Footwear executive George Malkemus, who built Manolo Blahnik into a powerhouse brand in the U.S. and later partnered with Sarah Jessica Parker on her SJP label, has died after a long cancer battle. He was 67.
Representatives from Arethusa Farm revealed Malkemus’ death on Friday on social media. (The executive owned the farm with his partner Tony Yurgaitis.)
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“It is with a heavy heart that we tell you our beloved George Malkemus passed away yesterday evening at his home in New York City after a long battle with cancer,” Arethusa said in posts on Facebook and Instagram. “Our George was very private — preferring not to trouble anyone with his health concerns.”
Parker remembered George Malkemus as her “dearest partner” and “elegant gentleman” in an Instagram post.
“I cannot summon the words for a fitting tribute. He deserves prose I don’t yet have. I have to gather my thoughts,” she wrote. “Today I can only say I’m utterly heartbroken. RIP dearest partner, elegant gentleman George.”
Parker posted her Instagram message alongside a photo of a cuff engraved with “WWGM3D?’ “Til we meet again, I will spend the rest of my days asking, ‘What would GM3 do?’ I am going to miss you so ‘F’in’ much.”
Josh Schulman chief executive officer of Michael Kors who headed Bergdorf Goodman from 2012 to 2017, said, “George was one of a kind. He was a consummate gentleman whose warmth and charm belied a shrewd tenacity and fierce competitive spirit. While at Jimmy Choo, it was great fun to compete against George as he set the bar high. And while I was at Bergdorf Goodman, I loved getting to know him better as a business partner and friend.
“He could always see one step ahead. He was at the forefront of transforming the luxury shoe market from being dominated by conservative factory-based brands to one based on design and personality. Dominating the New York runways before ready-to-wear brands made their own shoes was a precursor to today’s era of collaborations. His close relationships with wholesale customers and adoring clients who would flock to trunk shows defined customer centricity well before an algorithm. And he was a pioneer in how to harness the power of celebrity.”
For three decades, Malkemus and Blahnik were one of the best-known duos in the luxury footwear business.
Malkemus bought the North and South American rights to the designer’s name in 1982, after a brief meeting when the two spoke about their love for — and ownership of — Scottish terriers. “Neither of us were greedy. We wanted to do this at our pace and to learn the ropes as we went along. That way, the mistakes we’d make would be small mistakes rather than large ones, and that’s the philosophy we’ve always kept,” Malkemus said in 2009, when he was inducted into the FN Hall of Fame.
Before he met Blahnik, the ever-charming Malkemus thought he wanted to be a doctor, but soon decided to pursue writing. So he left his home in San Antonio, Tex., and eventually landed a job as copy chief at Bergdorf Goodman in New York.
By day, he penned prose about shoes for the department store. At night, Malkemus hit nightlife haunts like Studio 54, where he befriended designers Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein — contacts that would prove invaluable years later.
After partnering with Blahnik, the young executive approached the fashion designers and asked if they would use Manolo Blahnik shoes for their runway collections. They did.
“Eventually, it became almost every name on Seventh Avenue, from Bill Blass to Oscar de la Renta to Carolina Herrera,” said Malkemus.
That’s when Neiman Marcus called. The department store bought the two shoes Blahnik designed for Calvin Klein, ordering just 30 pairs for its Beverly Hills store and another 30 for its San Francisco door.
Under Malkemus’ leadership, Manolo Blahnik shoes became a must-have for every American retailer.
“George is first and foremost a merchant,” said Karen Katz, in 2009, when she was president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Stores. “He approaches each new season with that perspective, knowing what the customer is looking for, what needs have gone unfulfilled, what worked in prior seasons. He works with Manolo Blahnik to design a terrific assortment of shoes for our customer.”
“I met him around 1987,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, founder of the former specialty store Jeffrey. “I had just been made ladies shoe buyer at Barneys, and Bonnie Pressman told me we were going to have lunch with George. That was a very big deal for a new shoe buyer. Manolo Blahnik was still coming into its own, but it was our most important brand at Barneys already. George was a role model for me right away. He was a fantastic businessman, he had amazing taste, and he was living out and proud as a gay man, which meant the world to me because I was still struggling with all of that. George became one of my heroes.
“In 1990, when I left Barneys to open my store in Atlanta, it was paramount I carry Manolo Blahnik. I knew the store wouldn’t be valid if we didn’t — and that was because of George. For a lot of people in the U.S., George really was the Manolo Blahnik brand.
“George knew everything. He taught me so much, even things like who to call for flowers. I learned so much from him. I was just so lucky.”
Julee Butler, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for ladies shoes at Neiman’s, said, “George was an incredible business partner and friend. Those of us who were privileged to work with him recognized how truly special of a man he was. His impeccable taste, elegance, love for the product, and most importantly the deep-rooted relationships he nurtured have made him a legacy in the industry. Some of my fondest memories were our market appointments with George, his team and Neiman Marcus merchants, where we all were sitting on the floor in the showroom for hours with hundreds of shoes, materials, and color swatch cards, creating beautiful exclusive products. Looking back, those were such fun, magical and treasured times with our beloved George.”
Ken Downing, the former fashion director at Neiman’s who is now chief creative officer at American Dream, said of Malkemus: “Gregarious and charismatic, George was a big personality that filled a room with great stories and laughter. Showroom appointments were always more than writing orders with George. I’m heartbroken this dear, wonderful man has left us. But what a legacy he leaves behind: George redefined the designer shoe market, bursting onto the scene with Manolo Blahnik and building a monumental business that would become the ultimate ‘it shoe’ of all time. George was as passionate about his beloved Arethusa Farms as he was about the shoe empire he created with Manolo, and later with Sarah Jessica Parker. Our industry has lost a legend, a visionary and a true icon.”
Anne Egan, Nordstrom’s vice president and DMM of designer women’s nonapparel, said, “The news of George Malkemus’ passing was heart-wrenching for all of us at Nordstrom that had the pleasure of working with him. George was more than a partner in our business, he was a friend. George was elegant and interesting. He was curious and brilliant — and I often wondered if he could look into the future. George was kind. I treasured so many of our conversations where we talked about more than just shoes — always wanting an update on my family, discussing politics, new developments at the farm, and his wonderful Tony.
“George was a real partner in our business,” she added. “We trusted George — and he trusted us. We enjoyed growing the Manolo business and launching SJP together. It was always a bit magical when at the conclusion of our appointments, George would review our final selection. He was the authority, and we listened — knowing he not only cared about our business, but that he understood what women would best respond to. I learned so much from George — and I always appreciated his honesty and counsel. The conversations that would follow his review of our assortment allowed a glimpse into his brilliant mind. George was a beautiful human being and we will miss him very much.
In 2013, Malkemus teamed up with Sarah Jessica Parker to launch SJP by Sarah Jessica Parker.
“I met with lots of interesting and kind and lovely potential partners, but at night when I was lying in my bed thinking about this opportunity and what it meant to me, those partnerships didn’t seem right for me,” Parker told WWD’s sister publication FN at the time. “I realized the one person I’d want to work with, in an ideal world, was George.…But I was hesitant because I knew how obligated he was,” she admitted. “I didn’t think of him as a massive shoe producer. He doesn’t run a business like a lot of other men and women in the shoe industry.”
Malkemus worked alongside Parker until his death. He ended his partnership with Blahnik in 2019.
“George was a bright light not only personally, but also professionally,” said Tracy Margolies, chief merchandising officer of Saks. “He was a true gentleman who cared deeply about people and their families. He welcomed me into the footwear world early in my career and we spent hours on the floor together reviewing buys and getting to know each other. He was a kind-hearted soul and a true friend, not just a business partner. He will be deeply missed.”