The New York Times
Taking a Hard Spill in Designer Shoes
THEY were the girls with the golden shoes.
Kari Sigerson and Miranda Morrison couldn’t take a wrong step in their climb from Fashion Institute of Technology students to fashion-world darlings. Celebrities like Cameron Diaz were photographed in their NoLIta shop. Sarah Jessica Parker wore their white ankle boots in the first “Sex and the City” movie. Their gladiator sandals were so popular that in 2010 Vogue.com declared that “every summer is the season of the Sigerson Morrison sandal.”https://www.pinterest.com/powerpoint_templates/art-powerpoint-templates/
So, why was Ms. Sigerson, the lanky blond half of the design duo, sitting at a cafe near South Street Seaport on a recent afternoon with little to do but wait for her lawyers to call? “It’s like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ” she said, sipping coffee in jeans and Balenciaga flats. “I went into Barneys, and I didn’t even recognize them.”
She was referring, surprisingly enough, to her namesake shoe label. Just over a year ago, she and Ms. Morrison were fired from the company they had created, and now they find themselves watching from the sidelines as the retooled brand is presented at this week’s New York Shoe Expo without them.
It is a dramatic fall for the partners who, not long ago, seemed to embody every young designer’s dream. After building a cult shoe label from scratch, they found a big backer, Marc Fisher, the scion of the 9 West discount-shoe fortune, who they thought could take them to the stratosphere. But instead of turning Sigerson Morrison into the next Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo, the deal went sour. Very sour.
Not only have the women lost their company and even the right to use their names, but they have also been sued for almost $2 million by their former angel. Theirs is a story that may dissuade other young designers from seeking financial saviors.
“It is definitely a cautionary tale,” said Valerie Steele, the fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “You kind of think: ‘Gosh, didn’t you have a better lawyer? How did you sign that?’ Not just in this specific case, but in general. The problem is that most designers are creative types. They don’t have any training in finance.”
“But fashion is not only a creative field,” she added, “it’s also a business.”
THE young shoe designers met in 1987 in the accessories-design program at F.I.T. Ms. Sigerson was the Midwestern chick who had hung out in the high school parking lot in her Kork-Ease sandals. Ms. Morrison was the cultured Englishwoman with a mop of curls who had studied art at Oxford and had run a gallery in London. Yet they connected right away.
They shared a studio and a philosophy and noticed “the void of shoes designed by women for women,” as Ms. Morrison put it.
After graduation, while making shoes for private clients and runway shows, they began developing their own line. “We wanted to do an American version of European designer shoes,” Ms. Sigerson said. “Simple, clean and modern.”
“Not like shoes for Barbie,” she added pointedly, “but for real women to wear.”
The Sigerson Morrison line was introduced in 1991, with Bergdorf Goodman among the first buyers. Early orders were mostly for black and brown, but the designers had other ideas. “Nobody was doing crazy-colored shoes,” Ms. Sigerson said. “We were like, ‘How about orange, pink, metallics?’ ”
They decided they needed a showcase of their own.
In 1994, with seed money collected from family and friends (they sold 10 shares for $5,000 each), the women rented a 300-square-foot store on Mott Street for $1,200 a month. They were unprepared for what happened next.
“It became a destination,” Ms. Morrison said.
Ms. Sigerson said: “I’ll never forget coming up the stairs. And I was like” — she pantomimed reeling backward — “it was mobbed: Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista!”
Michael Tatro was a longtime Sigerson Morrison salesman. “It was like being a rock star,” he said. “Sometimes I would have to just lock the door. And the phone would be ringing, and there would be pounding on the windows. When we’d start the sales, I could only let a few in at a time, because it was a line down the street.”
Julia Roberts once knocked on the door, alone, with no entourage. “She asked me what my favorite ones were,” Mr. Tatro said. “And she bought those.”
Ms. Sigerson and Ms. Morrison won the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America award for accessory design in 1996, anointing their arrival in the fashion industry.
“Their shoes were everywhere,” said Maria Cornejo, who opened her own shop on Mott Street in 1998. “They were so identifiable.”
A second Sigerson Morrison store opened around the corner on Prince Street in 1999. “Charlize Theron would buy 20 pairs at a time with her mum,” Ms. Morrison recalled.
More shops opened in Los Angeles and Tokyo, and in 2004 they introduced Belle, a lower-priced line. By 2005 Sigerson Morrison was reportedly worth $30 million, and the designers wanted to grow bigger still. They told Women’s Wear Daily that they were looking for investors. “With smart money behind us, we could actually really see the story to the happiest ending,” Ms. Morrison was quoted as saying.
Through Avalon Group and Savigny Partners, investment banks that acted as matchmakers, the two women met Mr. Fisher, who was building a mass-market shoe company. In addition to its own label, Marc Fisher Footwear also produces shoes for brands like Guess, Tommy Hilfiger and J. C. Penney.
It seemed an odd fit: the high-end princesses aligning themselves with a more plebeian sort, one of the footwear garmentos known in the industry as “shoe dogs.”
What he did have was ready cash. In 2006 Mr. Fisher paid $2.6 million to acquire Sigerson Morrison and the intellectual-property rights to its name. (The company was renamed Fisher Sigerson Morrison, though the label remained the same.)
Ms. Sigerson and Ms. Morrison each retained a 10 percent stake in the company, and were hired as “co-heads of design” for seven years at an annual salary of $350,000 each.
The parties professed mutual admiration. “I’ve always loved the Sigerson Morrison brand and found Kari and Miranda to have a great eye,” Mr. Fisher told Women’s Wear Daily at the time of the sale. Ms. Morrison added that he “shares our entrepreneurial spirit and respects our DNA.” There was talk of new stores, eyeglasses, even fragrances.
But the honeymoon did not last. Ms. Sigerson and Ms. Morrison came to believe that their designs were being knocked off for Marc Fisher’s discount line, they would later claim in court papers. (For example, a black-and-silver flat sandal from their 2008 Ikat collection, they contend, looked eerily similar to an orange Marc Fisher model that retailed for $69 the next summer.)
It was not the first time that Mr. Fisher was accused of copying designs. In May, Gucci won a federal lawsuit in New York that accused Marc Fisher Footwear and others with copying Gucci’s signature “G” logo pattern for a line of handbags and sneakers manufactured for Guess. Marc Fisher Footwear, which has not appealed the ruling, must pay $456,183 in damages.
And last December, lawyers for Derek Lam sent a letter to Ivanka Trump Footwear, another brand Marc Fisher produces, accusing the line of copying a platform sandal. No suit was filed; Mr. Fisher has denied the claim.
Tensions also arose over the manufacturing of the Sigerson Morrison shoes. To cut costs, Mr. Fisher insisted on moving production to China from Italy, according to court papers filed by both sides. The designers argued that this would tarnish the brand, but their pleas did no good.
Perhaps most explosive were the designers’ claims that Mr. Fisher had sexually harassed the women on numerous occasions and created a hostile workplace. According to court papers, at one meeting Mr. Fisher allegedly stared down the back of Ms. Sigerson’s clothes so lewdly that the president of the company, Susan Itzkowitz, wondered aloud whether Mr. Fisher needed sexual harassment training. (Mr. Fisher’s lawyer, Jonathan Minsker, called the harassment claims “entirely frivolous.”)
By 2011, the clash had come to a head. On March 10, 2011, the designers were called to what they thought would be a routine meeting at Trump Tower, where Marc Fisher Footwear has its showroom. Instead, they said, letters of termination were slid across the table, their e-mail accounts were cut off and the company BlackBerry was wiped clean. Three weeks later, Mr. Fisher sued Ms. Morrison and Ms. Sigerson in New York State court, alleging that the designers failed to deliver a collection of shoes on time. Mr. Fisher also sought upward of $1.95 million in damages.
The same day, the designers filed a countersuit against Mr. Fisher seeking $6 million in damages. They alleged that the delay on the shoe collection was not their fault but was a problem with factory samples, and that there had been a mutual decision with Mr. Fisher to hold the collection.
Both parties refused to comment on the active case. But Mr. Minsker added that the sexual harassment claims “were asserted purely as retaliation for the termination of their employment.”
While the legal documents piled up over the last year, the Sigerson Morrison shops on Prince Street and in Los Angeles remained open, but with dwindling stock. There was no fall line. “We’re on hiatus!” the Web site cheerily announced.
WHAT is a designer label worth without the actual designer? The Sigerson Morrison brand is about to find out. This spring, new merchandise began appearing on store shelves. Put together by a team of anonymous in-house designers, it included teetering silver wedge sandals with Lucite sections, aqua-and-brown chunky heels with open toes, and flat woven sandals with zippers on the backs.
Taylor Tomasi Hill, a fixture of street-style blogs and a former accessories editor at Marie Claire, was hired as a creative consultant to advise on trends, colors and details. Her contributions will begin appearing in stores this fall.
Priced about a third lower, with most shoes under $400, Sigerson Morrison has been reborn without its founding designers. Not that casual customers would know. The Web site has been revamped — rather, scrubbed. All mentions of the two women have been deleted, as if they never existed.
And, in some ways, they no longer do. Ms. Sigerson and Ms. Morrison are still designing shoes, but cannot put their names on them. They signed away those rights to Mr. Fisher when they made their starry-eyed deal.
Earlier this year, they created a capsule collection for Anthropologie, under the name Pied Juste, which is expected to hit stores this fall. Ms. Sigerson described the shoes, priced at $100 to $160, as “a continuation of what we would try to do at Sigerson Morrison.”
Both designers also have been working on projects for Steve Madden, a longtime friend. Ms. Sigerson is introducing 7B, a small line backed by Mr. Madden, to wholesale buyers at the shoe expo this week.
But their lives remain very much in legal limbo. Much of their day is spent paging through stacks of correspondence and records (the lawsuit is in the discovery phase) and there is no sign of a settlement. Last month, a judge denied Mr. Fisher’s motion to have all the designers’ claims dismissed, allowing many of the accusations to go forward.
On a recent rainy Saturday, Ms. Morrison took a break from reading legal documents for lunch at a Middle Eastern cafe near her home in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. She wore a cheery pink Jean Pigozzi sweater and black Rivieras slip-on shoes; her mood was somber.
The prospect of reclaiming the use of their names, she said with a sigh, “seems far-fetched.” The future looks quite different from what the friends had once imagined. “Forever, till the retirement home, till Palm Springs,” she said. “That was the assumption.”
The day before, Ms. Sigerson had flown to Bologna, Italy, to gather ideas and material at a leather trade show for her 7B line. Despite everything that she and Ms. Morrison had been through, she still wished for one more chance. “All I want to do,” she said wistfully, “is what I did.”
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