Far and Away

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.”

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’sdaughter 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.”

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.”

Far and Away