In the morning of January 21, 2002, a Monday, Laura Southwick, a 33-year-old shoe designer for Kenneth Cole Productions, was in her room at the Haiyatt Garden Hotel in Dongguan, China, getting ready to go to work. A stylish, lithe brunette with adventurous taste and sharp, retro bangs, Laura was one of the two women’s-shoe designers for the company’s younger, hipper Reaction line, and as such often traveled to Dongguan, a sprawling industrial town between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.
Around 11:30 a.m., she got acall from her boyfriend, Chad Pearson, who worked for an architecture firm in New York and whom she had dated for almost four years. It was still Sunday night in New York, and Chad was calling from the Chelsea loft they’d renovated together. When Laura traveled, they spoke every day, despite the thirteen-hour time difference.
“I’m going to work really late—I have to call you back,” she said breathlessly.
“Make sure you call me. Please, please, please call me,” Chad said. “See you Friday. I love you.”
Laura had been in Dongguan for two weeks and had five more days to go, overseeing production of the fall 2002 collection. For a mass-market shoe designer, or “line builder,” this was standard procedure; Laura had made dozens of similar trips, four in the past year—sometimes, as in this case—alone.
This one, however, was to be different.
Exhausted from commuting between continents and from the endless bouts of jet lag, she had made up her mind to quit her job. She had even started considering other prospects, including a position with Christian Dior in Paris, and had drafted a letter of resignation that she brought with her to Dongguan. “I’m leaving on Friday and this is it, this is the last time,” she e-mailed a close friend later that Monday.
That was the last anyone back home ever heard from her. Two days later, at around 6 a.m., she was found dead in her room at the Chang-An Hospital in Dongguan. She had been admitted the evening before with what appeared to be the flu. Neither Kenneth Cole Productions nor her family was notified that she was ill. She didn’t travel with an international cell phone—as her family agonized over later. Records show that she had been given an EKG; she was treated for dehydration and given Valium for anxiety. After spending the night in a semi-delirious state, she died alone.
The autopsy report would blame Laura’s death on viral myocarditis, an infection that can develop, in rare cases, into heart failure, though with proper diagnosis and the right treatment, it can be cured. In Laura’s case, however, the EKG apparently was not seen by a doctor until after her death.
Laura never seemed frightened by traveling and working abroad. An independent, outgoing woman with a knack for befriending strangers, she resented the trips to China only because of their impact on her life at home. She took copious travel notes, describing the rice paddies she saw from her hotel windows, the American businessman returning to the hotel with a hooker, a mountain slowly disappearing from view in Dongguan as it was harvested for rock to build factories and hotels. Yet it’s hard not to see as prophetic—as her boyfriend Chad did when he saw it—the entry Laura had made on October 9, 2001, in the diary they shared. “Honestly I’m not sure I’m any safer traveling than sitting in New York City,” she wrote, reflecting on the events of 9/11. “I know if something does happen, I can move more easily and get to my family. That is what I am afraid of. If I die I want to be with my family.”
But the ability to manage production in remote outposts was critical to success in her chosen field. And it was one of the things that had prompted Kenneth Cole Productions to hire her, a company spokesperson says. “Laura was a very knowledgeable and talented line builder,” the spokesperson told New York. “She had valuable international experience and expertise, particularly in China.”
Howard Davis, a veteran shoe designer and member of the faculty of Parsons School of Design, can still remember the days when New York supported 36 shoe factories. Today, because the industry follows the path of inexpensive labor, there is virtually no shoe production in New York, which explains why so few independent shoe stores dot the streets of Nolita at a time when independent clothing boutiques have become ubiquitous.
To fill the manufacturing void, cities like Novo Hamburgo in Brazil and Dongguan in China sprouted virtually out of nowhere in recent years. Consumer demand for shoes has skyrocketed, too. Peter Mangione, president of the Washington, D.C.–based Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, estimates that shoe sales have grown 25 percent over the past two decades. Designers push more and more shoes out to consumers, and more often; there can be as many as six “seasons” in the industry each year.
Guangdong Province, where Laura worked, produced some 3 billion pairs of shoes in 2001—a third of the world total. Factory towns have mushroomed all over the area, and the fishing villages along the Pearl River delta now bristle with mini-malls, second-rate business hotels, and American fast-food joints among the rice paddies, bamboo scaffoldings, and bicycle rickshaws. It’s a decidedly unfashionable setting.
“The flights are incredibly long; you arrive at 6 a.m. and get to the hotel, shower, get to work by 9 a.m.,” says the head of production for an American denim company who didn’t wish to be named. “You work until midnight most nights, and a lot of it is sitting in a dirty factory with poor lighting, and you question the water, and you don’t want to go to the bathroom there.”
When Laura started out as a shoe designer, she probably couldn’t have placed Dongguan on a map. After graduating from Chicago’s Columbia College, she had worked in interior design and then gone into publishing, editing high-school textbooks at Houghton Mifflin. Shoe design was her third career. Still, her father, Bill, a Presbyterian minister, and her mother, Judy, remember that Laura, growing up outside Chicago, scoured local flea markets for vintage and rare shoes, belts, and clothes. When former boyfriend Tommy Blacha visited her apartment for the first time, he was stunned to find an extra bedroom turned into a closet.
“I called her the hamster,” Tommy says. “She’d have piles and piles of clothes. I put up shelves, and they fell down because there was so much stuff. She’d look at it and giggle. She was naturally adorable and funny.”
The second child (and first daughter) of service-oriented, liberal-minded parents, Laura inherited their passion for words and books. When she moved to New York in 1995 with Tommy, who’d landed a job as a writer on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, she set up shop as a freelance editor. Their circle of friends included a lot of comedians and writers, people like Andy Richter and his wife, Sarah, writer David Rakoff, and comedian Amy Sedaris. At her memorial service in New York, Conan O’Brien told Bill Southwick that his daughter could walk into a room packed with millions of dollars of comedy talent and crack them all up.
“Laura really held her own against all these comedy writers and comedians,” O’Brien told New York, “and she had an artistic soul.” Funny and ballsy are some of the adjectives most frequently used to describe her. Tommy says she had a habit of speaking her mind, adding, “But she wasn’t sinister. She was a sincere, mischievous person, and she was generous to a fault.”