The J.D. Salinger Of Platform Shoes
Jeffrey Campbell built an empire on shoes that look impossible to walk in, but are actually comfortable. But who is he, and why is he so secretive?
All shoes have a name. You probably don't know your shoes' names, because unlike handbags like the "PS 1" (by Proenza Schouler) or the "Pashli" (by Phillip Lim), shoes seldom get on a first-name basis with their fans. Alexander McQueen's "Armadillo" shoes are one exception. Jeffrey Campbell's "Litas" are another.
You've probably seen the Lita on Tumblr or Instagram or walking down the streets of New York or Los Angeles. The Lita is a lace-up ankle bootie, constructed from a heel resembling a sturdy wooden post and a thick platform sole that's curved so it rocks with every step — which it has to, because heels this high aren't going to bend.
"They're super comfortable," said Christina Ferrucci, buying director for trendy online retailer Nasty Gal, which has sold "thousands" of pairs of the shoe. Ferrucci described the Lita as much more durable than other inexpensive shoes: "My cousin, who's 19, went to Disneyland in her Litas," she said. "They're really lightweight and give you five inches; they elongate the leg — for every reason that heels sell is why that shoe is so successful."
But unlike Phillip Lim or Proenza Schouler or even Steve Madden, Jeffrey Campbell is a label without a face. Designers like Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, and even Madden, who might be covered more for his legal issues than anything, regularly talk to the press or appear at events or pose for photo shoots. Though Jeffrey Campbell now has a huge cult following and many thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers, the designer himself prefers to stay behind the scenes, seldom giving interviews or posing for photos. He also seems bizarrely reluctant to divulge basic information about the company. Considering the momentum the brand has thanks to social media — an inherently self-promotional platform — the secrecy seems quite odd.
"I think it's totally bizarre to be so private for this type of brand," said Elle creative director Joe Zee. "It's not a small, exclusive, aspirational brand" — like avant-garde Belgian label Martin Margiela, who never even took bows after his fashion shows — "it's an accessible brand." And yet, "he's like J.D. Salinger of platform shoes." But it's also "strangely refreshing," Zee added.
Sharon Blackburn, who serves as the brand's in-house spokesperson, declined repeated requests for Campbell to comment for this story, saying initially, "We prefer to keep a low profile and let the shoes and the girls who wear them be our voice." After I pressed for answers over a period of months, Blackburn agreed to answer a few questions over email only, writing, "I am Jeffrey when it comes to interviews and questions about the brand… ; )"
She described Jeffrey Campbell's background as, "Shoes, selling them at retail at Nordstrom and then as a sales rep for multiple lines during the '90s." Blackburn told the blog So, Like, Fashion in May: "I met Jeffrey 23 years ago when I was working at Nordstrom and he was my Kenneth Cole Unlisted Sales Rep. We bonded over music, fashion & pop culture which eventually contributed to me ending up as Jeffrey Production Assistant. I worked at Nordstrom for 16 years in the Shoe Division and as a Visual Merchandiser." Each year, the company — which Blackburn said consists of just 10 employees — produces thousands of sample shoes and ships hundreds of thousands more. Since July 2010, the brand has shipped 175,000 pairs of Litas alone. As for Campbell's design inspiration? "Everything!" she wrote. "We are inspired by the girls who wear our shoes as much as what is happening on the runways, on the streets or vintage styles from the past!"
Even among fashion industry insiders or others who have worked with Campbell, few know much about Campbell or his business. Many in the industry interviewed for this story admitted to not even knowing if "Jeffrey Campbell" is just a brand name or the name of an actual person. Quirky online shop Fred Flare, which has been carrying Jeffrey Campbell for the past seven or eight years and has sold thousands of spiked Litas, landed one of the few interviews you'll find with the man himself. Posted to the Fred Flare blog in February 2007 — before Jeffrey Campbell had its own website — Campbell explains the label's background: He started it around the year 2000 and describes it as "such a small company... a family business — we are all involved. My wife, kids and my brother." He reveals he has three children, adding, "My daughters wear the shoes, assist me at tradeshows and sketch design ideas."
"I have worked in shoes forever and so has my brother Dean," Campbell continues. "Sales, retail, wholesale — now we both work together here at Jeffrey Campbell." He describes the line as "not collection based" but "item driven," meaning, "if mid season we see a hot trend, we can jump on it — even if it doesn't follow the 'theme.'"
Fred Flare creative director Keith Carollo said he doesn't know Campbell well but has met him at trade shows. "I get the impression ... he kind of likes doing his own thing," Carollo said. "He's really nice." (Ferrucci, from Nasty Gal, also called Campbell and his team "really nice.") Carollo thinks the interview on Fred Flare's blog motivated Campbell to put up his own site. The Jeffrey Campbell blog you'll find there now provides a peek at the lives of company staffers, but Campbell himself is nowhere to be seen.
The Jeffrey Campbell brand has been around since 2000, when it started selling shoes at the Fairfax Flea Market in Hollywood, but its "voice" wasn't a cornerstone of trendiness for young women until the Litas came out in July 2010. At the time, the runways were having a "statement shoe" moment — no footwear was too high, too uncomfortable, or too dangerous-looking. Fast fashion was just as huge as it is now — every young, fashion-savvy female shopper seemed to have an insatiable appetite for the new, the now, the next, all at prices they could afford. It was no longer cool for trendy twentysomethings to wear head-to-toe designer outfits that cost many hundreds or thousands of dollars; everyone wanted to show off their ability to source fashion at bargain prices. Along with Instagram, street-style blogs like The Sartorialist and Street Peeper, and personal-style blogs like Fashion Toast and Sea of Shoes provided the perfect platforms for showing off not only cool outfits, but also savvy shopping. And shoes are arguably the most fetishized items of apparel, so more than ever, these young women needed the right pair to get noticed.
Unlike the towering heels on the runways that could cost upward of $800 or $1,000, the Litas were under $200. Blackburn explains in a blog post on Jeffrey Campbell's site celebrating the Lita's first birthday that the shoe was named for Lita Ford from '70s girl band The Runaways. It first came in "mustard," she wrote, but has since been made in virtually every other fabric and print a hipster could fathom — one season it's spikes, the next it's kittens.
The Litas were a perfect fit in the shoe section of Nasty Gal, the online shop that has come to define what it means to look cool as a young, fun, feverishly stylish, Coachella-going kind of woman. Though it now practically has the name recognition of Urban Outfitters, the store was more of an up-and-coming business when the Litas came out in 2010. Unlike other retailers, Nasty Gal wasn't afraid of the Lita's height, according to a New York Times story this March. "Nasty Gal fans will tell you [founder] Sophia Amoruso 'made' Jeffrey Campbell, not the other way around," the article said. If the brand had a face when the Litas blew up, it had to be Amoruso's and the thousands of girls she was now dressing in her stead, because Campbell was nowhere to be seen.
The shoe found other faces in personal-style bloggers like Wendy Lam of Nitro:licious and Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast. Both bloggers highlight a mix of high and low fashion on their sites, where followers envy and enthuse over their every outfit. Lam attributed Jeffrey Campbell's success to being able to respond quickly to the whims of its young, fashion-hungry customers. "If they see trends on the runway or a popular style, they produce a similar shoe right away and [it] hits the stores and online stores within weeks," she said in an email.
"That Lita shoe just has an obsessive following," said Carollo from Fred Flare. "If you go to Tumblr and search 'lita' you just see thousands of images of that shoe. Girls really love it." They've even spawned a fan Tumblr called Who Stole My Litas.
The style's popularity seems to have catapulted the brand into its current aesthetic: tall and tough, at times tacky, but always bold — extreme whenever possible. Many styles in stores now are heel-less, neon, upward of six inches high, and covered in spikes that look like they could actually hurt a person. These shoes were made to be shown off.
Many have questioned the originality of Campbell's designs. The brand is accused of knocking off other designers, the way fast-fashion chains like Zara do. This is not illegal — it's exceedingly difficult to copyright even small elements of apparel designs — but it doesn't make designers look innovative or win them many friends in the business. Some wonder if Campbell's apparently heavy inspiration from the runways has something to do with his intentionally low profile. The Lita itself is "a knockoff of another knockoff of a shoe from like a thousand years ago but the original version is a little bigger and chunkier," said Nasty Gal's Ferrucci. Some trace it back to Jean Charles de Castelbajac's fall 2008 collection, though you can see even stronger similarities to it in Charles Anastase's fall 2009 line shown at London Fashion Week. But it's unquestionably Campbell who's turned the look of a super-chunky, super-high, lace-up ankle boot into a must-have for the kind of in-your-face dresser who wants to look like Rihanna and Lady Gaga.
What may hurt Jeffrey Campbell more than its knocking-off tendencies is its unabashed rejection of elegance. "I hate that I'm so associated with him because of my temporary lapse of judgement in 2010 with those crazy Litas," one very famous personal style blogger said in an email. In recent seasons, that very chunky platform look has largely made way for more ladylike styles on the runways, like kitten heels (arguably popularized by Michelle Obama) and conservative pumps (ditto Kate Middleton). But just as many people in the New York fashion scene who find Campbell's style tired find it irresistible.
Elle's Zee shot a pair of Jeffrey Campbell wedge sneakers with thick gold chains in place of laces for the magazine's recent August issue after he saw them on Us Weekly fashion director Sasha Charnin Morrison's Instagram feed. "I was like, 'Oh, I need those for my story,' not even knowing they were Jeffrey Campbell," said Zee, who asked his accessories editor to procure them for the shoot. "I shot them on the model Jessica Miller, and the whole time we were shooting — we had Chanel, we had everything, and Jessica just wanted those sneakers." Zee gave them to her.