Joe Ouaknine, co-founder of Titan Industries, is the Simon Cowell of fashion footwear. He can identify a brand with global potential. He can spot a celebrity with the style and tenacity necessary to build a “celebrity shoe line” into an edgy and compelling brand with a look all its own.
Through Titan, Ouaknine has helped revive labels like Charles Jourdan, grow the footwear business of Badgley Mischka—which, as of March 2016, Titan co-owns—and introduced the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani and Zendaya to the shoe scene.
On the surface level, it may seem like Ouaknine, who began his career as a shoe salesman in the ’70s, and Zendaya, the 19-year-old actress, singer and social media influencer whose career began with Disney, have little in common. However, if you dig a little deeper, they both share a passion and dedication for their careers in footwear.
VAMP: Was there a moment when you knew that you would be involved in footwear for the long haul?
Ouaknine: Let me tell you how I knew it. While attending college in Montreal, I got this job at the Bata flagship store. I was only working Thursdays and Fridays 6 to 9 p.m. and Saturdays all day. My first sale was to a lady that came with her infant looking for a pair of special occasion shoes. When I took her to the cashier, she gave me a brand new $2 bill as a tip. I went back to the stockroom and asked my co-workers, ‘Wow. I didn’t know we get tips here. How much do we make approximately per day?’ The answer was we never get tips selling shoes. I knew then this was a sign. I never got another tip from a customer again. That was back in 1974.
VAMP: Are up-and-coming designers today as passionate about the business as they were when you started?
Ouaknine: I find today’s designers as passionate as ever. Times are different and certainly more challenging than ever. Things are a lot quicker and if you close your eyes for more than an instant, you’re behind the game. It’s a pressured passion but judging by all the designers we employ, the passion is definitely there.
VAMP: What are some important qualities to have in order to succeed in the footwear industry?
Ouaknine: I can answer instantly without thinking too much. Ethics, honesty and integrity. It’s an industry that requires that—or you are a nomad and only pass through.
VAMP: Badgley Mischka has been a long-standing partner for Titan and the company recently co-purchased the trademark from Iconix. Why do you believe in the brand and its co-founders Mark Badgley and James Mischka?
Ouaknine: Having been the Badgley Mischka licensee for over 10 years, I know this brand. Founders Mark and James—I know even better. Talented, charming and as polite as could be, they have an envious reputation and they are hard workers. Never do it without a smile. Should I say more?
VAMP: You’ve worked with enough celebrities to know who has the style and dedication needed to produce a successful footwear line. What does the newest famous member of the Titan family, Zendaya, have that stands out?
Ouaknine: Since the day I met Zendaya about 18 months ago, a lot of things have changed. She had four million followers on Instagram then. Today, she has almost 30 million. She was so mature for her age at 17 then. Now at 19, her maturity has grown ten times over. She cares about her career. Her success has not started yet. Just wait another year or two. She is a superstar.
VAMP: There’s so much more that is required to build a brand now—from faster seasons to social media. How has it affected creativity in footwear design?
Ouaknine: Social media and all the texting and cameras on all the phones have made the fashion industry a lightning-fast business. It has helped, in the fact shoes have never looked better in the history of the world. I find today’s fashion as sharp as ever, and it is due in part to the phones we use. A beautiful shoe goes viral instantly and other interpretations of that particular shoe hit the market a few weeks later. [Social media] gives the footwear industry a much bigger presence than ever before.
VAMP: In terms of business strategy, are there other industries you look to for inspiration or guidance?
Ouaknine: I always like companies that focus on one thing only. FedEx was the first one. In-N-Out Burger is another one. They only do burgers. No chicken, no hot dogs, no chili and the smallest menu you can imagine.
VAMP: How have you remained passionate about footwear?
Ouaknine: It had to do with the kind of ride I had. I was the first salesperson with Charles David in the U.S. Then Guess Inc. and I was on top of the world. The product was unique and selling like hot cakes. It opened up so many doors for me. I made some lifelong friends and it allowed me to go my own way and create Titan.