In the wake of 9/11, she briefly stopped traveling. But after Thanksgiving, Laura went to Europe with other designers and Kenneth Cole himself to buy samples. A week before Christmas, Chad and Laura threw an ornament-making party and invited about ten friends to their house. Laura had dragged Chad to craft stores, where they had bought a hot-glue gun, different types of paper, pipe cleaners—“bags and bags of stuff,” Chad says. And with several bottles of wine, a ten-foot-tall Christmas tree, and their friends, they stayed up until three o’clock in the morning, making pipe-cleaner Santas. Chad admits to having been skeptical. “It was all her idea,” he says, “but it turned out to be really, really fun; it was a fantastic party.”
On New Year’s Eve, they went to a party thrown by a close friend. Early on the morning of January 3, 2002, Laura was headed to the Stella shoe factories in Dongguan, by now familiar territory. She liked working with Stella, often saying that it was the best manufacturer in China—the only one with standards similar to those in Europe—and had become friendly with the owner, Stephen Chi, who had been educated in the United States and spoke fluent English.
A major player in Dongguan, Stella employs about 26,000 workers in four factories and makes shoes for a number of American companies. For Laura, an added bonus was that the place closed on Sundays, which offered her precious breaks.
In Dongguan that week, she saw Franco, who now worked for InterShoe. They shared several lunches; he thought she seemed in fine form. That Sunday, she took advantage of a delay in the production to go to Beijing—her first nonbusiness excursion on the mainland in the more than three years she’d been traveling to Dongguan. She told Chad she thought she should go, since this would be her last trip.
In Beijing, Laura visited the antique flea markets and the Forbidden City, and made the demanding hourlong climb to the walkway of the Great Wall, cutting a stylish figure in her long coat and tall rabbit-fur hat. On the way, she befriended a couple from Chicago, and they vowed to stay in touch; when they stopped at a jade factory on the way to the Great Wall, Laura told them that one of the bracelets she was buying was for her mother.
“She was in great spirits and seemed in great health,” says Beth Moeri, who made the climb with her. “My gosh, we all walked up that wall together, and she didn’t seem to have any problems.”
When she came back from Beijing, however, Laura started to feel ill. On Thursday, January 17, she complained of a headache to the factory staff, and she woke up the next day feeling sick and achy. Over the weekend, when she spoke with Chad maybe four times a day, she joked she’d caught the Chinese flu. She still felt bad and now had diarrhea. On Monday morning, after her last conversation with Chad, she arrived at Stella later than usual. She felt even worse. That evening, at dinner with people from the factory, she fainted.
When asked what systems Kenneth Cole Productions has in place for dealing with emergencies, the spokesperson replied that the company has a worldwide program that provides medical and personal assistance for traveling employees, including a toll-free 24-hour number for help.
Laura’s travel-policy handbook from the time, however, makes no mention of such a program, and her itinerary only instructed travelers to call Harry Kubetz, a company vice-president, on his cell phone for emergency travel assistance. Neither Franco nor Gwen was aware of a worldwide program. And both say Laura had never traveled with an international cell phone, although she had requested one after a trip to Germany when Gwen and Laura had had to stay in a guesthouse with no phone.
The Kenneth Cole spokesperson says the company does provide phones on request. “Throughout Laura’s tenure and to this day,” the spokesperson said, “the company has made international cell phones available to all employees.”
While the company insists that none of its travel policies has changed, Gwen says that it’s only since Laura’s death that all line builders travel with international cell phones, and that they are no longer allowed to travel alone.
On that Monday evening, in any case, the only treatment Laura received after she fainted was an injection—of what, her family was never able to find out—from a nurse that Stella keeps on staff.
On Tuesday morning, according to reports given to the family, Laura went back to work, late again. The factory doctor, who took her blood pressure, reported it was low and that her heartbeat was irregular. That afternoon, Stephen Chi’s assistant and a Stella nurse took Laura to the Chang-An hospital, some fifteen miles away from the factory. In the evening, Chi visited, bringing her soup and bread, later telling Laura’s family that she’d asked him for someone to stay the night with her, since she was scared. Still, he told them, she made jokes and smiled. By all accounts, both Laura and Chi thought she had the flu, which, along with gastritis, was what the hospital listed as the reason for admitting her. No effort was made to communicate with the Southwicks, Chad, or the company that evening.
Laura’s family was told later that a Stella nurse stayed with her during the night. Noticeably anxious, she was given Valium orally at 9 p.m., according to a hospital report, then by injection at midnight. On the EKG that had been done that afternoon, which her family later showed to American doctors, it is clear that Laura’s heart was already damaged. The EKG, however, wasn’t signed until the following morning, suggesting that no doctor saw it until it was too late. Laura wasn’t breathing at 6 a.m. and resuscitation was unsuccessful.
It was still nighttime in New York when Chi finally reached Chad with the news. Chad, in turn, called the Southwicks. “I told them what I knew and that Kenneth Cole would be calling in about a half-hour,” he recalls. “It was the most horrible call I have ever made.”
“People who have heart failure from viral myocarditis, if they’re put on a ventricular-assist device, frequently get better,” says Dr. Leslie Cooper, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist who specializes in myocarditis. Cooper says an EKG and a chest X-ray would reveal an enlarged heart and fluid in the lungs, and that in about 80 percent of cases, treatment with a powerful diuretic resolves the problem. Though rural hospitals are unlikely to have a VAD, a hospital in Hong Kong, just an hour away, would definitely have the machine. “The majority of people get better if you support them.”
Chang-An hospital properly diagnosed Laura Southwick’s illness, according to documents her parents received after an arduous negotiation—but almost certainly not until after she was dead.
Kenneth Cole sent Harry Kubetz to Dongguan to investigate and arrange for the body to be returned to her parents. Cole called the Southwicks to express his condolences, and the company offered to fly them to Dongguan; they declined.
In Laura’s honor, the company created the Laura Southwick Footwear Design Award for promising young designers, which will be given out for the second time this year.
Sitting in their loft almost a year after Laura’s death, Chad still tears up at the thought of what could have been. On their fourth anniversary, in April 2002, he had planned to ask her to marry him. Some of Laura’s clothes still hang in the closet, boxes of her shoes are piled in the bedroom, and the place feels eerily vast and empty, as if she had left a palpable vacuum when she died. One thing missing is a black leather coat that Kenneth Cole had given Laura not long before her death; in his second call to the Southwicks, they said, Cole asked that it be returned. Bill Southwick declined, saying he felt it was in bad taste.
In the days that followed Laura’s death, the same question haunted Chad and Laura’s family—had everything been done to save her? Chad also felt a personal pang of guilt.
“One of the first things I said to her parents was, ‘My God, I wish I had had a better-paying job,’ ” Chad says. “Maybe she would have quit her job then. And her parents said, ‘No, she wouldn’t have.’ And I don’t really believe she would have, either. She really loved designing shoes.”