Despite such devotion—which this year is expected to translate into sales of $90 million—Madden, 40, is anything but sanguine about his success. "It's very good, what's happened. And exciting, too," he says. "But this business is so ephemeral. If I have a couple of seasons where people don't like the shoes, it's like, 'Steve who?' "
Determined to stay a step ahead, Madden last year added 12 new retail shops across the U.S to the four he already had; in addition to shoes (which department stores like Macy's and Burdine's also carry and which range in price from $50 sneakers to $120 boots), some of the shops carry his line of jeans, jewelry, handbags and hosiery. Now plans are afoot to expand to the U.K., Japan, South Korea and Germany. "What I do is not a five-day-a-week job," says Madden, who is as singular and energetic as his shoe designs. "I wish I could stand back, take a deep breath and enjoy it. I'm a little insecure. We've got a long way to go."
The youngest of three sons of John, a textile company owner who died in 1996, and Sydelle, a housewife, who today proudly pads around her Boca Raton, Fla., condo in a pair of Steve Madden sneakers, Madden grew up fast in Cedarhurst, N.Y. "At 16, I already had a sense of what I was going to do for the rest of my life," he says, fondly recalling his first job selling shoes in a neighborhood store. "My family was very much like Leave It to Beaver. Milk on the table and all of that." Then came adolescence and, with it, rebellion. Madden partied a little too hearty at the University of Miami ("I was taking drugs and sitting in the sun") and dropped out in 1976. "I remember my father telling me, 'I'm not paying for you to go to school because you're wasting time. Get on with your life,' " says Madden, who took his dad's advice to heart, and to Long Island. There, selling shoes again, he took his last $1,100 and in 1991 went solo. His first design—a dressy, western-style clog with a pointy toe—was an instant hit. "I never looked back after that shoe," he says.
Except, that is, to deal with his addiction to alcohol, cocaine and other substances. Enrolling in a 12-step program, Madden kicked his habit on Jan. 10, 1989. "But it's never over," he says. "It very much colors who I am today."
The former alcoholic is still a workaholic. Recently split from his girlfriend of three years, Madden, who has never been married, spends little time in his two-bedroom, 26th-floor Greenwich Village apartment and even less at his four-bedroom East Hampton retreat. In rare moments of relaxation, he hangs out with high school buddies from Long Island and a diverse group of golf-playing, cigar-puffing Manhattan stockbrokers and struggling artists. "I bounce back and forth between both groups," says the entrepreneur. "It's more the struggling ne'er-do-wells I spend most of my time with though. I identify with them. My ne'er-do-well friends are my sober friends."
SUE MILLER in New York City
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