New Documentary Goes Inside the World of Steve Madden

Maddman: The Steve Madden Story Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Onslot Films

'Maddman: The Steve Madden Story' recounts the shoe designer's rise and fall (and rise again) in the industry.

Barely five minutes into Maddman: The Steve Madden Story, Steve Madden brand director Rob Schmertz offers insight into how the shoe titan stays on top of trends by explaining just how quickly his Long Island factory can turn out a sample run to test sales potential of a prospective new style in stores.

"Within three or four hours, the shoe is done, and we put it on a shelf," he explains. "If we can sell eight out of 12 in downtown SoHo on a Saturday, we have a winner." Scurrying around the office, Schmertz tells a colleague about a new style he likes, "I'm making the two-tones, I don't care what you say. Tough shit."

The scene then shifts to a product review in Madden's office, where the designer sits behind a big desk, ball cap firmly in place, wailing ominously to a group of his executives, "No one move a muscle. Tell Rob to get his ass in here." Then, as Schmertz attempts to sugarcoat the lackluster reception to the offending shoe, Madden goes full-bore.

"Jesus, that is so bad, it makes me physically ill. Did you ever see anything worse in your life? What the fuck is that?" he bellows. "Fuck the camera. It's like you just went into the shoe business six months ago."

Welcome to the world of Steve Madden.

It's a scene that seems like it's trying hard to link the big-screen portrayal of Madden to his greatest pop culture claim to fame, Martin Scorsese's 2013 smash, The Wolf of Wall Street. That film depicts the stock swindle and money laundering that went down when broker Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Danny Porush (a high school buddy of Madden's portrayed by Jonah Hill, who was known as Donnie Azoff in the film), took the Madden company public. And, not incidentally, it also has the dubious claim of having the most F-bombs ever uttered in a film.

The documentary's director, Ben Patterson, 38, admits to the crossover appeal in a recent joint interview with Madden, 59. Said Patterson, "Well, for sure. A lot of guys like me love Wolf of Wall Street, but also, every other person you meet is an entrepreneur." (To which the always-voluble Madden responded, resisting the comparison with today’s young bucks, "What the fuck? That's the most overused word of all time. That and co-dependent. They need to go away.")

Maddman, now available on iTunes and Amazon after its New York premiere Thursday night, dutifully recounts Madden's side of the story — from his start in the business, as a shoe stock boy in the '70s era of platforms and glam rock, before he barged his way onto the sales floor, to going to college in Miami, with his older brother living in nearby Boca Raton and living the drug-fueled early-'80s club life. "You've seen porn," says his brother, John, helpfully summing up that period onscreen, over a montage of a bare-chested, then-long-haired Steve. Madden, who says he has undiagnosed ADD, now refers to those excesses as "self-medicating."

Steve's father was onto him, though, and pulled him out of school, and then Madden was back home, as he puts it, "shoehorn stuck in my pocket, back on the floor" at legendary retailer Jildor, where he learned the business while "dealing with these hysterical Jewish women from Long Island."

So began the career of this everyman's Manolo Blahnik who moved to Greenwich Village and eventually started his own company out of the trunk of his onetime doorman’s car, with $1,100 in the bank after he got sober. He struck gold with a slide called the "Marilyn" and says he got mixed up with Belfort when he needed money to expand the business. In the era of Sassy magazine, his chunky "Mary Lou" model was a grunge favorite, immortalized in Wolf by the nebbish Madden character. ("That's that famous scene," Madden recounts. "But I don’t know if I was that dorky.")

After the initial public offering made a reported $22 million in three hours, Madden recounts in the film, "I went from an eviction notice to a private jet in, like, 200 days." Revenues surged from $59 million to $163 million between 1997 and 1999, with profits tripling in the era of Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, who all wore his shoes. "Those kinds of profits were another kind of drug," he says in the movie. But the law caught up with Belfort and company, and Madden eventually went to jail for 41 months and paid a $9 million fine.

While in prison, one of his first employees, Wendy Ballew, visited him, and he realized he had feelings for her. They married upon his release in 2005. Though the marriage didn't last, Madden says he's grateful for the relationship and their three children. "But if you’re just not getting along, you can't stay together, so it's not about anything other than that," he says now. "Other than that, it was great."

Thirteen years after his incarceration, the billion-dollar Madden business is a worldwide conglomerate, acquiring companies like Betsey Johnson and collaborating with the likes of GQ and Cardi B. Just this week, Footwear News named it company of the year at the shoe world's version of the Oscars. (On accepting, according to WWD, Madden said, "Cardi’s a very self-made woman. I'm into the whole self-made trip. We admire her, we admire what she’s doing with her life. I’m like the male version of Cardi B.")

Patterson thinks the film will resonate, given the fascination with the era. "If you just sat down and wrote the movie, it would be fire," he says. "But it actually happens to be Steve’s life. It has great beats. It’s like a Hollywood story."