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FASHION : Sam & Libby: Quite a Pair

November 09, 1990|CINDY LaFAVRE YORKS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Yorks, a free-lance writer, contributes regularly to The Times' fashion pages.

SAN CARLOS, Calif. — You've seen them in magazine ads. He reclines on a black leather couch, dressed in a striped shirt. She perches by his side, leaning over him in an oversize sweater and comfy sweat pants. His right hand caresses her trim upper thigh. A wash of natural light illuminates his gleaming white teeth.

There's an obsession here--but it isn't Calvin Klein's. It is Sam Edelman's for Libby Edelman, and Libby's for Sam. The husband-and-wife business team has created a sexy corporate image that, hard as it may be for cynics to believe, seems to reflect reality.

Besides being the "perfect" couple, they are the founders and owners of Sam & Libby, a $51-million footwear business just 3 years old. Their faces are plastered across double-page ads in fashion magazines promoting their product, though nary a shoe is pictured. This has some people wondering: Who is that couple?

Ask the women and children of America who wear 3 million pairs of bow-adorned ballet flats, a mainstay of the collections. Those customers know Sam & Libby as a label that provides comfortable, under-$50 styles in stores such as Robinson's nationwide.

(The girls' shoes sell for $20 to $34 at children's specialty stores such as Bernans in South Coast Plaza. Designs for little boys are scheduled to debut in a few months.)

Unlike many designers who raise prices as the cachet of their label catches on, the Edelmans have lowered theirs. Men's styles, launched in August, were priced $50 to $70 but now sell for less than $50.

"We're all about affordable fashion; people don't want to spend a week's salary for the clothing on their backs or the shoes on their feet," says Sam, 38, the financial strongman of the company. His impish grin and expressive brows are quick to charm, but business colleagues soon find out he watches the bottom line.

The effort to keep prices down keeps loyalty high. About 75 letters per week arrive in the company's Bay Area offices. Many compliment the comfortable fit and low prices of the shoes. Libby maintains she answers every letter personally, a task she completes in flight on business trips.

Libby, 37, is a striking blonde with a natural, winning smile and an easy laugh. As head of the company's six-person design team, with offices in Italy and France, she is constantly on the lookout for inspiration. The weathered pink structures of a seawall in Panama influenced her spring color palette. Closer to home, the contrasting trim on historic San Francisco buildings prompted her to add piping to a few designs.

Sam handles 15-hour days--overseeing corporate business and maintaining contact with production offices in Brazil--so Libby can spend more time with their children. On a recent morning, Libby was up at 6 a.m. to jog. Later, she quizzed Jesse, 7, for a spelling test. Daughter Callie, 4, and Max, 1, watched as she dried her hair, dressed, climbed into her car and headed to the office before taking off on a business trip to St. Louis.

The designer's life isn't all fashion-show glamour and business dinners. She gets down on her knees to fit customers with Sam & Libby shoes, the only kind she wears--except for a pair of equestrian riding boots. (An impromptu inspection of her semi-organized closet verified the claim, and revealed a soft spot for Donna Karan belts.) Although the children stay behind during business trips, they help entertain VIP customers invited to the family home.

Home is a sprawling four-bedroom farmhouse built in 1920. Next to the main house is a guest house and a separate garage, all situated in a wooded setting surrounded by green, rolling hills. Horses bred for jumping (an Edelman pastime) meander about the property, which also includes a swimming pool circled by lounge chairs. Inside, tasteful French-country furnishings are surrounded by dozens of kitschy equestrian paintings.

The couple met 11 years ago in New York when Libby, then an editor for Seventeen magazine, called on Sam at his father's now-defunct shoe company to borrow footwear for a photo shoot. The attraction was immediate, but it took about eight weeks for a serious relationship to develop.

"Thank God for the shoe market," Libby says, recalling the occasion that brought the two together again after their first meeting, "when it really became love."

In 1981, after the couple were married, Libby headed Calvin Klein's public-relations department while Sam worked for Kenneth Cole and El Greco, among other shoe companies. They headed West when San Francisco-based Esprit offered both Sam and Libby a job in its shoe division. Sam served as president, Libby as merchandising manager. The Edelmans left in July, 1987, to start their own business.

Transforming the dream into a reality was no easy project. Though Sam had spent years in the industry, he was unsuccessful in obtaining outside backing.

"I sent out business plans, got short haircuts--but nothing," he recalls, now able to laugh about it.

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