Sole Man: John Fluevog

Blitz Magazine, May 1999

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You’re walking down the street and realize that something’s stuck to your shoe.

You raise your foot, flick off the offending item and find…..poetry? Yeah–if you’re wearing Fluevogs.

               The poem could read:

Oh that my weary feet could soar

To places never seen before

And float on dreaming wings of grace

Above this dour and earthly place.

               You think: ‘Why is there a poem on my Provog?’ Or, ‘Well, why shouldn’t shoes be a communication medium?’ Either way, if you’re like thousands of Fluevog devotees, you’re thrilled. Because you see that the person who made your shoes is making an effort to communicate with you. This is not common in the footwear industry, but it is one of the many things which have helped make John Fluevog one of the world’s most famous shoe designers.

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               In shoe design, there are not many famous names–Manolo Blahnik, Bruno Magli, Kenneth Cole. Blahnik is as famous for his prices as for his styles. Magli got OJ’d. But there are a couple of big differences between Fluevog and his peers. In the first place, if a woman wants an elegant pump, she can go to Blahnik or Cole or hundreds of others. If she wants a Fluevog style, she has to go to Fluevog. Therein lies the second difference: Fluevog is famous for being, at all times, utterly original and seriously hip.

               Despite the fact that BC has spawned numerous noted fashion names, most people are surprised to hear that Fluevog’s head office–the epicentre of this hipness–is on, of all places, Granville Street.

               “I’m not a big company, but I have a big name–it’s known all over the world,” says Fluevog. “I marvel at the power of the name. It’s not that difficult to pronounce, but it’s just difficult enough to be easy to remember. It’s jumpy, interesting.”

               When John’s grandfather emigrated to Canada from Norway, his last name was Nielsen. He decided that there were too many Nielsens here and adopted the name of a Norwegian village. This eccentric streak continued when his son–John’s father–opened the Luxury Freeze, a drive-in ice cream parlour. It was the ‘60s, when cars were works of art, and growing up in this environment evidently engendered in young John a love of colourful flare and things mechanically successful (he remains a car buff).

               In 1971, Fluevog hooked up with Peter Fox, a family friend and shoe store manager. The two opened Fox & Fluevog, a Gastown store which quickly became Vancouver’s fashionable footwear source. They parted in 1981–Fox wanted to focus on high-end ladies shoes, Fluevog wanted to go after the youth market (they remain friends and Fox’s son is Fluevog’s Canadian wholesale manager).

               Fluevog opened his Granville Street store and immediately began to fill a difficult retailing niche by delivering affordable, fashion-forward styles to a primarily youthful market (he was the first retailer to bring Doc Martens to North America). Often, however, the shoes he was importing were not what he wanted to offer his customers, and he began fiddling with styles, switching heels and leathers to make the shoes more akin to his vision. Finally, in 1987, he started designing his own shoes.

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               “I wanted to give my customers different shoes–interesting, funky stuff,” recalls Fluevog. “I started to design my own products because I felt that unless I had my own product, something unique in the marketplace, I’d be limited and bored. Also, my competition is anyone who sells shoes, and as soon as something good comes out, someone else gets it. I saw how difficult it was for independents to import lines of footwear and market them for the kinds of margins you need.”

               Obviously, the decision to design for himself was a wise one. Today, Fluevog has stores in Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, New York and Melbourne. Two hundred additional retailers sell his footwear to fans from Alabama to Alaska, and he’s gradually breaking into Asia and Europe. His styles, which are among the world’s most widely-copied, are worn by celebrities such as Madonna, Robin Williams, Lisa Marie Presley and Linda Evangelista, and used by designers such as Anna Sui and Betsy Johnson. He is the favourite of film and television wardrobe stylists, his shoes regularly appear in YM, Seventeen, Teen, Details, Spin and Vibe. And his Absolut Vodka commission is now in Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum (his ‘Absolut Fluevog’ design was a pair of silver sandals with a vodka bottle in each heel).

               Fluevog is known for sculpted shoes and ultra-unusual heels, from the mega-wedge to the geisha-reminiscent Wok ‘n Rolls. It was Fluevog who brought back the platform and the crepe sole, and he was the first to do Oxfords in neon-coloured suede–an idea which has been shamelessly and thoroughly copied.

               From facilities in Mexico, Poland, Portugal and England, Fluevog produces hundreds of shoes styles. Some never date; most have a life span of three years. His lines carry names like Lounge Lizards and Swingers. Each style is named with the same personality: the Wok ‘n Roll line includes Kung Pao and Chow Mein, one of the Nurse Fluevogs is called Demerol, the Granny Glamour line includes Eunice and Mable. Also, as no one’s into pain any more, wearability is a big concern. The shoes have to look good, be extremely comfortable and be affordable (prices range from $95.-$200.; $370. for the Grand National boot).

               Fluevog has even managed to be environmentally-friendly.  He uses vegetable-tanned leathers and the Angels line carries soles made from the tapped latex of the Hevea tree, which makes them biodegradable and replaceable.

               The Angels soles also bear seven angels and a guarantee that they ‘Resist Acid, Water, Alkali, Fatigue and Satan’. Which brings us back to the messages which Fluevog sends to his customers.

               “I put angels on my shoes because angels are hopeful,  protective and comforting. For messages, I used to use Bible verses; now I write my own. They’re a verbal expression of how I felt when I designed the shoes. A lot of people don’t know the messages are there when they buy the shoes but, when they find them, the surprise makes them more powerful.

               “It’s important to communicate, not just from the creative side but from the marketing perspective. Whatever it is you’re marketing, you can’t market flatly. You need to pique imagination and show originality. That’s how you get your name. It’s not always where the money is, but it’s the fun part.”

               It happens that, at the moment, there is wide-spread interest in angels. This is coincidence. Fluevog does not follow fads.

               “The key is to stay away from fashion. I never look at what clothes people are wearing and I don’t look at what other designers are doing. If you do what everyone else is doing, you won’t be correct for your market.

               “I have to get my ideas from fresh sources. Sometimes things just pop into my brain. Other times, an idea is an extension of something I did before. Or I see a guy on the street and there’s something about his hair cut that inspires me. I believe that every city has ten people who influence fashion. That group changes every year and those people don’t know who they are, but I know them when I see them. When I travel I look for those people and watch what they’re doing. But I never copy other designers. If I ever start copying, I’ll know I’ve lost it.”

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               There are two areas in which Fluevog is extremely sensitive. The first involves financial matters–he refuses to divulge any figures which might indicate what his sales are. The other sensitive area is the copying issue. For him, imitation is anything but the highest form of flattery.

               “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong to copy other designers. Musicians have big-time protection; fashion designers have no protection. And it’s very discouraging to find that you’re designing for the entire shoe industry.”

               Fluevog designs for both sexes; 60% of his customers are female. He often does styles upon request, he’s done a line of boots for the snowboarding crowd, and he probably the first designer to put metal clips on the soles of elegant suede shoes–for guys who want to look good when they get off their bikes.

               Interestingly, Fluevog says that his most out-there styles are not usually worn by the 18-21 demographic. “The stranger the shoe, the less likely that a fashion-conscious young person will buy it. My market is age 18-50 and my customers are creative or intellectual people; they do more arts-oriented things and appreciate things that are different.

               Not surprisingly, Fluevog has no specific corporate look. Each store has its own distinctive design which fits with its neighbourhood, and with the store’s previous life–the Toronto store, for example, had been a diner so instead of installing shoe racks, Fluevog kept the stools, pie racks and service counter for shoe display.

               “The retail stores project the feeling that there’s a Mister Fluevog–an actual person behind the store,” says Fluevog. “I think that’s the case with all successful retailers: customers look at their operations and, in the backs of their minds, think ‘Hmmm, there’s something different going on here. I wonder who’s doing this’. I think that’s important in marketing any business–that you don’t look like something else. When you’re original, you twig something–people want to know more about you.”

               As you would expect, Fluevog’s advertising is unconventional–he’s probably the only shoe retailer to use sperm in an ad. There is no marketing budget; you won’t see full-page ads in Vogue. National advertising takes the form of ads in magazines like Detour, Azure, Paper and Out. Fluevog writes his own copy, all ads are designed in-house and local-level advertising is placed, by each store manager, in alternative newspapers.

               “My ads are a little wacky because my product is so different,” says Fluevog. “I like to include subliminal layers in my ads. My marketing may seem like it’s to one age group or mind-set but it’s not. Like any business, I need the constants, the same type of people to come in and buy shoes. But I have different sub-sections and sub-brands and my ads have to appeal to different types of people.”

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               “John has not followed the rules and regulations which most designers and retailers use to market shoes,” says Keith Manship, Fluevog’s marketing director. “He’s a designer who also has his own stores. That puts him in a separate place from other people, and it allows him to do different things. Like the catalogues–a lot of retailers do catalogues, but catalogues which come from the actual designer are very different.”

               Fluevog’s catalogues are his most innovative and successful sales tool. He’s produced them twice each year since he opened his first store; the print runs are now at 60,000. Each one has a different theme; each one is full of spiritual messages, photos of himself, photos of models. Every style is shown with its name, number and price; customers need only call a toll-free number to order. Perhaps the greatest innovation of the catalogues, which have a kind of geek appeal, is the fact that they’re pocket-size.

               “As far as communicating with my customers is concerned, the catalogues are my biggest thing,” says Fluevog. “No one else does pocket-size, mail-order catalogues for shoes. That’s partly why my name got big. I actually have a lot of tourist business–people go into my stores when they’re visiting the major cities, take the catalogues home and show them to their friends. They like to read the messages and look at the shoes, and catalogues make it easy to buy them, no matter where they live.”

               “The catalogues are successful because they do get passed around and because you can’t find Fluevog shoes everywhere,” says Manship. “Everyone who comes into one of our stores gets a catalogue; everyone who buys shoes goes on the mailing list, people add themselves to the mailing list via the web site or e-mail. Telephone orders account for only 5% of sales, but half of the catalogues go to people who are already shopping at our stores and would be inclined to return rather than order by phone.

               “We also use that mailing list at Christmas–we send out Christmas cards and some cards invite people to drop in to the nearest store to pick up a free Christmas T-shirt. We do a give-away calendar every year, and we do in-store fashion shows and sample sales, which customers love. That direct communication is important–it’s important that customers are thanked because John wouldn’t be here without them.”

               Customers were also recently given the opportunity to buy a limited-edition print of Fluevog’s original drawing of his Lift-Off shoe.

               “The print was a marketing thing,” says Fluevog, who has plans for more prints and a line of post cards. “I wanted to use it to build the customer relationship. People often don’t know that I did something before someone else did it, or they forget about it, so the print is a record and a reinforcement of who I am as a person and as a designer.”

               The Fluevog web site (www.fluevog.com) is an increasingly important part of Fluevog’s interaction with his customers, both retail and wholesale. It carries his full catalogue, a listing of wholesalers, a retail listing, and the addresses and photographs of his own stores. With 2,000,000 visits each month, the three year-old site has become a store in itself. Internet orders now account for 7% of sales, and that is growing as the site provides Fluevog’s international clientele with increased access.

               Promotions are not a big part of Fluevog’s business. There are only 11 employees at head office, 70 in the company. There are wholesalers and distributors, showrooms in New York and Vancouver and exhibits at the four annual North American footwear shows. But, while Fluevog donates shoes to fashion shows which benefit breast cancer and AIDS research, there aren’t the resources for anything like run-way placement–which is not Fluevog’s favourite activity anyway. “Run-way work is a huge effort and it’s very unpleasant–especially when the shoes get more press than the clothes.”

               Nor is PR a big deal. “When you’re hot, people come to you,” continues Fluevog. “We have a press closet in New York which we use to loan things to fashion stylists–that’s helpful. We’ve had national television spots. It helps when Madonna wears your shoes. We send out the odd release. Media attention comes and goes; I don’t look for press. And I don’t care about the fashion press. If the fashion press doesn’t understand what I’m doing, that’s a good thing. Because I don’t want to fit in. All I really want to do is get a reaction.”

 

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