Treacherous Footing

updated 07/10/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/10/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It's not like Leo DiCaprio getting sent to the slammer or Ricky Martin imprisoned for life, but it's close. Steve Madden, the hot women's shoe designer among trendy teens and twentysomethings, was arrested June 20 and charged in two indictments with 17 counts of stock fraud, money laundering and other crimes—allegations that could end his career and with it the flow of his ultrahip shoes. "Steve is facing some very serious problems," says Wall Street analyst Steven Marotta, who just downgraded the value of Mad-den's stock because of the indictments. "This will take away from his work as a genius designer."

The charges could also send him to prison for more than 25 years, a stunning turn of events for the man whose funky, affordable footwear made fans out of Sarah Michelle Gellar and MTV's Ananda Lewis. A onetime shoe salesman from Cedarhurst, N.Y., Madden, 43, peddled his early designs out of the back of his Ford. Less than a decade later, he has 58 boutiques and more than 800 department store shops, good for $163 million in sales last year. The boyish bachelor mogul, who overcame drug and alcohol addictions in the '80s, must now battle accusations that he conspired with two brokerage firms to manipulate the stock prices of his own and other companies, pocketing several million dollars along the way. "He's getting ready for war," says attorney Joel Winograd of his client, who has pleaded not guilty and is free on $1,500,000 bail. "Steve is strong and focused, and he'll be okay."

For the time being, Madden will continue as his company's hands-on CEO. "Our business is so ephemeral," he told PEOPLE in 1998. "I've been so lucky." But now that luck seems certain to change. "It's been a long time since anybody in the fashion business has had a big problem like this," says New York Times fashion writer Frank DeCaro. "Calvin Klein could take a year off and it would be business as usual, but who knows what will happen here."

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