But Tommy also says Laura was frustrated and wanted to find a more fulfilling job. It took a toll on their relationship. “She had a lot of energy that needed to go somewhere,” he says. Walking home one day, Laura noticed a flyer for a design course at Parsons. She enrolled in “Shoe Design Through the Science of Shoe Making,” and was soon spreading out her drawings all over the apartment. Within weeks she had bench-made her first shoe, and after finishing the course, which Howard Davis taught, she started looking for work. The high-end market, which might have been more suited to Laura’s taste, was difficult to penetrate, and she broke into the business with a series of small jobs at places like Doctor Scholl’s.
With Davis’s help, Laura eventually went to work for Nine West, commuting to White Plains. It was around this time, in April 1998—she and Tommy had split up—that a shoe-designer friend, John McGrath, introduced her to Chad. He had never met anyone that funny, or who teased him so much and got away with it. “She could disarm and insult anyone and keep them laughing,” Chad says. “And she was always up for anything. She was kind of a wild child—she had that minister’s-daughter’s streak running through her.”
After their first date, the two never spent a night apart, except when Laura was traveling. In January 2001, they moved into a raw space in the West Twenties and converted it into a handsome loft. Laura would cook for friends, often wearing a gingham apron her mother had given her. She’d stay up after dinner and sketch for two or three hours, often on the floor, a glass of red wine at her side. She’d spend $70 at the newsstand on foreign magazines, ripping out pages for trend ideas. She would stuff them into little “inspiration kits,” along with swatches of materials and sketches, which would help her come up with designs. She planned the merchandising of the shoes, too, as well as presentations for buyers. She spent hours talking shoes with John. Chad remembers that they would snatch a rubber band off a package and wonder if they could use it as a strap, or ponder beer cozies as inspiration for a sandal line.
Franco Ciciola, a colleague at Nine West and later her boss at Kenneth Cole, remembers her designs as very avant-garde—“I always had to tone her down,” he says—but adds that she did her research well and came up with original ideas. By the end of 1998, she was on an intense traveling schedule, jetting to the West Coast or Europe for inspirational shopping trips and to Asia for production.
“She was always up for anything,” says Chad. “She was kind of a wild child—she had that minister’s daughter streak running through her.”
At first, she enjoyed the trips. She would write letters home describing the all-night flea market in Taipei, the massages she got on full-moon nights, and the food she bought from stands in the streets. One scene she never tired of watching in Dongguan was the crowds during the changing of the shifts, when an ocean of blue windbreakers would be going to work at the factory and a sea of orange windbreakers from another factory would head back to the dorms.
When Laura joined Kenneth Cole, in early 2000, the company was in full expansion mode. In 1999, the business had grossed an estimated $300 million; its politically minded ad campaigns had defined the brand and made it instantly recognizable, even if the shoes themselves were not.
She started spending even more of her life in the nondescript hotel rooms of Dongguan and the sample rooms of factories, examining prototypes, making sure they corresponded to the original designs. It’s a way of life for American line builders—in 2001, 97 percent of the footwear sold in the United States was manufactured abroad, at least 80 percent of it in China.
Gwen Pehrson, a co-worker on the women’s Reaction line who recently left Kenneth Cole Productions, says that for each shoe season, they’d have to go to China or Brazil maybe two or three times, which might make for as many as ten trips a year. A standard trip would involve flying the roughly thirteen hours to Hong Kong, then taking either a ferry or a shuttle bus, followed by a limousine for the hourlong drive to Dongguan.
When she started working for Kenneth Cole, Laura complained to friends about her new traveling arrangements; there was no one to help carry her cumbersome luggage onto the ferry, as there had been at Nine West, and on her first flight to China, the company sent her coach. She threatened to quit, according to several friends and colleagues—and traveled business-class from then on.
For some time, Laura traveled to both Brazil and China, often with Gwen and other Kenneth Cole employees. But in early 2001, Laura’s boss made a practical decision: Since production in China and Brazil followed the same schedule, Laura and Gwen would divide the territory instead of traveling together. Laura was very unhappy about the change, Chad says. The company spokesperson insists that solo foreign travel was not a company decision: “In those instances when Laura decided to travel alone, it was her choice,” she said. But Franco Ciciola confirmed that the company had split them up; Gwen chose Brazil because the trips to Asia had given her insomnia, while Laura continued going to China.
In the meantime, the Reaction line was performing well in stores, according to Gwen. The company declines to disclose sales numbers from Laura’s tenure, but Gwen estimates that they grew some 20 to 30 percent in the six months after she came onboard. Laura told Chad that sales rose from $13 million when she started to $40 million after two years. At the time, she was earning between $80,000 and $90,000 a year.
It became increasingly difficult for Laura to leave Chad in New York. Like so many New York professionals, she told friends she often felt she was sacrificing her life for the job, and she sometimes joked with others in the industry about all the unmarried female vice-presidents in the shoe business.
“We worried about her being so thin and so stress-heavy on the job,” says her father. “We would tell her it wasn’t worth it. And she’d agree, but she wanted to stay in the industry.”
“We were concerned about her traveling alone,” her mother adds. “It was quite a trek to get there. The process sometimes happened at night, on back roads with drivers who didn’t speak the language. She tried to protect us from some of that.”
In 2001, Laura traveled two weeks in January, one week in February, three weeks in March, two weeks in April, three weeks in May, none in June, three weeks in July, and one in August. That May, she jotted down her thoughts. “After all these years, I sit here wondering where the fuck I am,” she wrote. “I’m in Hong Kong, alone, looking at a complimentary basket of fruit. It’s Mother’s Day and my mother is not even waiting for a gift because she knows I won’t be there. If she’s lucky today she will get a call. It’s not fair.”