In Memoriam: Remembering Weinbrenner’s Lance Nienow and More Footwear Industry Legends

FN Staff
·11 min read

April 16, 2021: Lance R. Nienow, the former president and CEO of Weinbrenner Shoe Company Inc., died on April 11 at the age of 77.

The footwear executive spent an impressive 50 years with the Weinbrenner organization. He joined the company in 1970 and rose through the ranks, holding positions in human resources, purchasing and operations, before he was named president in 1992. He held that position until his retirement in 2010, when he joined the board of directors — a role he continued until his death.

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During his tenure, Nienow is credited with maintaining Weinbrenner’s commitment to domestic manufacturing, even as the rest of the shoe industry moved its production overseas in order to meet growing consumer demand. Today, the company continues to produce a collection of specialized work boots in its Wisconsin factory.

“Without [Lance’s] leadership during some tough times, I do not believe there would be a Weinbrenner Shoe Company today,” said president Jeff Burns. “We are thankful for his outstanding leadership, friendship, guidance and wisdom. He will be greatly missed by the Weinbrenner family, the footwear industry, his family and the community.”

Nienow is survived by his daughters, Nicole Marcell and Carrie Vanden Boom, and four grandchildren, as well as his significant other, Kathryn Spencer.

Feb. 12, 2021: Sunny Diego, who spent 25 years at Saks Fifth Avenue, died at 51.

According to FN’s sister publication WWD, the longtime retail executive — most recently the VP and DMM of men’s designer and contemporary at Saks — passed away on Feb. 11 at Memorial Sloan Kettering, where she was receiving treatment for stomach cancer.

Diego, who received her Master of Business Administration from the University of Chicago, began her career at Saks in 1994. She spent 18 years at the department store in a range of roles, including fashion director of women’s footwear, accessories, jewelry and intimate apparel, as well as men’s fashion director. She joined Li & Fung’s U.S. business as SVP of men’s merchandising in 2012 and left two years later to become chief merchant at Lividini & Co. After seven months, she returned to Saks.

Saks Fifth Avenue chief merchant Tracy Margolies said, “Sunny was a long beloved member of the Saks family and our merchant organization. Those who had the privilege of working with her were fortunate to experience her fierce attitude, caring nature, dedication and strength — and her undeniable love of fashion. Her passion for the industry was infectious to everyone from her Saks team to our vendor partners. She was an inspiration to us all, and her incredible legacy will continue to live on both at Saks and across the industry. We will greatly miss her.”

Louis Digiacomo, GMM of the men’s division, added, “It was an honor to have known Sunny for 25 years. She was a caring, beautiful person who possessed amazing energy, passion, dedication and, most of all, generosity. Sunny was more than a colleague or friend; she was family. Like so many who were lucky to be part of her life, I will miss my sister.”

In addition, writing to FN, Amiri EVP Didier Nguyen said, “Sunny and I have been friends since the very first time we met. My heart is very heavy, but I will always smile when thinking of her because she was just glowing — that’s how unique her sparkle and aura were. I will never forget how she would show up to buying appointments with her sunglasses on, her coat on one shoulder, her contagious smile, to then just say something that would make everybody laugh. She was a true rock star.”

Diego is survived by her sister, Suzy Kim; her 13-year-old daughter, Gemma; and her parents, Hong and Hyok Kim.

Dec. 19, 2020: John Camuto, a former footwear executive and the son of late shoe legend Vince Camuto, died at 31. The cause of death is believed to be a heart attack he suffered this week, the family said.

John helped Camuto Group expand internationally. He also developed his own collection, the VC John Camuto women’s shoe line. In 2015, following the death of his father, John sat on the board of the Camuto Group advisors through the sale of the business to DSW Inc. (now Designer Brands) two years ago. After the deal, and following the end of a four-year non-compete agreement, John planned to pursue other entrepreneurial goals.

He is survived by his mother, Kristen Scott, and brother Christopher — and other siblings Robert, Andrea and Philip Camuto, and Jamie Scott. Donations can be sent in the name of John Camuto to The Hole in the Wall Gang Fund.

Dec. 18, 2020: Guido Mortarotti, a pioneer of Italian footwear, passed away at home at the age of 91 from kidney failure.

Back in the ’60s, he made headlines for bringing Italian-made men’s footwear to the United States market. Some members of the Rat Pack — a group of entertainers including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra — had been spotted in the designer’s zippered ankle boots.

Mortarotti was also an integral force in bringing Roy Disney into the shoe industry and produced footwear for Skechers for many years. He had remained actively involved in designing, sourcing and producing men’s shoes for several brands.

Nov. 27, 2020: Tony Hsieh, the brilliant and big-hearted Zappos.com luminary who revolutionized the shoe business and built one of the most innovative companies in modern history, died at 46.

Hsieh’s family confirmed his passing in a text message to friends, noting that Hsieh’s generous spirit touched the lives of countless people and that he left an indelible mark on the world. The executive died from injuries sustained in a Connecticut house fire, according to press reports citing a family lawyer.

A serial entrepreneur, Hsieh co-founded Zappos in 1999 and grew it into a blockbuster business before selling it to Amazon in 2009.

Aug. 23, 2020: Stephen Freeman, line builder and U.S. sales representative for Ara Shoes, died after a battle with cancer. He was 64.

The industry veteran began his career working at his father’s shoe factory in New England, a job that led him to retail jobs at Thom McAn and Vanguard Shoes in Newton, Mass. He went on to found his own rep agency, selling Rockport shoes in New Jersey. He continued in sales and line building at brands including Sudini, Mephisto and Arche. Before joining Ara, he led his own footwear brand, Andare, which he co-launched with Holden Nagelberg.

Noted Sam Spears, president Ara North America, “Stephen was and will forever be loved by every retailer with whom he worked. His life was footwear retail and he conducted over 80 trunk shows per year. An exceptional footwear professional and personality who will be deeply missed, he eagerly shared his abundant knowledge of the art of selling and impacted many lives.”

March 6, 2020: Lisa N. Geil-Bazinet, former EVP of marketing for Vionic Group, died after a battle with lung cancer. She was 55 years old.

The industry veteran’s career focused on marketing and brand building, including tenures at The Rockport Co. and Birkenstock, before joining the comfort brand, Vionic, where she was employed from 2008 to 2019.

Her personal passions included volunteer work for the San Francisco Symphony Junior Committee and serving as event coordinator for several fundraising events at St. Brigid School in San Francisco. She was a member and former elder of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco and a founder of the St. John’s Harvest Food Pantry.

She is survived by her husband and industry veteran Dan Bazinet, son Dominic, and parents Ellen and Ron Geil.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation or to the San Francisco chapter of Dress for Success.

Feb. 5, 2020: Gloria Cansino Weiner Adams, co-founder of Saxon Shoes in Richmond, Va., died after a battle with congestive heart failure. She was 89.

Weiner Adams and her first husband, Jack Weiner, opened the store in 1953. Her eye for fashion and her organizational skills caught the attention of competitors who were known to shadow her at trade shows. In addition to her buying skills, she was able to sketch each shoe she bought in order to keep a running list each season.

After Weiner’s passing in 1991, Weiner Adams married Arthur Adams, who died in 1998. She is survived by her son Gary Weiner; daughter Susan Weiner Adolph; stepsons Brian and Sidney Adams, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.

Today, Weiner Adams’ son Gary Weiner serves as president and CEO of Saxon Shoes.

July 26, 2019: William Wolff, former president of Wolff Shoe Co., St. Louis, Mo., died of natural causes. He was 94.

Wolff served in this role for decades, until he was succeeded by his son, Gary Wolff. As the son of the company’s founder, he began running the business in the 1940s, overseeing seven domestic factories. He later spearheaded the company’s transition to overseas manufacturing in Italy, Spain and China. Today, the company, which produces the Van Eli and Sesto Meucci labels, is run by Gary’s son, S. Todd Wolff.

Wolff is survived by his son Gary, daughter-in-law Sherry, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

July 1, 2019: Fashion designer Khalid Al Qasimi, born Sheikh Khalid bin Sultan Al Qasim, passed away at the age of 39.

The son of the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Qasimi founded and served as creative director of his eponymous brand, Qasimi, debuting his first collection in 2008. He completed degrees in both architecture and fashion design at Central Saint Martins.

A three-day mourning ceremony has been declared, with flags in the country ordered to fly half-mast in honor of the designer.

May 26, 2019: Duncan Finigan, global head of brand management and marketing at Oofos, died after a battle with breast cancer. She was 59.

Finigan launched her career at Reebok International as a marketing intern upon graduating from Boston College, where she earned a degree in business. Over the next 16 years, she was tasked with leading strategic brand and marketing initiatives for nine footwear categories, eventually being named VP of the performance division.

Duncan left Reebok in 2000 to serve as VP of brands at Atsco Footwear Group. In 2004, she went on to become GM of wholesale at Stride Rite.

She is survived by her husband, four sons, three brothers and three sisters. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to Duncan’s Pan Mass Challenge for the benefit of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at 77 4th Ave., Needham, Mass., 02494.

Jan. 30, 2019: Rudolph V. Schoenecker, whose career spanned both retail and wholesale, died at 82.

He began his career as president of Carl A. Biwer and Westowne Shoes Inc., which operated 13 family shoe stores and leased departments and Naturalizer locations. He went on to serve as president of the Northwest Shoe Retailers Association, holding the post from 1984 to 1990.

Upon retiring, Schoenecker returned to the industry from 1995 to 2006 as an account representative for Ros Hommerson, covering the Northern U.S. market.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara, six children and 12 grandchildren.

Memorials in honor of Schoenecker can be made to Marquette University High School in Milwakuee, Angels Grace Hospice in Oconomowoc, Wis., and the Two Ten Footwear Foundation.

March 4, 2018: Earl L. “Buddy” Katz, chairman of Encore Shoe Corp. and manufacturer for Zodiac USA, passed away in his sleep at 99.

Katz got his start in the industry as a footwear buyer for his battalion during his service with the U.S. Army in World War II. Following the war, Jack Sandler from the New England shoe manufacturer Sandler of Boston asked him if he wanted to go into the shoe business.

Katz went on to start Encore Shoe Corp. in 1962, making shoes for labels such as Pappagallo and Capezio. He eventually started his own brand, Zodiac USA, a company which would later become a pioneer in placing computerized decorative Western stitching on boots.

The family suggests that donations in Katz’s memory be made to the Two Ten Footwear Foundation or to a charity of the donor’s choice.

Katz is survived by his children — James Katz, Ronald Katz and Jody Skaff — as well as his beloved grandchildren.

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