“I will never give up on New York City. I love the vibe. I love everything about it.”
Speaking from his storied townhouse on West 54th Street last fall, George Malkemus opened up about the important role that he and Sarah Jessica Parker, his beloved SJP Collection co-founder, wanted to play in helping to revitalize the city that had given them so much — and that was now facing immense challenges amid the pandemic.
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“I don’t think anyone epitomizes New York City more than Sarah Jessica Parker. We talk about it every day, how we have to get this city back. We think that by encouraging brick-and-mortar, we’ll only get it back faster,” said Malkemus, the big-hearted, effusive Texas gentleman who died on Sept. 16 after privately fighting cancer.
During what would be his final interview with FN, the footwear legend was so proud to show off SJP Collection’s colorful new flagship in the exact space where he and Tony Yurgaitis, his husband and business partner, built and nurtured the Manolo Blahnik label for almost four decades. Fittingly, it’s also the same place where SJP’s Carrie Bradshaw bought way too many shoes in “Sex and the City.”
Malkemus — who relished every moment on the sales floor — understood the love affair between women and their shoes better than almost anyone.
“When a woman puts a pair of high heels on and looks in the mirror at the back of her calf, it’s a sensation. A flat shoe, a sneaker, a mule, nothing else will do that,” he said.
Known for his own impeccable style, the endlessly charming and insatiably curious Malkemus is being remembered as a visionary who revolutionized the luxury shoe business in America. (For more insights from friends and industry partners, see page 12.)
While he spent four decades at the center of the New York fashion scene, Malkemus navigated some twists and turns while settling into his professional life.
At a young age, he wanted to be a doctor, but soon decided to pursue writing. So he left his home in San Antonio, Texas, and arrived in New York in 1977 (the same year SJP landed in the Big Apple), eventually scoring a job as copy chief at Bergdorf Goodman.
By day, Malkemus penned sparkling prose about shoes for the department store. At night, Malkemus hit nightlife haunts like Studio 54, where he befriended designers Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein — contacts that would prove invaluable years later.
Soon, Bergdorf Goodman’s then-fashion director, Dawn Mello, encouraged Mr. Blahnik to meet Mr. Malkemus — and during their first brief meeting, the pair bonded over their love for — and ownership of — Scottish Terriers.
Their union became official in 1982, when Malkemus bought the North and South American rights to Blahnik’s name.
“Neither of us were greedy. We wanted to do this at our pace and to learn the ropes as we went along. That way, the mistakes we’d make would be small mistakes rather than large ones, and that’s the philosophy we’ve always kept,” Malkemus said in 2009, when he was inducted into the FN Hall of Fame.
Early on, the young exec approached fashion designers and asked if they would use Manolo Blahnik shoes for their runway collections. They did.
Eventually, Blahnik and Malkemus worked with almost every big name on Seventh Avenue, including Calvin Klein, Geoffrey Beene, Perry Ellis, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Isaac Mizrahi and Carolina Herrera.
Last year, Malkemus recalled the “greatest days” of his relationship with Calvin Klein. “We were very close friends. And we would have these boardroom meetings and he would say, ‘What do you think?’ [Everyone would say], ‘Oh fantastic Calvin!”’ When it was George’s turn, I might say, ‘Not going to work for me.’ At the end of the first year, he said, ‘You’re the only person I trust.’”
As the buzz around Blahnik and Malkemus grew, Neiman Marcus called. The department store bought the two shoes Blahnik designed for Klein, ordering just 30 pairs for its Beverly Hills, Calif., store and another 30 for its San Francisco door.
Oh, how the tide shifted. Under Malkemus’ smart leadership, the label became a must-have in every major department store in the U.S., including Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
“George could always see one step ahead. He was at the forefront of transforming the luxury shoe market from being dominated by conservative factory-based brands to one based on design and personality,” said Josh Schulman, CEO of Michael Kors, who knew Malkemus both as a formidable competitor (when Schulman headed up Jimmy Choo) and a loyal partner (when he ran Bergdorf Goodman). “Dominating the New York runways before ready-to-wear brands made their own shoes was a precursor to today’s era of collaborations. His close relationships with wholesale customers and adoring clients who would flock to trunk shows defined customer centricity well before an algorithm. And he was a pioneer in how to harness the power of celebrity.”
Malkemus spent months on the road visiting retailers and factories. He closely watched the company’s financials, strategically built buzz with the press and worked closely with the brand’s retail partners. And when the designer came to the States twice a year, Malkemus was always there to hold his hand.
“It’s a balance thing for us,” Blahnik said in 2009. “George is a very good businessman. He’s patient. I am not. When it comes to money and things like that, I’m totally innocent. I don’t want to know. It’s always been my strength not to be involved in the business end. George is very constant. You can count on him. He knows what people want, what the big stores want, what the ladies of certain states want — he’s very good at those things, which I am not.”
While Malkemus continued his run with the legendary designer, the ambitious executive was ready for a new challenge in 2013, when another bright star — Sarah Jessica Parker — came calling.
Of course, by that time, Parker and Malkemus had met many times through the years, first in the early ’80s when she was a young actress working in Los Angeles — and Blahnik and Malkemus were in town for a trunk show.
None of them knew then what would unfold more than a decade later when the Blahnik-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw made her debut in “Sex and the City” in 1998 and turned the designer into a household name.
During those magical “Sex and the City” years, SJP herself became synonymous with luxury shoes — and she began to ponder a footwear venture of her own.
“There were many years where opportunities existed and it just didn’t go any further than that because I didn’t feel equipped or ready, the timing wasn’t right. In the more recent past, the conversation erupted again and I took it more seriously,” she told FN in 2013.
But Parker continued to wrestle with the decision — something was holding her back.
“I met with lots of interesting and kind and lovely potential partners, but at night when I was lying in my bed thinking about this opportunity and what it meant to me, those partnerships didn’t seem right for me. I realized the one person I’d want to work with, in an ideal world, was George. … But I was hesitant because I knew how obligated he was,” she admitted.
But friends convinced her to reach out, and when she did, “I jumped through the phone line,” Malkemus quipped. The next day, the two met in person and found they shared a strikingly similar vision for the partnership. “This is the relationship I wanted to be in. The way he wants to function and operate this business is everything that’s important to me,” said Parker at the time.
By 2014, the pair was inseparable, designing the collection together and collaborating on every aspect of the business with their tight-knit team and Italian factory partners.
“We have certain notions about big stars. That’s not her at all. She’s everything I ever hoped for in a friend, but nothing I ever dreamed of having in a partner,” Malkemus said in 2016. He also noted that while Parker may share a single-soled sensibility with Blahnik, there are marked differences between them: “Manolo is the greatest man to have ever had a relationship with shoes. But he is still a man. She brings a unique way of thinking that was new to me.”
While the duo navigated the challenges of building a new brand in a competitive and fast-changing retail world, Malkemus made the difficult decision to end his partnership with Blahnik in 2019, deciding not to renew his licensing deal. “It’s very hard saying goodbye,” he said at the time. “The shoe business is a life. With the grace of God and Sarah Jessica Parker, I’m still going to be in it.”
The development also allowed Malkemus and Yurgaitis to devote more time to their other growing business, Arethusa Farm in Litchfield, Conn. “It was another vision we had, a labor of love,” Yurgaitis said. “It was a historic farm we bought in 1999 and wanted to protect it from development. We wanted to keep it as farm. We started with one big dairy barn, and then we began building and building to house our cows. We focused on the health and care of them. … Our milk was really good quality. From there, we started making every kind of dairy product. It grew, and the community really supported us.”
Now the business includes a restaurant, two cafes and three dairy shops — and wholesale products, too. “George had a good sense of where we should go and how we should grow,” Yurgaitis said.
As they built the farm, which has become a local legend, their bond with Parker only got stronger.
“She really trusted him,” said Florencia Vázquez, the wholesale director at SJP Collection who worked alongside Malkemus at both Blahnik and SJP. “Both of them listened to each other and they had a lot of shared memories. They share the same taste. If you look at how they design their collections, they go back to the same references.”
Nothing excited the partners more than being in their stores — and the 54th Street flagship was their biggest retail statement yet. Though the opening was delayed during the early, dark days of the pandemic, Malkemus and Parker forged ahead with a summer 2020 debut and relished every opportunity to put on their masks and greet customers.
“I intended to work alongside George for as long as women wear shoes. I feel profoundly honored by the years we spent in business, but more so the years we spent as friends,” said Parker, who plans to continue to lead the brand. “He was both inspired and inspiring. He was grace, exquisite taste, principled and unabashedly in love with his work, his life in the shoe business and all things beautiful. He brought passion and knowledge and delight to the office every day, and we were all better for being in his company.”
A memorial service in memory of George Malkemus will be held Nov. 6 at 12 p.m. at The Shrine of Lourdes in Litchfield, Conn. Contributions can be made to the donor’s animal shelter of choice or to the The Anthony Yurgaitis and George Malkemus Arethusa Farm Scholarship at the University of Connecticut.