A smart heart

All photographs courtesy of Vince Camuto.


Braininess becomes Vince Camuto. 

You don’t co-found a legendary fashion company like Nine West and go on to become the chief creative officer and CEO of the Camuto Group – whose expertise extends to BCBGMAXAZRIA, BCBGeneration, Lucky Brand, Tory Burch and the billion-dollar Jessica Simpson brand, not to mention his own – without having real smarts.

But the word that echoes throughout Vince’s sumptuous new “Life of Style” (Assouline,  300 pages, $250) is passion.  Indeed, friend, colleague and fellow Greenwich resident Tommy Hilfiger uses it at least a half-dozen times in his foreword to the hefty tome:

“Everyone says, ‘Vince Camuto has the golden touch,’ and I could not agree more.  But it is not good fortune that turns everything in his presence to gold. Hard work, immense passion, solid business acumen and an immaculate, distinctive sense of style are the driving forces behind the story of his success.”

That irresistible combination of qualities was apparent from his beginnings on the Lower East Side, where he and older sister Frances were raised by their mother, Louise, after their father – Louis, an Italian immigrant – died when Vince was 2. (It’s perhaps more than a coincidence that the name Louis and its feminine form, Louise, are among the most important in his life, as Vince’s wife is also a Louise. (The book is dedicated to them, along with Vince’s five children – Robert, Andrea, John, Christopher and Philip.)

The East Village in the late 1930s and ’40s was a tough but bustling place and Vince went to work early on, earning enough by age 14 to give the family its first refrigerator and taking a job in the back room of a First Avenue shoe store – a foreshadowing of things to come.

But before shoe business there was show business:   Hollywood came calling in the form of an agent who spotted him at Seward Park High School, where Vince studied drama. With his dreamy deep-set eyes and pompadour of dark hair, he was tabbed to be the next Tony Curtis. And as the book’s glamorous glossies and shots of a young, bare-chested Vince lounging in bed or by a Miami pool attest, it wasn’t a far-fetched notion.

But soon Vince was a husband to first wife and childhood sweetheart, Anne Ciossi, and father to son Robert. He needed a dependable job. So after an unhappy stint in his brother-in-law’s printing factory, Vince took himself off to the unemployment office and snagged a job as complaint manager at I. Miller, the tony Fifth Avenue shoe store. It was there that the seeds for Vince Camuto, shoe impresario, were planted, as he learned from the models, actresses and other well-heeled women who frequented the shop what worked when it came to housing the tootsies and what didn’t.

Soon, he was e“vince”ing another trait that must be a key to his stunning success, the willingness to go wherever opportunity took him – shoe companies up and down the Eastern seaboard; Europe for trend-spotting; Japan’s Ginza factory to create shoes that married East and West; Brazil to work with shoe factories on behalf of the Bank of Sumitomo; and back to Manhattan to form a partnership with Jerome Fisher in 1977.

“Some people dream things will happen,” Vince writes. “Some people want things to happen. Some people make things happen.”

The Fisher Camuto Corp. had its headquarters in the Solow Building, 9 W. 57 St., off Fifth Avenue.  You can’t miss it because of the big red “9” on the sidewalk in front of it. The brand 9 West (ultimately Nine West) was thus born.

Drawing on a network of Brazilian factories, a talent for trend-spotting and an against-the-grain philosophy that banked on the female willingness to pay a little more for quality, Vince expanded Nine West to embrace brands like Easy Spirit, Bandolino and Evan Picone; developed labels like Enzo Angiolini; and added handbags, coats and other items, doubling sales to almost $2 billion and earning an honorary doctorate from Roger Williams University in the process.

At the close of the 20th century, Jones Apparel Group bought Nine West for $900 million. It was at that time that Vince – divorced from his second wife, Kristen Benson, mother of sons John and Christopher – met interior designer Louise Drevenstam.

“She is Vince’s secret weapon,” Hilfiger writes. And Vince himself describes her as “my muse and the love of my life.”

The Camutos are partners in every sense of the word – starting the Camuto Group in 2001, marrying two years later – and that includes in their trio of homes. Wooldon Manor, an English Tudor-style manse in Southampton once owned by a Woolworth, and Villa Maria, a neoclassical property in Water Mill that was once the home of the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic, are the relatively understated, elegant Long Island bookends to the over-the-top ornamentation that is Chateau Ridge in Greenwich, the primary residence.

“Chateau Ridge… will have you believing that you stepped back in time to the Loire Valley in seventeenth-century France,” Hilfiger writes.

And then some.  Built between 1924 and ’27 on a hill in Greenwich’s backcountry, Chateau Ridge underwent a five-year renovation when Vince brought the property in the 1980s that echoes the Renaissance through 19th centuries, with furnishings, wall hangings, frescoes, sculpture and gardens that pay homage in particular to Catherine de’ Medici and Louis XIV. It ushers in a new gilded age.

And yet for Vince and Louise, it remains their home, a place where their children and grandson (Robert’s child, Dantino) can gather.

“Shoe love is true love,” Vince writes. But family, he says, is his greatest achievement.

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