Chinese Laundry: From Small Family Business to Footwear Empire

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If you’ve ever shopped in a major department store, chances are you’ve seen a stylish array of Chinese Laundry shoes displayed in the footwear section.

The LA-based brand has become a household name across America and much of the world thanks to its on-trend and affordable designs.

Miss USA 2012 Nana Meriwether attends an autograph signing at the Chinese Laundry store at the Fashion Show mallMiss USA 2012 Nana Meriwether attends an autograph signing at the Chinese Laundry store at the Fashion Show mall on June 8, 2013, in Las Vegas, Nevada (Credit: INFphoto)

It’s hard to believe that this footwear giant, currently sold in every major American city and across 30 countries globally, is just a humble family business at its core.

Find out how Chinese Laundry grew into an international footwear empire below!

Family Business Done Right

Chinese Laundry has been a family business since its inception in 1971.

The company was founded by couple Bob and Carol Goldman after establishing careers in the fashion wholesale and interior design industries, respectively.

Bob had learned a lot about profitability after working with major department store buyers for years and was ready to make his mark on the industry.

Chinese Laundry's popular Rhonda dress slide featuring a golden detailed heelChinese Laundry’s popular Rhonda dress slide featuring a golden detailed heel (Credit: Chinese Laundry)

He affectionately named the company Cels, an acronym for his wife and children’s names: Carol, Elise, Lauren, and Stewart.

The company originally sold retail fixtures, a combination of Bob and Carol’s areas of expertise. A supply chain disruption in 1973 made them switch their focus to footwear.

They started out as private-label manufacturers for existing brands and were soon working with industry leaders such as Esprit and Sam Edelman.

Cels launched their in-house label, Chinese Laundry, in 1981 after Bob and Carol noticed an increasing demand for on-trend shoes.

Using their industry know-how, Bob and Carol quickly grew Chinese Laundry into one of the nation’s most popular shoe brands throughout the 80s and 90s.

Chinese Laundry perches a barely-there silhouette of slender straps atop a trend-right block heel on the gorgeous Yanna dress sandalsChinese Laundry perches a barely-there silhouette of slender straps atop a trend-right block heel on the gorgeous Yanna dress sandals (Credit: Chinese Laundry)

Bob took the lead as CEO, while Carol worked as head of marketing until suffering a stroke in 1997.

Chinese Laundry remains a family business to this day. Bob is still the CEO, while his son Stewart is the COO, and his daughter Lauren is a design executive.

The most endearing part of this family business is that the Goldman kids genuinely want to continue their parents’ legacy.

Lauren has shared that her dad had always encouraged her to explore other career paths, but her love of fashion and footwear turned her to the family business.

Stewart has been visiting the offices and warehouses since he was about 8 years old, and officially joined the company as an assistant sales representative at 15.

It remains to be seen if a third-generation will join the company, but the Goldmans’ track record is looking solid so far.

Finding Success In Flexibility

The Goldmans attribute their success to their ability to adapt to an ever-changing market.

Bob and his family have always happily accepted the need for constant evolution.

Bob believes that the fashion industry undergoes a wave of change about every 7 years, and Chinese Laundry has gone along with the current every time.

The Goldmans can be considered early adopters of several sales and marketing trends.

While many brands believed that online shopping would just be a fad, the Goldmans were eager to jump on board the e-commerce bandwagon with the launch of their online store in 2010.

They were also pioneers of influencer marketing, thanks to their successful collaborations with reality TV star Kristin Cavallari in the early 2010s.

Actress Kristin Cavallari in a red dress at the Chinese Laundry by Kristin Cavallari Launch PartyActress Kristin Cavallari in a red dress at the Chinese Laundry by Kristin Cavallari Launch Party on December 4, 2012, in New York City (Credit: Dara Kushner / INFphoto)

Kristin was appointed the label’s web ambassador in 2011, a role that saw her share personal styling tips and favorite products on the company’s blog and social media accounts.

She launched her first capsule collection in 2012, which garnered hype from the star’s fans and fashion magazines alike.

Cavallari went on to create collections until 2015 and is still commonly associated with the brand.

Chinese Laundry have always been flexible in all aspects of their business, from sales and marketing to manufacturing.

Snake-print Chinese Laundry boots styled with white pantsSnake-print Chinese Laundry boots styled with white pants (Credit: Chinese Laundry)

Bob values efficiency and was one of the first major shoe brands to outsource to China in the 80s.

Once the covid-19 pandemic hit, Bob was quick to identify opportunities that would help Chinese Laundry endure the challenging landscape.

He increased his focus on e-commerce, added extra hygiene measures to the shoes themselves, and accommodated employees with work-from-home opportunities.

Two years on, Chinese Laundry has maintained its position at the forefront of the mid-range footwear market.

Few brands have been able to maintain their relevance as well as Chinese Laundry over the years, but some of their main competitors include Bob’s former mentor Sam Edelman, Steve Madden, and Dolce Vita.

However, Chinese Laundry’s accessible price points often make them more popular than their competitors.

The Chinese Laundry Brand Family

Chinese Laundry has a diverse product range spread over four brands. Each label caters to a specific demographic and carries a different price point, allowing Chinese Laundry to be accessible to a wide client base.

Here are the four brands under the Chinese Laundry umbrella:

1. Chinese Laundry. The brand’s signature label was originally launched in 1981. It remains true to its vision of creating trendy and affordable shoes for fashion-forward customers.

2. CL by Laundry. The company’s second brand was launched in 2003 to cater to a slightly more mature customer base. CL by Laundry is still on-trend and affordable but features a larger range of office-appropriate shoes that are designed to transition from work to weekend.

3. Dirty Laundry. Created by Lauren Goldman in 2008, Dirty Laundry is Chinese Laundry’s younger, edgier sister brand.

Dirty Laundry is Chinese Laundry's most affordable brandDirty Laundry is Chinese Laundry’s most affordable brand

The range features rocker-chic designs with a vintage flair. Dirty Laundry is the most affordable brand in the Chinese Laundry family.

4. 42 GOLD. Launched in 2019, 42 GOLD is Chinese Laundry’s premium label. Described as ‘aspirational yet attainable’, 42 GOLD features designer-inspired styles at a slightly higher price point than the other Chinese Laundry brands.

Where to Buy Chinese Laundry

Chinese Laundry footwear can be purchased at many major department stores, online retailers, or through their own website.

Here are a few places where you can shop Chinese Laundry:

1. Amazon

2. Nordstrom

3. Zappos

4. Chinese Laundry

5. Nordstrom Rack

6. Macy’s

With groundbreaking styles season after season, the privately held Los Angeles-based footwear company lives at the forefront of fashion footwear for young women.

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