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Steps-Ahead Madison Sets Foot in Newport

September 26, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Footwear News, the bible of the shoe industry, set out to name "the greatest footwear stores on earth" in its July issue, listed among the elite was the Beverly Hills store Madison.

FN liked the store's airy European decor, its mix of European vendors, such as Miu Miu and Costume National, and its knack for picking the next hot shoe designers of the world.

Now Madison has come to Newport Beach, but it remains to be seen whether Orange Countians, like the adventurous shoppers of Los Angeles, want shoes that are one step ahead of mass footwear fashions.

David Assil, owner of Madison, thinks that they do.

He opened his store in Fashion Island because his Beverly Hills store was attracting customers from Newport as well as from Laguna Beach and Irvine.

"The market's wide open," he says. "We're appealing to women not locked into department store lines. They want things that are offbeat. So many women want shoes no one else has."

The 2-month-old Newport store has the same spare interior as its Beverly Hills predecessor. Instead of the usual modular chairs, shoe racks and rounders, there are just a few well-chosen pieces of furniture: Two oversized brown leather couches, a 100-year-old glass display case, a red velvet sofa, a massive gold-framed mirror.

Assil's wife, Bridget, the store's primary buyer, found the furnishings at antique shops, private homes and swap meets.

"We wanted to make people feel they're in Europe," David Assil says.

Shoes are neatly displayed on glass shelves supported by wrought-iron brackets or arranged in built-in white cubbyholes like so many sculptures. Madison carries mostly women's shoes from European vendors such as Robert Clergerie, Ann Demeulemeester and Dolce & Gabbana.

"We like to have things before everyone else, before the Neiman Marcuses of the world start carrying them," David Assil says.

Madison's forward approach to footwear has made it a store where exclusive, hard-to-get lines want to be featured.

"We don't just sell our shoes at any old location. It has to reflect the image of the company," says Marco Rimini, representative for Costume National in Italy. "We like Madison because they are very cool people, and they're terrific at picking up the right styling. They have good taste."

David Assil credits Bridget for accurately forecasting the direction of footwear. Bridget Assil says her fashion know-how is "in the blood." She began picking out clothes for her mother at age 12. Before Madison, she went on buying trips to Europe and dressed her clients.

"I don't just look at shoes. I look at clothing, hair and makeup to determine exactly what's happening. That's helped me," Bridget Assil says.

This fall and spring, for instance, pant legs are fuller while silhouettes are lean and simple. That calls for a shoe of substance--chunky-heeled loafers or platforms with ankle straps. "Otherwise, the shoe just vanishes," she says.

For fall she has chosen heavier shoes with platforms, squared toes, heavy soles and ankle straps. Among her picks: Dolce & Gabbana's black and white pinto-print faux fur pump with the square toe and chunky heel ($425), a black mock croc loafer with a flattened silhouette and squared-off toe by Clergerie ($245), and a high-heeled tailored loafer in black leather with a thin buckled strap and curved heel by Demeulemeester ($470).

"We try to get silhouettes that will last, but with a little bit of a twist that will make the woman feel different," David Assil says.

Not all of the lines are high-end. Converse, Hush Puppies and Candie's go toe-to-toe with Dolce & Gabbana.

"People ask us, 'Why do you carry Hush Puppies?' We say they're important for fashion.' It gives the store energy."

David Assil predicts a big revival for Dr. Scholl's slip-on sandals with the sculpted wooden bottoms and buckled leather strap ($35) that everyone clomped around in during the '70s.

Madison's shoes for men also veer to nontraditional styles, such as the black leather loafers with the thick rubber sole from Patrick Cox ($225). Watching businessmen parade past his store on their lunch hour, Assil admits it will take time to convert men to the heftier styles.

"Ninety-nine percent of men are into their tasseled loafers," he says.

Assil is hoping that comfort, and the fact that the chunkier shoes look better with the heavier silhouettes being shown by Armani and other designers, will win them over.

The Assils travel frequently to Europe to seek new, and often little-known, lines and designers. Madison carried shoes by Miu Miu three years ago; the line sold slowly at first, but now it's hot, Bridget Assil says.

For winter, she predicts, women will wear open-toed sandals with opaque tights. Boots, from ankle- to knee-high, will also balance the lean clothing.

"Boots can be worn with a short skirt or a long skirt that buttons up the front. It's giving the '70s look a '90s feel."

David Assil, who buys the men's shoes, has been selling shoes since high school and opened his first store on Melrose in 1989 before moving to the Beverly Hills site seven years ago.

The Assils hope to eventually expand their stores and their Madison shoe line (they offer some of their own designs, which helps them bring styles into their stores faster). Meanwhile, they'll try to hang on to their lead in the footwear world.

"We might be a season or two early," says David Assil, "but we want our clients to know we had it before anyone else."

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