Shoe Designer Steve Madden Got His Start in Cocaine-Fueled 1970s Miami

Steve Madden: "You're only young once."
Steve Madden: "You're only young once."
Photo by Phil Walters

Steve Madden is exhausted.

A whirlwind tour to promote Maddman: The Steve Madden Story — a brilliant and unexpected film that delves into the life of the irrepressible shoe czar — has led him to one of his namesake stores in South Beach. It's one of more than 100 locations in the United States and 250 in 65-plus countries worldwide.

With sunken eyes disguised behind dark sunglasses, the 58-year-old could do with a few days of lounging by the ocean.

Then, however, there's a spark.

Two tourists walk in from Lincoln Road and, unbeknownst to them, come toe-to-toe with the man whose products they're fawning over.

"They look great on you," says Madden, working the floor like the seasoned shoe salesman he was three decades ago.

Soon there are hugs, smiles, and obligatory selfies. Oh, and a quick photo of the shoes worn by one of the tourists, a woman from Uruguay.

"I like those. Where did you get them?" Madden inquires, eyeballing the snap on his iPhone.

Just like that, he's found new energy. Miami has that effect on him.

It was in 1976 that the boy from Long Island, New York, visited South Florida, where he began a journey that took him from starting his company with $1,100 and selling shoes out of the trunk of his car to owning an ever-growing $2 billion fashion empire.

A two-year stay at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex near Ocala, where he served time for stock manipulation and securities fraud, didn't diminish his dream — though it did earn him an unexpected portrayal in Martin Scorsese's film The Wolf of Wall Street.

If anything, that fall from grace helped realign his focus.

Those heady, hedonistic days in Coconut Grove with his brother Johnny and his wife are hard to recall now. Too much booze. Too many drugs. The partying was insane. Madden, who in October welcomed a well-heeled crowd to the swanky Faena hotel on Collins Avenue for a special screening of Maddman, lasted only two years at the University of Miami before packing up and heading back to the Big Apple. His recollections are so hazy he doesn't even know in which area of study he was enrolled.

"It was a long time ago," he sighs.

But from that madness, the genesis for shoe supremacy was born.

"In the '70s, Florida was a great place to be," he recalls. "I went to Miami U. It was '76, '77. Miami was just starting to become the cocaine capital of the world. It was and still is a cool city. It has always been like that.

"When I came to Miami, I had the vision of shoes in my head," he continues. He got his start with a side job at a shoe wholesaler and later worked in a small Hialeah factory. "I made little platform shoes in a factory with some Cuban guys. I did that simultaneously with my studies," he says. "I had a [fashion] line I was trying to sell, but I would see these shoes and then delve a bit deeper. I would find out who made them, and that's how I got to the Hialeah factory and the Cuban dudes. They were impressed with my New York pluck."

They might not have been as impressed with Madden's raging party lifestyle. But if he had concerns about his behavior then, they've been lost in the decades since.

"You're only young once, man," he shrugs.

Maddman, the feature-length documentary directed by Manhattan-based producer Ben Patterson, harks back fondly to those fun-soaked Florida days and takes the audience into the hectic, breathless, and loud life of Madden. He's a gregarious character who, to many observers, represents the antithesis of the fashion industry.

Now sober, divorced, and a father of three children, Madden has an outlook that's vastly different. Keeping the demons at bay isn't easy.

"You've got to keep at it," he says of his battle with addiction before remembering an old friend, one who also saw Miami play a special part in her life. "I was no better than Amy Winehouse, who recorded in this city a lot. I had this fantasy of working with her and helping her. But it wasn't meant to be."

Yet Madden was able to make an impact on the lives of other individuals similarly in need of guidance.

Fort Lauderdale resident Verne "Swole" Kneeley says meeting Madden saved his life. The two met in jail. Later, Madden began working with the Doe Fund, a nonprofit that helps people with a history of addiction and incarceration. 

Having served ten years for drug offenses, Kneeley, age 47, now heads the operations division for Madden's ten stores and three outlets in South Florida. He grins infectiously when talking about the fashion icon he now proudly calls a friend.

"I had never heard of Steve Madden before we met in jail," Kneeley says. "But he taught me to stay on the straight and narrow. I love him."

Maddman: The Steve Madden Story. Starring Steve Madden. Directed by Ben Patterson. 77 minutes. Not yet rated. Available Friday, December 1, via iTunes and Amazon.

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