple of years that would last and that you can sell with not too many alterations, that you can sell forever, then you can make money.”

That lesson is one Calvanio has taken to heart, continuing to sell the classic mule alongside his trendy flats. “There is a type of consumer that values loyalty and heritage, and I want our brand to be something that women hold onto,” Calvanio said. “Part of falling in love with a brand is knowing that it will be there for you.”

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Thinking Outside the Shoebox

The new head of Jacques Levine footwear looks to revive his family business—by going beyond slippers

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