Brian Atwood has always had an eye for design. When he was a sophomore at Joliet Catholic High School, he taught himself to sew to make prom dresses for his friends. He would also sit in his bedroom and stare at a framed poster of a Lamborghini, which his mother recalls cost $100 at the mall, a small fortune for a single mom raising three kids.
Last month, Atwood, now 45 and at the helm of a shoe brand sold in 270 stores, bought his first car: a Lamborghini Aventador.
It was a full-circle moment that capped off the best year of his career: His Brian Atwood shoes — a collection he launched in 2001 — are now sold nationwide in stores including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and Intermix, and his label took on additional firepower last year when he partnered with The Jones Group, a global marketer of more than 35 brands. The move broadened his base thanks to the debut of the line’s younger, more accessible “cousin,” B Brian Atwood, which is sold in the same stores that carry his main line, plus scores of additional outposts including Bloomingdale’s. In September he opened his first Brian Atwood store — a mirrored and rock-crystal shrine to his 6-inch platforms — on New York’s Madison Avenue.
“What I really wanted from Jones, besides a great partner who could grow the business to where it needed to be, is operational support,”says Atwood. “My business was viewed as huge, but it was still just a few people running it. And I think that we really needed to amp that up so that we could do what we wanted to do.”
He’s just getting rolling.
There are plans for more stores around the country, along with recently launched brand extensions such as handbags and jewelry. Soon he’d like to launch a fragrance.
Today Atwood divides his time between Milan, where his eponymous collection is based, and New York, where B Brian Atwood is designed, and he lives with his fiancé, Dr. Jake Deutsch. He also regularly visits his Chicago area family (his mother, who now lives in Northwest Indiana, eventually remarried and had another son, Zak Stemer, who is an editorial assistant at Splash).
It’s been more than 20 years since a psychic told him, “You’ll be well known for something to do with feet.” He moved to New York at 19 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology as a fashion design major, and shared his first apartment in Hell’s Kitchen with “Bridesmaids” actress Melissa McCarthy, a friend from his high school days. “I made her move to New York to do stand-up,” he recalls. “I knew she would be a star because she was so funny. But we had no money. For her birthday I gave her a subway map and I was like, ‘Here, you’ve got to learn your way around.’ ” So it was another full-circle moment last year when McCarthy was nominated for an Academy Award, and she wore Brian Atwood shoes that were inscribed with the message: “Exclusively made for my BFF Melissa McCarthy on Oscar night.”
After graduating from FIT, Atwood moved to Milan to pursue a career in modeling. “I figured modeling would be the way I could fly to Europe and meet the designers I wanted to work for,” he says. Almost immediately, he was booked for runway shows for brands including Dolce & Gabbana and Dries Van Noten. In 1996, after modeling for seven years, he hand-delivered his resume to people he knew at Prada, Gucci and Versace. “If I knew the casting guy for the models, that’s who I gave it to,” he says. Atwood’s resume was passed from a friend to Gianni Versace and he was hired, eventually becoming the head designer of accessories for the Italian luxury label.
Back then shoes weren’t considered a major part of the fashion industry. “The accessory business then was pretty much if you had a pink silk dress on, you wanted that shoe dyed to match — it was a different business,” says Atwood. “But it just blew up.”
By the time he launched his own label in 2001, with the blessing of his “Italian family,” the Versaces, Atwood was poised to capitalize on the spike in growth of the shoe business. He debuted the Maniac pump in 2007 — a sky-high covered platform that is a red-carpet staple among celebrities such as Emma Stone, Kate Hudson, Victoria Beckham and Katy Perry — and kept it front and center by reinventing it each season in new colors and fabrications. (His current collection offers the shoe in black silk with gold crystals.) In September 2011 he launched B Brian Atwood, offering the same bold designs at about half of the price: While Brian Atwood shoes start at $600, B Brian Atwoods typically run $300.
And though Atwood is frequently photographed socializing with the celebrities who wear his shoes — Heidi Klum, Kim Kardashian and Rachel Zoe are among the friends who attended his store celebration in September — he’s loyal to the cadre of Chicago women who promoted him long before anyone else.
“It’s my hometown, and the support I get here is amazing,” says Atwood. “When we opened the New York store, all the Chicago women came and shopped. It was very cool.”
His mother says it was her group of friends who boosted his career when he began his own collection 11 years ago, including Peggy Martay (an ardent supporter, Atwood named a shoe after her two seasons ago), Laurie Davis, Stacie McClane Mickelson, Roni Siegel and Lynda Silverman, who are all members of Chicago’s oldest women’s non-profit. “The Service Club women were instrumental in first buying his stuff here in Chicago,” she says.
So when Atwood finally opens a store here, it will be the culmination of not only his childhood dreams, but a wide circle of friends and family who have been cheering on his success every step of the way.
“I was walking down Oak Street the other day,” says Atwood. “There are some beautiful spaces. [I’ll open a store here] within the next three years for sure.”
If history is any indication, once he has it in his mind’s eye, it’s only a matter of time.
Brian Atwood’s early influences and supporters
“I’ve always loved the transformation of women getting ready. My mother was always getting dressed up, always in high heels. I definitely think she had an impact on me.”
“Gianni Versace told me, ‘Don’t forget you’re here to learn, so take it all in and just never compromise what you believe in.’ He wasn’t afraid if people hated [his designs] or if they thought [something] was vulgar. That’s what my mantra has been: Stick with it, and put your own name on it.”
“When I met Rachel Zoe, she was a stylist at Young Miss [YM magazine]. Then we connected in Paris dancing on tables at a Versace Haute Couture thing and never lost touch. Jake and I are spending Christmas in St. Barts with her, [her husband] Rodger [Berman] and their 2-year-old son Skyler.”