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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)

Two years ago, Sam Calvanio found himself at a Passover Seder seated across from an older woman who asked what he did for a living. “I run a slipper company,” Calvanio answered. The woman cast him a dubious look and scoffed, “What are you, Jacques Levine?” Calvanio smiled and responded simply, “Actually, yes.”

Calvanio is the 28-year-old director of Jacques Levine, a footwear brand whose name may not yet resonate with today’s young women but was instantly recognizable for women in the 1950s through the ’70s. Jacques Levine was the company that took a drab, overlooked item—the bedroom slipper—and transformed it into a luxurious fashion accessory for a whole generation of women: the sexy marabou mule they wore when hosting guests or the first high-heeled slipper they ever owned. At a time when slippers were the shoes women wore while entertaining at home, Jacques Levine popularized new options, from the open-toed slipper to the provocative backless mule, making a foray into the shoe business as well, with casual summer sandals.

Sam Calvanio
Sam Calvanio (Kimberly Jaus)

Though the company has all but disappeared from the minds of the fashion-forward, and the slipper has returned to a dowdy piece of bedroom-wear, Calvanio is working to return both to their heyday. Keeping in mind the lessons of his great-grandfather, grandfather, and uncle—all of whom ran the company before him—he is striving to reinvent the brand and the slipper.

On Aug. 22, Jacques Levine will launch its first shoe collection under Calvanio’s leadership, its first ever conceived as a cohesive line. Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and a number of high-end boutiques around the country have already purchased items for their fall collections.

“We have always produced chic slippers and everyday shoes that have a timeless quality to them,” said Calvanio. “Especially with slippers, the idea was to bring style to a neglected category. For this collection, I thought, what other categories can we do that to?” The result is a sleek collection of slippers, smoking slippers, Spanish moccasins, ballet flats, Belgian loafers, and drivers that can be worn indoors or out.

Following his grandfather’s lead, Calvanio has gone store to store, meeting with shop owners and exhibiting at trade shows to gain notice for his fall line. As the collection is hitting stores, Calvanio will be taking his spring line to trade shows and designing for next season. After a decadelong slump that nearly forced the company to shut down, Calvanio hopes he can finally revive the brand’s reputation for a new generation of customers.

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Falk Levine, Calvanio’s great-grandfather and founder of the company, immigrated with his parents to the United States from Russia in 1907 to escape the pogroms. He began his career as a dressmaker, but soon decided to join his brother-in-law, a shoemaker who had originally settled in Massachusetts, to help run the Best Ever Slipper Company in Brooklyn. Falk spent a few years learning the shoemaking trade, and then moved his family upstate in 1936, where he founded the company under the moniker Middletown Footwear.

Though at the time the Great Depression had enveloped America and shop and factory owners were rapidly closing their businesses, Falk was determined to run his company with what little he had. As Falk’s son Jacques, 89, recalled in a recent interview with Tablet, “In those days they risked, because they were already broke.” Falk put everything he had into the business, giving credit to clients, experimenting with new styles, and wagering on a better future.

Inspired by references in French literature to the mulette, a dressy, backless slipper that Marie Antoinette allegedly commissioned for herself and refused to let be reproduced, Falk set out to make a slipper that was sexy and chic. He designed the mule and then the open-toed slipper, both of which quickly became not only fashion accessories, but nearly necessities for entertaining in the 1930s. Falk began selling the mule with great success. “During the ’30s, there was no such thing as casual business wear. Women got dressed up to go shopping,” Jacques said. “My father started making slippers in such a way that you could wear outdoors, which was really the beginning of casual business.”

With an eye for innovation, the father-son team went on to develop a number of new slipper styles—including the wedge, the marabou mule, and the high-heeled slipper—and to experiment with new materials, becoming the first in the United States to use glitter on the fabric and Lucite for the heel. The company thrived, re-branded as Jacques Levine in the 1950s, and produced a private label for Schiaparelli that same decade. In the 1970s, Jacques Levine had its greatest success since the mule when Jacques’ son Harold Levine developed this country’s first espadrille with ankle ties—a shoe that became one of the most iconic of the ’70s.

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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