At 60 and 59, Sam and Libby Edelman might just be at the peak of their stylish careers.
Their names are so often mentioned in the same breath – “Sam and Libby”– that it’s easy to start thinking of Sam and Libby Edelman as two halves of a single entity, not unlike a pair of shoes: The Samandlibby.
Sam & Libby, after all, was the couple’s footwear brand that became a wardrobe essential for fashionable young women in the late 1980s, and next month, Target will trade on that name recognition by launching an exclusive Sam & Libby collection. But before we talk about Sam & Libby, let’s meet Sam and let’s meet Libby.
He’s the visionary. She’s the muse. He’s the no-nonsense businessman. She’s the blond beauty with a mind of her own. He’s a natural storyteller, and, at least in interviews, she lets him take the conversational lead. At heart, he is a horseman — and the reason the couple spends so many winter weekends at their Wellington home — and although she’ll saddle up for an occasional trail ride, she ultimately prefers yoga and photography.
For more than 30 years, Sam and Libby have worked side by side to an extent that most couples can’t fathom, raising a family and building a fashion empire founded first on ballet flats. “When we’re on a roll, when things are really positive, it allows the two of us to do the job of five people,” says Sam, who is 60. “Libby represents me, and I represent Libby. It’s the same.” Says their longtime friend Michele Grubb, a former international show-jumper who’s known Sam since he was a teenager: “They differ in lots of ways and they do bicker, but their bickering always creates something marvelous in the end, whether it be a menu or a shoe or a company.”
Sam and Libby just may be at the pinnacle of pretty marvelous careers. In 2012, their 9-year-old Sam Edelman brand expanded into handbags, junior shoes and outerwear (think trench coats and moto jackets), they opened their first standalone store (in New York City’s Soho neighborhood) and, for the second time since 2009, they captured Brand of the Year honors from “Footwear News” at the trade paper’s annual achievement awards.
This spring, the brand unveiled an ad campaign starring “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton, “the most beautiful American girl I’ve seen in 30 or 40 years,” says Sam, adding that the Edelmans’ story is quintessentially American, too.
‘A style that goes back to our roots’
“We started our lives with very little and worked very hard. We’ve both been on our own since we were 21,” he says. “We consistently find ways to reinvent ourselves and come up with huge shoes that cross so many people’s lives, whether you’re 16, 26 or 66.”
Sold at Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, on Zappos and HSN, and through a host of other stores and sites, Sam Edelman shoes are classic-with-a-twist styles at accessible prices: $60 for leopard-print thongs to $300 for studded, knee-high boots, with metallic gladiator sandals in the $100 range.
“We know how to interpret the runways of Milan, Paris and London and give it some kind of American appeal that resounds with the customer so that, yes, it’s fashion, of course it’s fashion, of course we’re on trend, but it always has a certain style that goes back to our roots, to who we are,” Sam says. “So many people just run around and copy shoes, and much of the business is based on that. I think what Libby and I bring to it is a certain panache, a certain style, a certain je nais se quoi that a lot of people in the industry have said is sort of Fairfield County.”
That would be Fairfield County, Conn. — horse country — where both Edelmans grew up. Sam was the son of tanners, and Libby the daughter of an advertising man. They met when Libby, covering the shoe market for “Seventeen” magazine, visited the showroom of Horseshoes, a brand of equestrian-inspired shoes run by Sam and his father. “And then I fell in love with shoes,” says Libby, who is 59.
Nine months later, they wed, and when Sam, the co-founder of Kenneth Cole Productions and a former Candies executive, received an offer from Esprit to create a shoe division, the couple moved to California. After the birth of their first of three children, Libby started working fulltime for Esprit, too.
About four years later, the husband-wife team running Esprit broke up, and the Edelmans began scouting for their next opportunity. Macy’s, Cherokee and Guess courted them, and Kenneth Cole asked Sam to return. “We were getting picked up at airports in Rolls-Royces, and we were just kids,” Sam says. “It was an amazing time.”
But Sam was ready to sign his own name on a line of shoes. “I said to Libby, ‘Why don’t we do what Joan and David did and start a company called Sam & Libby?’”
That was in 1987, and Sam & Libby’s trademark bow-toed ballet flats captured the imagination of a generation. “When they hit the scene, they hit with a huge splash,” says Lori Durante, executive director at the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Boynton Beach, who still remembers purchasing her first pair of Sam & Libbys in the early 1990s. “They came in with this burst of color and these really cool shoes, and everybody had to have something Sam & Libby if they were interested in being cool and current.”
But by the mid-’90s, sales of their flats had gone flat, and shoppers shrugged at their new apparel offerings. Maxwell Shoe Company purchased the brand, and an early retirement awaited the Edelmans.
Sam refashioned himself as a horse breeder, trainer and equestrian, and in 1999, the whole family moved to Palm Beach so Libby could live near the water, as she’d always dreamed, and Sam could be half an hour from their 5-acre S&L Farms in Wellington.
But Sam couldn’t quite break his fashion habit. During the Edelmans’ Florida years, Nikki Pulitzer of West Palm Beach assisted him on a couple of shoe launches. “He always has to work. He never stops,” says Pulitzer. “It’s like breathing to him.”
And a 2002 accident made Sam reconsider retirement. While riding in a Wellington canal, an alligator spooked Sam’s horse, and Sam was thrown to the ground. “When I woke up in the hospital, I knew my leg wasn’t set correctly, and I knew it because my foot was crooked,” Sam recalls.
For two years he couldn’t walk, endured episodes of excrutiating pain and underwent seven surgeries. “While I was crippled I turned to Libby and said, ‘If I ever can walk again, I want to finish my career in the fashion business’.”
‘We sort of stand alone’
In 2004, the Sam Edelman line was born, and department-store buyers, magazine editors and shoppers have fallen neatly in line.
“I think that right now he’s making the best shoes he’s ever made. They are really, truthfully original,” Pulitzer says. “He has this eye that is impeccable. He sees detail as it should be. There’s no gray. It’s black or white.”
Although the Edelmans sold their Palm Beach home several years ago and moved back to Connecticut, they purchased a place in Wellington in 2009. The light-filled house in the lushly decorated Palm Beach Polo community is decked out in midcentury furniture and paintings by local artists — and horses.
Wellington offers a change of scenery, but even when the Edelmans are here, they’re working on expanding Sam Edelman into a major lifestyle brand, with jewelry, legwear and fragrance, an expanded European presence and the opening of seven to 15 Sam Edelman stores in the United States.
Retirement? Out of the question, Sam says.
The couple is hooked on fashion’s steady rhythm of shows and seasons and European scouting trips. “That’s our milkhorse routine. That’s what we love,” he says. “How do you make tribal new again? How do you make mod become sexy? How do you take the ballet and make it come alive?”
There’s nothing like answering those questions, adds Libby. “It is very exciting to try to come up with something new, and go for it, and take the risk and come up with all the ideas that make it happen.” Says Sam, “I say it humbly after 35 years of working as hard as we’ve worked, we sort of stand alone.”
This article was originally published on April 6, 2013 in the Palm Beach Post; Written by Staff Writer, Staci Sturrock. Click here to view the original article.