The Wharton School always feels like home for Stuart Weitzman, founder and chairman emeritus of his eponymous shoe company that’s a favorite among celebrities. He’s a 1963 graduate of Wharton, and Penn renamed its school of design after him in 2019.

Just before Weitzman retired in 2017, he visited marketing professor Barbara Kahn’s Consumer Behavior class, where a room full of undergraduates – many wearing his shoes – listened with rapt attention as he told stories from his career.

“I love being here. This is where my touring lecture circuit began,” Weitzman said to Kahn as they chatted during a recent episode of the “Marketing Matters” podcast, which Kahn co-hosts with Wharton marketing professor Americus Reed. (Listen to the podcast or watch the video below.) “I was running the company still, but my daughter gave me good advice: ‘Daddy, figure out how to fill up these 15-hour days when you finally sell this business.’ And it started with you.”

Aside from autographing so many shoes that his pen ran dry that day, Weitzman told the students that success is built on a combination of sound business practices, exquisite design, and product functionality. He also told them never to cut corners, always keep their promises, and live by their values and ethics.

“The impression I was trying to make with these students is that they are going to struggle a little to figure out what they really want to do in life, but that struggle is worth it,” he recalled.

Being ‘Value-driven’

Kahn gave him credit for being “ahead of the curve” in modern branding. Not only did he push buzzworthy marketing ideas, like the red carpet shoe cam, he also refused to sell shoes that were cute but uncomfortable. If testers said they hurt their feet, the designs were modified or scrapped.

“You had your values back then,” Kahn said. “Instead of being either product-driven or customer-driven, you were always value-driven.”

“Everyone says I’m a little obsessed with shoes. I think I’m a lot obsessed with shoes.”— Stuart Weitzman

Weitzman realized early on that his company couldn’t get by on celebrity endorsements alone. They needed to advertise to raise the brand’s profile and compete against other cultish labels like Manolo Blahnik. In their first print ad, they erased the spots on a Dalmatian and stenciled in images of shoes. It won a Clio award, which Weitzman said convinced him to “always think out of the shoebox, pardon the pun.”

“Everyone says I’m a little obsessed with shoes. I think I’m a lot obsessed with shoes, but they’re being polite,” he said.

Prioritizing Creativity

Weitzman sold his company to Coach in 2015 and stepped down as creative director in 2017. He’s been spending most of his retirement on public speaking tours, visiting universities, and connecting with students who hope to follow in his stylish footsteps. He said he’s inspired by the passion, dedication, intelligence, and creativity of the next generation.

“The most successful executives in my company were not business people from business schools…. [They were] creative people,” he said. “We train them to become an executive within their role. I think that helped make Stuart Weitzman an important company in our industry. Without that, we just would have been another shoe company.”