Designer Stuart Weitzman talks shoes and table tennis in Tel Aviv

Stuart Weitzman admits he’s not coming to Israel for the shoes.

“It’s very casual, it’s always sandals. I don’t come here to inspect Israeli footwear. Most shoes are imported here anyway; they are not made here,” says the world-famous shoe designer explained to me.

“I come for the country, for the people I love. The whole country means something to me.”

Nevertheless, at his lecture at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in collaboration with the Department of Jewelry and Fashion Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, there were – at least for Israel – some pretty fancy shoes that were worn in the auditorium. Sparkly silver open toe sandals, neon pink sneakers and some interesting strappy espadrilles.

Given Weitzman’s status, it was no surprise that his audience of designers and fashion students struggled with their shoes, even though, as Weitzman correctly surmised in his lecture, most of them were flats.

Israelis may want to look good, but they also love their comfort.

A Stuart Weitzman shop window in Kuala Lumpur. Photo by Sorbis via Shutterstock

He brought the highest heels to Weitzman’s talk himself: two of his most famous shoes – the nudist and the million-dollar shoe – modeled by two women from the audience.

Weitzman, who lives in the United States, is in Israel for the Maccabiah Games, for which he created a matching $5 million scholarship fund with Maccabi USA.

Not only was he the US flag bearer at the opening ceremony on July 14, but he is also competing.

This is his fourth Maccabiah Games where he plays table tennis and believe it or not at 82 he is not the oldest player in the games. This award goes to Yosef Shachmon who is 90 years old and plays tennis.

“The games are like one big party,” Weitzman told me. “There are people from 60 countries, 10,000 Jewish children compete against each other and they have known each other for years.”

He tells how at the opening ceremony he saw some participants from different countries swapping their pants. “It’s so cute,” he says. “It’s such a friendship.”

think in other directions

Stuart Weitzman and Israeli fashion student Keren Grinfeld in Tel Aviv. Photo by Nicky Blackburn

Weitzman may be American, but he thinks and speaks like an Israeli, urging his highly receptive audience to think outside the box, use their imaginations, and be inspired by the unexpected—like Doc Martin or the Teva hiking boot .

“Look at what the cool women on the street are wearing and get inspired by it,” he says.

Weitzman was born in Long Island in 1941. In the 1950s, his father Seymour Weitzman and older brother Warren opened a shoe factory in Massachusetts. But Stuart had other plans. He dreamed of a career on Wall Street.

However, in 1963 Weitzman graduated from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania and decided to sketch shoe designs to see what he liked.

The designs caught on and when her father died in 1965, Stuart and Warren began running the business, with Stuart designing the shoes.

In 1971, Weitzman entered into a partnership with the Spanish shoe manufacturer Caressa. 15 years later he bought back all the shares and became self-employed.

In order to break into the world of high-end shoes without spending a lot of money, Weitzman developed a guerrilla marketing approach long before the concept was even invented.

Get creative

Since he couldn’t afford top models, he advertised creatively. His first ad featured a pumpkin, and another, which won an award, featured a Dalmatian with black shoe-shaped spots.

He also began offering quirky, one-off designs to Oscar nominees at red carpet events. One of these was the multi-million dollar shoe, platinum sandals set with 464 diamonds, that Laura Harring wore to the 2002 awards.

In the years since, his shoes have been worn by Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Kate Middleton – the Duchess of Cambridge, Megan Markle – the Duchess of Sussex, Kate Moss, Jennifer Aniston and a whole host of other big names.

Amanda Seyfried attended a premiere in Los Angeles in 2019 wearing Stuart Weitzman heels. Photo by Ovidiu Hrubaru via Shutterstock

Weitzman used unique materials such as cork, vinyl, wallpaper and 24k gold. Although the shoes are often high-heeled, his goal has always been function and comfort.

At its peak, Weitzman owned 120 private boutiques and sold around the world. To date, the shoes are made in Spain, which allows the company to keep prices 30 to 50 percent below those of comparable brands.

Weitzman also urged his audience to give back. He has a philanthropic foundation in Spain and is a member of the Board of Trustees of Hispanojudía Foundationto build bridges between Latin America and Israel.

Nudist stilettos

In 2015, Weitzman sold his company to Coach for $574 million. Two years later he resigned and appointed Giovanni Morelli as creative director.

One of the company’s biggest signature brands remains the nudist sandals that Weitzman designed all those years ago: stilettos with skinny straps and often ridiculously high heels.

They’re still seen all over red carpets, and though other designers are now doing the same, the style is so synonymous with the Stuart Weitzman brand that Weitzman admits publications often mention the company even if it’s not his.

After the lecture, I meet up with Keren Grinfeld, an Israeli fashion designer who studied at Bezalel and modeled the nudist sandals on stage.

Keren Grinfeld models Stuart Weitzman’s nude sandals at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Will she take them off? Photo by Nicky Blackburn

We mingle outside the hall and Weitzman – with seemingly endless energy – poses brilliantly for selfies with whoever they want.

Grinfeld still has the shoes on and seems reluctant to take them off.

are they comfortable

“Well, those are high heels,” she says. “But they are comfortable.”

“What do you think of Stuart’s lecture?”

“It was so inspiring,” she says. “I have my own fashion business and I was really thinking about what to do. Should I be commercial or do what I love? Now I realize I should do what I love.”

Judging by the many designers and would-be designers waiting to speak with Weitzman after his talk, she wasn’t the only person to leave the Tel Aviv Museum with a whole new mindset.

Weitzman will face three athletes, Mark Freedman of Australia, Nahum Shamis of Israel and Abraham Tobal of Mexico, at the Maccabiah on Wednesday July 20th.

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