Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
THEY were the girls with the golden shoes.
Kari Sigerson and Miranda Morrison couldn’t take a wrong step in their climb from Fashion Institute of Technology students to fashion-world darlings. Celebrities like Cameron Diaz were photographed in their NoLIta shop. Sarah Jessica Parker wore their white ankle boots in the first “Sex and the City” movie. Their gladiator sandals were so popular that in 2010 Vogue.com declared that “every summer is the season of the Sigerson Morrison sandal.”
So, why was Ms. Sigerson, the lanky blond half of the design duo, sitting at a cafe near South Street Seaport on a recent afternoon with little to do but wait for her lawyers to call? “It’s like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ” she said, sipping coffee in jeans and Balenciaga flats. “I went into Barneys, and I didn’t even recognize them.”
She was referring, surprisingly enough, to her namesake shoe label. Just over a year ago, she and Ms. Morrison were fired from the company they had created, and now they find themselves watching from the sidelines as the retooled brand is presented at this week’s New York Shoe Expo without them.
It is a dramatic fall for the partners who, not long ago, seemed to embody every young designer’s dream. After building a cult shoe label from scratch, they found a big backer, Marc Fisher, the scion of the 9 West discount-shoe fortune, who they thought could take them to the stratosphere. But instead of turning Sigerson Morrison into the next Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo, the deal went sour. Very sour.
Not only have the women lost their company and even the right to use their names, but they have also been sued for almost $ 2 million by their former angel. Theirs is a story that may dissuade other young designers from seeking financial saviors.
“It is definitely a cautionary tale,” said Valerie Steele, the fashion historian and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “You kind of think: ‘Gosh, didn’t you have a better lawyer? How did you sign that?’ Not just in this specific case, but in general. The problem is that most designers are creative types. They don’t have any training in finance.”
“But fashion is not only a creative field,” she added, “it’s also a business.”
THE young shoe designers met in 1987 in the accessories-design program at F.I.T. Ms. Sigerson was the Midwestern chick who had hung out in the high school parking lot in her Kork-Ease sandals. Ms. Morrison was the cultured Englishwoman with a mop of curls who had studied art at Oxford and had run a gallery in London. Yet they connected right away.
They shared a studio and a philosophy and noticed “the void of shoes designed by women for women,” as Ms. Morrison put it.
After graduation, while making shoes for private clients and runway shows, they began developing their own line. “We wanted to do an American version of European designer shoes,” Ms. Sigerson said. “Simple, clean and modern.”
“Not like shoes for Barbie,” she added pointedly, “but for real women to wear.”
The Sigerson Morrison line was introduced in 1991, with Bergdorf Goodman among the first buyers. Early orders were mostly for black and brown, but the designers had other ideas. “Nobody was doing crazy-colored shoes,” Ms. Sigerson said. “We were like, ‘How about orange, pink, metallics?’ ”
They decided they needed a showcase of their own.
In 1994, with seed money collected from family and friends (they sold 10 shares for $ 5,000 each), the women rented a 300-square-foot store on Mott Street for $ 1,200 a month. They were unprepared for what happened next.
“It became a destination,” Ms. Morrison said.
Ms. Sigerson said: “I’ll never forget coming up the stairs. And I was like” — she pantomimed reeling backward — “it was mobbed: Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista!”
Michael Tatro was a longtime Sigerson Morrison salesman. “It was like being a rock star,” he said. “Sometimes I would have to just lock the door. And the phone would be ringing, and there would be pounding on the windows. When we’d start the sales, I could only let a few in at a time, because it was a line down the street.”
Julia Roberts once knocked on the door, alone, with no entourage. “She asked me what my favorite ones were,” Mr. Tatro said. “And she bought those.”
Ms. Sigerson and Ms. Morrison won the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America award for accessory design in 1996, anointing their arrival in the fashion industry.
“Their shoes were everywhere,” said Maria Cornejo, who opened her own shop on Mott Street in 1998. “They were so identifiable.”
A second Sigerson Morrison store opened around the corner on Prince Street in 1999. “Charlize Theron would buy 20 pairs at a time with her mum,” Ms. Morrison recalled.