Blair students got a firsthand look at brand management and merchandising at an Alumni Roundtable with Joshua George ’89, vice president and men’s brand manager at Steve Madden, a leading company in the fashion industry.
During his April 5 presentation, Mr. George engaged in a Q & A with nearly 30 attendees in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration, touching on his long history with Steve Madden, a company he first joined as a men’s product line builder in 2007. He went on to detail the additional experience he gained in footwear merchandising when he got his start in the industry at Ralph Lauren in 1996, first as a part-time salesperson, then as manager of New York City stores and eventually moving up to men’s buyer, senior buyer, product manager and, ultimately, senior director of footwear merchandising, a position he left in 2012 to focus solely on his work at Steve Madden.
Mr. George explained his daily responsibilities, which include seasonal trend shopping, market research, managing and coordinating product sampling from development prototype to sales sample to final confirmation, and communication and negotiation with sellers and retailers.
As head of men’s design, he also oversees design and development, a role in which he identifies new product opportunities and gives direction to the designers and factories that actually build product lines. Mr. George also described his collaborations with designers, which include coaching them to react quickly to market changes, keeping product flow on schedule, and communicating with Steve Madden Retail to identify best sellers and commercialize products for wholesale distribution.
Life Principles & A Day in the Life
Among the advice he offered students: building relationships, negotiation and analytical thinking are all key to success in the fields of merchandising and product development. Noting that he wears many hats in his position at Steve Madden, Mr. George shared a few “life principles” that led him to a career he loves. “Always be on the hustle and always be grinding,” he said. “What Blair is teaching you is invaluable: an independence and self-sufficiency that, whether you realize it or not, will put you years ahead of your college classmates and set you up to be a successful manager and employee later in life. The nuts and bolts of life are happening right here, and you will fully understand how much Blair taught you as you enter the workforce.”
Crediting veteran Blair history teacher (and Roundtable attendee) Martin Miller, PhD, with being one of the mentors who shaped his education and professional career, Mr. George noted that a typical day in his role as head of design and development might include presentations to clients such as Macys about next year’s spring line, working with his design team on prototypes for dress and casual shoes, and meeting vendors from India to review design challenges. Seasonally, he also mixes in a fair amount of international travel, during which he photographs hundreds of shoes for inspiration and attends shoe shows to showcase his team’s work and to stay ahead of the competition.
“Design is not a linear process, going from someone’s brain to a manufacturer,” Mr. George explained. “You are always innovating, and there is a lot of give and take. In the shoe and fashion industries, if you bat .300, you are a pretty good hitter. You don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes, you are under a lot of time constraints. You just do your best in the time allotted. You can’t be a perfectionist.”
In fact, he advised students to “let yourselves start running downhill,” and avoid getting stuck at the opening, middle or conclusion of any project. “If you hit an impasse, move on. Find a place where the work flows. But don’t dwell on perfectionism because nothing in life is perfect.”
Combining Confidence & Insecurity
The best approach, he added, is one that company founder Steve Madden asks all of his employees to adopt: Be simultaneously “100 percent confident and 100 percent insecure.”
“In this industry, you are only as good as the last thing you did,” Mr. George said. “If you are never 100 percent satisfied, you’ll be successful. And, remember, you don’t have to see it right now, and your educational and career paths might not be linear. But when opportunities arise, take advantage of them. Put in the work, and it will lead somewhere.”
Student questions focused on his transition from a part-time salesman to buyer and then manager, and Mr. George explained how he developed his management style by observing others and emulating those he admired. He also spoke about Steve Madden’s initial public offering and his changing industry in the Amazon.com age, where storefronts are shrinking and private-label partnerships are flourishing.
“Our company has mastered organized chaos, and we have learned to fail fast—meaning we try a lot of things and, if they don’t work, we let them go quickly. If things are working, we pounce. Fast reaction is essential. Back in the day, JCPenney would order 50,000 of one shoe in one color and then own them, even if they didn’t sell. That doesn’t happen anymore, and we are trying to become more nimble and efficient as we navigate this new world.” Strong brand identification is essential, he added, because online stores such as Amazon only take on small inventories, and manufacturers are now the ones who have to invest in real estate and shelf space, whereas that used to be the job of retailers.
From Blair to High Fashion
During his remarks, Mr. George also recounted his path to Steve Madden. In the 1990s, he attended The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in East Asian studies. Following college, he stayed in the Beltway and worked as a political lobbyist, interning at Cassidy and Associates, a well-known government relations firm, and the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade association representing the interests of that industry.
He left the political sphere in 1996 to spend time with a relative in Italy, later moving back to the United States and accepting a part-time retail position at Ralph Lauren in Tannersville, Pennsylvania. He continued to follow a “non-linear” career arc, quickly discovering he excelled on the selling floor and accepting a similar position in New York City. Before Mr. George decided to “go to the back of the house,” his former boss from the American Wind Energy Association called and asked him if he was interested in taking over her position as director of membership services. Although he recalls being “really torn” about the decision, Mr. George opted to continue on his new career trajectory and worked at Ralph Lauren Footwear for almost a decade.
In 2005, he and his partner, Daina, briefly moved to San Diego, where he explored a different aspect of sales as general manager of the helmet and apparel company ICON Motorsports. When the business relocated to Portland, Oregon, in 2007, the couple decided to move back East with their young son, and Mr. George joined the staff at Steve Madden’s New York City office.
About Alumni Roundtables
Blair's Alumni Roundtable speakers' series connects today's students with prominent alumni across industries, giving soon-to-be graduates the opportunity to learn about different fields from experienced professionals.
Instituted in 2018 by Head of School Chris Fortunato, the Alumni Roundtable series welcomes Blair graduates of all generations to campus to speak about their careers and engage in question-and-answer sessions with students. Find out more about past and upcoming speakers, and please let us know if you would like to participate in a future event by contacting Director of Stewardship E. Courtnay Stanford at (908) 362-6121, ext. 5646, or firstname.lastname@example.org.