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SJP’s George Malkemus Wants To Rebuild Manhattan One Shoe At A Time With Partner Sarah Jessica Parker

Forbes | October 2020

By Roxanne Robinson 

George Malkemus is getting to know the real American woman via SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker. After building the Manolo Blahnik brand in the US and beyond, he and Parker launched SJP shoes in 2014. The actress’ character Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City made the British shoe brand a household name. Malkemus was determined to create a more affordable luxury shoe, and in Sarah Jessica Parker, he found the perfect partner. Along the way, he discovered what women want from a shoe.

Now just three months into the SJP store opening in the former Manolo Blahnik store on 54th street in Manhattan, the CEO shares the shared vision for building the brand and reviving 'The City That Never Sleeps' from its pandemic-induced slowdown.

Opening in the same location was pragmatic as Malkemus owns the building, and it's been vacant since Manolo Blahnik exited in 2019 when their business partnership dissolved in a fraught manner. (To this day, there is a lawsuit against Malkemus claiming he owes over $600,000 in unpaid goods.) The choice also hinged on the belief in the locations' proximity to MOMA and an excellent complement to its Seaport and American Dream mall locations as its’ tri-state brick and mortar operations, something he and Parker feel passionately about.

"We both strongly believe in retail, "said Malkemus. “She loves it and is good at selling shoes, knowing what to ask the customers. She posts on her Instagram when she is in-store, and there are lines down the block." Indeed, the actress can usually be found Tuesday and Thursday uptown and in the Seaport on Wednesdays on the selling floor. And she listens to them as well. A key difference he has found in this female partner as opposed to his former male partner.

"We don't do sneakers even if Neiman Marcus tells us they are selling like hotcakes," he explains, "but if we have customers asking for flats or a city boot, we will discuss and add these items."

The CEO says that business is still slower than usual, but retail in New York City picked up once outdoor dining began last summer, and uptown has seen an uptick once MOMA reopened its doors. The foot traffic from the museum was the impetus for the former Manolo Blahnik store location when it opened its doors in the Nineties. Despite attendance capped at 25 percent, opening has boosted sales at SJP.

Still, he doesn't feel that wealthy New Yorkers who fled the City during the pandemic are returning yet, which irks him. "We talk about this daily. It kills me that wealthy people who made their money here abandoned the City and forgot what made them wealthy," he asserts. "If they came back and opened up their offices, it would benefit all the small businesses who rely on them. Tailors, coffee shops, dry cleaners, or shoe repairs. "It's an obligation to keep the economy going. The ability to do that is one thing that made America strong, and it seems they have forgotten that!"

He and Parker are passionate on the subject of returning New York City to its lively, vibrant place. They work with the NYC Fifth Avenue Association partnership helping to rebuild Fifth Avenue's retail scene. They dipped their feet in the water with a digital art exhibit that didn't entirely take off but are exploring new ways to boost New York City up again. "No one is a more New York girl than Sarah Jessica. We are still struggling with how to best support these kinds of initiatives.”

As for how the new store is performing, he says it's day by day. "Some days people see SJP and come in, others still think it's Manolo Blahnik and don't always realize it's another brand." That is until they try it on, according to Malkemus. Once aspirational shoppers who came to gawk at the famous royal blue Hangisi pump made famous on SATC are now won over by the comfort of the shoes that skew towards pretty, pointy, and in every color of the rainbow.

"Sure, it's a harder sell lately, especially if they know little about it," he says, referring to the collection of shoes which retails between $295 to $795, still significantly less than Manolo Blahnik shoes. But once viewing the rainbow assortment of eye candy, shopping becomes a reward. "It's like wanting dessert after a tough day watching your diet all day, and you see this treat; the shoes as dessert," he says, "It may sit in their closet for six months, but they want it."

Last year, the duo introduced E-comm, a lifeline for many brands during the store shutdowns. Retail via flagship stores and wholesale sales saw a 30 percent drop while E-comm was up 60 percent from the previous time last year (though as it's only about a year old, comps are tough to determine.) Malkemus keeps a sharp eye on the numbers, viewing daily. During the interview for this article, a customer in Dallas spent $6,000 on 18 pairs of shoes. It's not uncommon for the brand’s fans to acquire six to eight pairs of shoes at a time. But they also sell water bottles, beach towels, and candles so that any fan can share in the SJP experience.

Malkemus and Parker call the shots on their business, which reports 25 million in sales yearly, as they managed to avoid outside investors and banks. When the pandemic hit two weeks before the store on 54th street was initially scheduled to open, they pivoted with staggering inventory deliveries and extending payment terms with partners. The strategy was largely successful as the line mainly consists of what Parker dubs "evergreen" styles. "The gross margin of SJP is the highest of any other line because 85 percent of this collection never goes on sale." Indeed, Parker's philosophy is to have core styles like the Fawn and Rampling that add new colors and materials each season so that the customer can rely on finding a shoe she loves season after season. Any inventory that was dormant during the store shutdowns or canceled can still be delivered, or sold, and still feel fresh.

Malkemus learned that valuable lesson at Manolo Blahnik that continued to offer key styles year after year. More recently, he discovered a certain pragmaticism about what women want, which he partially attributes to working with a female point of view.

"Samsonite approached us to collaborate. Sarah Jessica said they make the best luggage; her mother and grandmother both had it." They decided on a versatile backpack in six playful and sophisticated colorways as almost everyone carries one. Working with Sarah Jessica on SJP, he discovered an approach he didn't know he had inside of him, especially at Manolo Blahnik. "I was a Hermès snob! I still am," he bemused. "I didn't appreciate what women wanted, what they expected to pay for it or if the style will last forever," he admits. He refers to his former role and company as 'the old life.'

He is relenting with Parker on an upcoming satin wedge house slipper for the at-home entertaining folks are doing these days. "Sarah Jessica talks about it all the time; she loves to entertain that way," he says, admitting he is a bit worried about the $295 price tag. Thank the pandemic for the niche style, a result of staying at home.

Like many companies, he and Parker have been examining their staff to see how they can do better in equal opportunity and diversity. Qualifications must always come first, but they look at even more opportunities for the BIPOC employed at SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker. "We have a young lady that lives in Harlem. She tells me about everything going on there, especially the great places to eat,' said Malkemus, "I've been living in the isolated world of the Upper West Side, so I don't hear about these places." With SJP, Malkemus is learning even more than just how to run a successful shoe business.

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