In a quaint house nestled in Long Island City, N.Y., lies Steve Madden’s Wonderland. Quotes like “One shoe at a time” and “Nothing succeeds like success” are sprawled on the walls while shoe mockups and containers filled with beads are scattered throughout the two-story building. The cheery ambiance and employees’ pleasant demeanor also feels more start-up than 25-year-old company but Madden’s Queens headquarters is a testament to his ability to invent, adjust and adapt, no matter the circumstances.
Parked on the black leather couch in his main office, Madden initiates the conversation, all smiles as he flexes his hip-hop knowledge by citing the Eminem-Benzino beef from the glory days of The Source. “I was in prison for a couple of years and [both The Source and VIBE] were very popular magazines, but the underground one was XXL. It was a little bit more risque,” he said, before launching into the relationship with his brand’s latest big-name collaborator, Ja Rule.
“Ja and I bonded over our shared experience, which was being incarcerated,” said Madden, who was placed behind bars in 2002 over stock fraud. He’s made several buddies from his stint in the pen, also name-dropping T.I. “It was kind of like a fraternity. It was pretty rap-py.”
In the spotlight, Madden has been down with hip-pop culture for the past decade. He’s tapped the likes of Kylie and Kendall Jenner, and Keyshia Cole for successful collaborations but it was a partnership with Iggy Azalea that left a lasting impression on the shoe impresario and stirred up headlines after a set of questionable images surfaced on Tumblr.
“I met Iggy and we got along really well the first time I met her. So I thought, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ She turned out to be a monster,” he said. “She was not easy to deal with and so it just killed the whole spirit of the collaboration, and it’s too bad because I actually did like her. I thought she was an interesting, smart girl with a curiosity. I just hope she figures it out ’cause she’s very talented.”
Another rapstress who could have collected a check from Madden and ironically, Iggy’s foe? Nicki Minaj. “I was gonna do a collaboration with Nicki Minaj and we got into a fight the first minute we met,” he recalls, without pinpointing the exact cause. “And then we patched it up. We were cool. We text each other, we became sort of buddies. We were thinking of doing something, and I would’ve, but I was with Iggy and I thought, ‘Coke and Pepsi.’ It was a mistake. I made a mistake and I wish that I could go back in time and work with Nicki instead of Iggy.”
But Madden’s not one to sulk over could’ve-been chances. Shift to the present and he’s all about his current project with Ja Rule, whom he touts as a “hall-of-famer.” After card games at Irv Gotti’s mansion connected Madden with the former Murder Inc. mascot, the trio bonded during a Brooklyn Nets game. Madden’s most vivid memory of Ja, though, was actually from his serving time. “I was in a TV room in prison and [Ja] had a fake gun in his hand. He was shooting at the screen [for a music video or at the BET Awards], but that was my last memory of Ja Rule,” he said.
Ja’s hard image eventually became the seed for a smooth fashion collaboration. While Madden describes Ja as the quintessential chum, using words like “interesting, very likable and charming,” the rapper brought his own sartorial visions to the table. Here, you won’t find jeggings or thong sandals (two trends that Ja insists must R.I.P. ASAP) but shoes for Madden’s Pre-Fall ’15 Maven x Madden collection that include hardware, like skeleton keys, golden straps, and a mix of fabrics from suede to quality leather, retailing from $145 to $195.
“Steve is a legend in the game, who is synonymous with shoes,” he tells VIBE over e-mail while touring overseas. “It’s an honor to work with him. He really knows how to connect with the people. Not everyone can afford a $1,000 shoe, but everyone wants to be stylish and he helps those who can’t find a way to be.”
That is Madden’s permanent tagline: value over everything. He creates opportunities, like the one he made for himself when he only had $1,100 in his bank account in 1990 and kickstarted a shoe empire in Queens.
“Maven Madden is not gonna be the cheapest thing, but it’s not the most expensive thing,” he says. “It’s in a good spot with tons of value there. If you’re looking for something that’s comfortable and right on, designed by cool people, then these are the shoes to get. We’re looking to continue to do more collaborations.” Of course, the interview wouldn’t be a wrap without one more ha-ha from the comical founder and design chief. “Well, I wanted to do something with Suge Knight, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to be around. [Laughs.] It’s a joke! I’m a jokester,” he says, before diverting his attention to another text on his phone and getting back to business.