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Stuart Weitzman is head over heels

Shoe designer Stuart Weitzman is at the helm of a global empire spanning 70 countries, turning Hollywood’s biggest stars into fashion icons and creating to-die-for shoes worn by millions of women-and it all started in a humble factory in Haverhill. Photograph by Teru Onishi

Next time you’re in downtown Haverhill, look up at the new Essex Street Gateway Mural and you’ll see a wonderful example of art imitating life. At the center of the four-story mural-honoring the city’s highest achievers-is an image of the legendary movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, who once owned all five theaters in town before conquering Hollywood as the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The mural depicts Mayer with an audience of other Haverhill heroes watching a movie, and on the flickering screen is a man working at a shoe-making machine. That man is Stuart Weitzman-America’s shoe designer to the stars-who took over his late father’s Haverhill shoe factory in 1965 at the young age of 24 and turned the business into a multi-million-dollar global empire spanning 70 countries.

The Haverill-to-Hollywood connection doesn’t stop at the mural. Just as Mayer was the toast of Tinseltown as head of MGM, Weitzman’s super-glamorous shoes adorn the feet of a galaxy of movie stars and entertainers, from Angelina Jolie to Beyonce, gracing red carpets from the Oscars to the Emmys and from the Grammys to MTV’s Video Music Awards.

Weitzman can barely contain his pride at being included in such esteemed company along with Mayer, John Quincy Adams, comic book hero Archie Andrews (created in 1941 by Haverhill illustrator Bob Montana), and many other local luminaries.

“You could say I’m the protagonist because I got the whole wall in the movie screen shot,” Weitzman says with a chuckle. “I’m honored to be the representative of an industry that basically no longer exists in America but had its birth and much success for almost 200 years in Haverhill.”

It’s been almost 40 years since the once-booming shoe industry died out in Haverhill and Weitzman moved his operations to Europe, but he was excited to return last August for a community painting session of the mural, to visit his father’s factory, and catch up with old friends and colleagues.

“I met women who are the children of people who worked with my father, and they brought shoes from his time,” he says. “They gave me eight or nine pairs. It was quite thrilling for me to see those shoes. Some of them are absolutely beautiful.”

Raised in Long Island, New York, Stuart Weitzman was set for a career on Wall Street after graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. However, his father, Seymour, who in the 1950s had established a successful shoe factory and business in Haverhill called Mr. Seymour, had other ideas, and so the young Weitzman began an apprenticeship that would change the course of his life.

“As kids, we always think we know everything, and the experience of our parents is lost on us, until we grow up and realize just how wise they were,” Weitzman says. “I remember working with him in the factory and saying, ‘I’d like to go to California and be our salesman.’ All I could see was the surf and beautiful girls in bikinis. What did I want to be in a factory for? I’m gonna learn the shoe business by selling [shoes]. And my father said, ‘No, you’re not, you’re going to sit right here and work with our last makers [a shoemaker’s mold for shaping a shoe or boot] and pattern makers. My father would not let me go out into the world selling footwear without knowing the elements of how to make it, and that was the best lesson he could have ever forced upon me.”

It was that nuts-and-bolts apprenticeship that gave Weitzman the experience and confidence to take over the business when his father died unexpectedly and to move the operations to Europe. He launched his own company in 1986 and partnered with a capital investment firm in 2005, paving the way for major international expansion.

Today, Weitzman employs 350 people in the U.S. and 2,000 at his factories in Elda, Spain and has nearly 40 retail stores in America (including Copley Place Boston, Natick, and a new Chestnut Hill boutique) and more than 40 stores worldwide. Each year, he sells two million pairs of shoes in 70 countries.

Weitzman is still the company’s principal designer, combining everything his father taught him with his own creative vision, plus cutting-edge technology employed by a team of top designers, pattern makers, and technicians to create stunning heels and handbags.

“We’re always listening to women,” he says. “They’re independent, they’re in the workplace and the best universities, they’re their own thinkers. We can’t tell them how to look. The era of the girdle has gone and with it the mental attitude of being told what to look like. They want choice, they want to make their own decisions, and they want variety.”

That’s exactly what Weitzman offers, with 600 fashion, casual, sport, dress, and evening styles in 50 sizes each season, stitching together engineering, design, comfort, and trend-setting looks at a price that works in today’s challenging economy.

So what’s trending this season? “Gorgeous-looking shoes on lower, wearable heels as opposed to everything being at skyscraper height,” he says. “A low-cut, beautiful pump is the silhouette of the season. It looks so good and fresh…”

Weitzman says a flat boot also hits the mark, worn with dark tights or jeans tucked in (or out) of the boot, and an elegant high-heel sexy boot “is about as beautiful a way a woman can show herself off,” he adds.

Exotic reptile and animal skins-python, crocodile, alligator, lizard, leopard, tiger, hyena-are in vogue, but Weitzman stresses they’re not the real thing. “Women don’t want to be part of destroying nature, but they want the look, feel, and attitude it offers,” he says. “With modern technology, we can take lambskin and cowhide and recreate the look of an exotic skin, so the naked eye can’t tell the difference.” He’s not exaggerating, either. “I’m always very proud when the U.S. Department of Agriculture asks for an inspection of our shoes, and they need to call in Fish and Wildlife scientists to determine if they’re real reptile skins,” he says. “That’s how good technology has gotten.”

Weitzman, who is married with two daughters and lives in Connecticut, no longer makes the headline-grabbing, jewel-encrusted “Million Dollar Shoes” for a leading actress to wear to the Oscars each year, but his fabulous heels will no doubt grace the red carpet at the 2012 ceremony.

Hollywood and Haverhill may be worlds apart, but Weitzman has only good memories and will be back for the unveiling of the mural next year.

“It’s amazing what this town has done,” Weitzman says. “It was a dilapidated city when the shoe industry ended and now it’s thriving again with fantastic lofts and apartments that grew out of factories and a young, active, cultural community.”

What would his father make of his success? “He loved footwear; he would be as proud as hell, I’m sure, and would be telling me how to correct a design,” says Weitzman, laughing.

No pun intended, but this story has a wonderful footnote. Just last summer, Weitzman was clearing his attic and found a box marked ‘Dad’s Things.’ Inside was a document, sealed with red wax and a ribbon, with a beautiful shoe design sketched by his father when he was 21, and an official 1936 United States patent.

“The shoe is gorgeous, so I remade it,” he says. “I modernized it a bit; we’re selling the heck out of it and using it in a campaign called ‘Heritage.’ Dad would love that.”