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NEW YORK — “Our motto is, ‘You can do whatever you want in this company and you can grow very quickly.’”
This story first appeared in the July 1, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That may sound like hubris, especially in a challenging fashion business, but the speaker is Vince Camuto, a man who’s embarked on one of the industry’s most ambitious, lucrative and successful Act Twos.
Act One was the Nine West Group, which he and partner Jerome Fisher sold to the Jones Group Inc. for nearly $900 million in 1999. Act Two is Camuto’s namesake brand, launched in 2006, which today generates $1 billion in global sales across numerous classifications.
He’s not done yet. Through his labels Vince Camuto, VC Signature Vince Camuto and Louise et Cie, Camuto is expanding at a rapid pace with new categories, stores and markets. He aims to reach the $2 billion mark within five years — and remain private in the process.
At present there are 17 women’s categories and 13 men’s categories. The brand will have 65 stores internationally by yearend, and looks to operate 80 to 85 stores internationally over the next 18 months. Over the next five years, Camuto plans to open 100 stores in China. Also on deck: dedicated men’s stores.
While other companies may be weeding out licensees, Camuto has expanded his empire, signing on licensees for such categories as dresses, coats, jewelry, fragrance, fashion scarves, belts, cold-weather accessories, watches, handbags, sunglasses, ready-to-wear and optical. In addition, the company has developed a robust men’s program including shirts, sportswear, denim, tailored clothing, sunglasses, footwear, fragrance and ties.
“I’m very excited about the men’s,” said Camuto, the charismatic chief executive officer and chief creative officer of the Greenwich, Conn.-based Camuto Group, in an interview in his stylish New York showroom, amid displays of holiday 2014 footwear. Discussing the pace of signing new licensees, he said, “One thing leads to the other. It’s people, fashion and opportunity.” Categories he’s looking to sign on next include intimate apparel, ath-leisure and extensions of the home category, said Leah Robert, executive vice president at Camuto Group.
The 78-year-old ceo is still as enthusiastic about the business as he was when he started his career at age 18, handling customer complaints at I. Miller.
“I really listened and learned, especially from the women. They told you what they liked, what they didn’t like,” said Camuto, who helped women with painful shoes and slipping heels. The ceo spoke about his passion for the business, why he has no plans to retire, sell or go public, and his overarching desire to build the company for his wife, Louise, 44, creative director, his five children, the 1,300 employees around the globe and his close-knit management team.
“These guys are like my extended family. We want to have a great company for them,” said Camuto, whose father died when he was two years old. He started working at a local shoe store when he was 12 to help his mother pay the bills.
Once Camuto and Fisher sold Nine West to Jones in 1999, Camuto had a two-year non-compete. After that expired, he started developing footwear collections for Dillard’s before turning his attention to his own namesake brand and launched the Jessica Simpson brand, which today rings up more than $1 billion in sales through 32 categories of business, separate from the Camuto brands.
In fact, Camuto Group appears to be making domestic and international headway for Camuto’s namesake brand, which is known for being both fashion-forward and accessible.
At present, Camuto does about 10 percent of its business overseas, with stores in 62 countries, including Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Panama, England, Ireland, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, Israel, Singapore, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Canada, where it will open stores this month. Depending on the region, the company always opens stores with a local partner.
In addition to its aggressive game plan in China, the firm is also looking to open in Chile and Brazil and double the number of stores over the next two to three years in Mexico. India represents another opportunity for Camuto in 2015. “We’re looking at a double-digit store opportunity,” said Robert. It is also looking at expanding stores in the Middle East and Australia, recently opened a store in Egypt and last year opened a store in South Africa.
It also unveiled a store on Kensington High Street in London last year with partner Kurt Geiger, a division of Jones. In 2012, Camuto signed an exclusive distribution partnership with Kurt Geiger, Europe’s largest upscale footwear retailer, across the U.K., Germany and Ireland.
“Europe is a big opportunity,” said Robert. A year from now, the company anticipates its international business will account for more than 20 percent of total volume.
Closer to home, there are 18 stores in the U.S. in cities such as New York; Miami; Paramus, N.J.; Chicago; Boca Raton, Fla.; Las Vegas; Newport Beach, Calif., and Atlanta. By yearend, the company expects to have 30 stores Stateside, adding locations such as Charlotte, N.C., and Pentagon City, Va. Most of Camuto’s stores carry the footwear and apparel, and often the watches, jewelry, handbags and sunglasses. All of its domestic stores are owned outright, and there is a limited interest with the former 18 Shoe Box stores that were converted into Vince Camuto stores in the New York area. As for U.S. expansion, the company is looking at retail locations from Seattle to Miami, “and everything in between,” said Camuto.
Last year, Camuto started shipping its products internationally. “We feel very well penetrated in the U.S. market and rolling out categories. Having a balance is very important,” said Camuto, who eventually would like to see retail become 50 percent of the business. Right now it’s 20 percent.
So what makes Camuto tick?
“It’s the team. I’m a people person. Those who work here are really energized, and they can grow where they want to grow. Nobody can do it alone, but if you have great people you can do it. You can’t micromanage everything that has to be done,” he said.
The Vince Camuto business has experienced double-digit growth over the last few years, “and we anticipate the same growth in 2014,” said Camuto. “While the environment always has an impact, the brand is positioned for strong global expansion, and we continue to build the lifestyle for both men and women,” he said.
In addition to his namesake brand, Camuto also bought the master license in 2005 for Jessica Simpson for $15 million, which has mushroomed into a $1 billion company. The brand was launched around the same time that Simpson appeared as Daisy Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“It was the right time at the right place. It’s almost her 10-year anniversary and she never got into trouble. We gambled with it, but it worked out. We built a whole showroom. When the retailers came in, they were excited about it right from the beginning,” said Camuto. “The good news is it really works, and so many celebrities have called us, but we don’t like to repeat the same thing twice.”
Another one of Camuto’s major businesses is its footwear arrangement with Tory Burch, where Camuto Group designs, sources and collaborates with Burch. Camuto also has the license for BCBG and Lucky Brand shoes, and does private-label shoes for Banana Republic, Ann Taylor and Dillard’s, among other retail partners.
As for taking the company public, Camuto has no interest. Nor is he interested in selling the company. But he will listen to overtures. “We get approached all the time. It would be stupid not to listen,” he said. “If we were public, we’d have to push faster growth,” he said. Camuto sees many advantages to being a privately held company and is happy not to have the pressure of Wall Street forcing him to grow. “We don’t want to run, we want to walk. We don’t have a timetable. Just to go public is not in the cards right now. We want to have something that can go on,” said Camuto.
Plus, he enjoys what he’s doing and calling his own shots.
“We have a lot of fun,” he added. “We have a team of 20 key people. We’re more agile. If we want to spend more on advertising, we can do it. If we want to open more stores, we can do what we want. We want to build. I love building. Louise loves it. She’s so passionate. I not only found a great person and great wife, she has a great eye. She’s involved every single day.” Louise Camuto also happens to be a former Miss Sweden.
“We don’t want this culture to change,” he added. “It’s the best thing we’ve been part of. That’s what we want to preserve for everybody.”
Camuto launched footwear brand Louise et Cie, designed by his wife, in 2013, which is priced between Vince Camuto and VC Signature. Louise et Cie is sold in such stores as Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Lord & Taylor and is “more classic” than the other two collections. Vince Camuto has trendy, more fashion-forward looks, and VC Signature is the designer collection. Louise et Cie and VC Signature are also looking to extend their brands into additional categories. For example, Louise et Cie seeks to add perfume, handbags, jewelry and apparel.
When asked what the Vince Camuto brand will look like in five years, Camuto didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to be a $2 billion business,” he said.
“We want to keep the brand going. We think we’re in our infancy. Louise is in the business. My sons are in the business. We have great talent in the business. Leah [Robert], Ed [Ferrell, chief merchandising officer], Jeff [Howald, chief financial officer], and Alex [DelCielo, president and chief operating officer], a whole bunch of people who are really devoted. That’s not really on the radar right now. We’re not looking to cash out because it’s very difficult to be public right now. It takes away from the brand. I don’t know how good it is for the employees. I’ve been through that movie before,” said Camuto.
His strategy right now is to continue creating a dynamic working environment and to keep the company’s culture intact.
“I think we’re going to expand. We’re building a club. We all have a good time. There’s no negativity coming around the corner. My son John is in the business and he has a great eye. My younger son Christopher got up at 3 in the morning and left at 3:30 a.m. on a plane with Alex [DelCielo] to the Dominican Republic [for a production trip]. We don’t want this to be destroyed.” The company produces most of its footwear in China, in addition to such countries as Brazil and the Dominican Republic.
With the Internet becoming a more important part of department stores’ businesses, retailers are challenged to make the in-store experience more desirable, said Camuto. “Brands have become more important. Carrying the right brands at the right price will get people into stores,” said Camuto, noting customers still like to come into stores to try on footwear.
What he attributes a lot of his success to is respect for the consumer. “We don’t think that we can fool her. We give her the best value,” he said.
At Camuto, the biggest category is footwear, followed by clothing. The rtw, which is produced by Bernard Chaus Inc., is performing well, said Camuto. Camuto owns 49 percent of Chaus, and the remaining 51 percent is owned by the Chaus family. The sportswear collection is geared to women between 30 and 45. “We’re positioned in the better area. It’s in the same department as Michael Michael Kors and Calvin Klein. The biggest customer for the ready-to-wear is Nordstrom,” said Camuto. The line is also sold in stores such as Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. Too by Vince Camuto, a more casual line, has also been very successful. “It’s for the girl who wants to wear jeans and tops. It’s a big brand,” said Camuto.
Ariel Chaus, ceo of Chaus Inc., said, “It’s definitely been a win-win. The business is doing great. Vince has been an amazing partner, and I’ve personally learned a lot from him.” He said when he was approached to become Camuto’s partner, Chaus called a major retailer who told him, “‘He [Camuto] has got the Midas touch.’” Chaus added, “He has a great feel for product and is a merchant. He knows how to market and build a business. He’s always in the stores and pays attention to the customers. All of our brands have been growing substantially since we’ve partnered. The Vince Camuto brand has been growing extremely fast, and we’ve done it in a healthy way,” said Chaus.
When Camuto’s not working, he said he enjoys spending time in the Hamptons and collecting French Impressionist art. He and his wife rebuilt Villa Maria, a 20,000-square-foot former convent in Water Mill, N.Y., over a five-year period, which was featured last year in Architectural Digest. He’s also involved in breast cancer research and the Ronald McDonald House, where Louise has served on the board.