Mad for Silk, In Love With Lace: The Quest for the Best Makes Christine Morton #1

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Great things happen in basements. You’ve heard about many businesses that began in the founders’ basement and grew to be mighty successes. The difference with Christine Morton is the commodity—her big thing was, of all things, antique lace.

Although she’d had one year of design training, Morton had no intention of becoming a fashion designer—she just loved lace. She had a huge collection of it because, when she was growing up, people didn’t realize the value of it and sold it at rummage sales. She decided to put her collection to work. She’d been working in fabric stores and knew her way around the business. So she quit her job and started making garments.

First, it was camisoles and blouses. Then dresses, then wedding gowns. She soon had a large and loyal following of people who know, and can pay, the value of custom work.

That was 25 years ago. Today, Morton is the top lingerie designer in North America; her pieces are among the most sought-after in the world.

If you’re thinking: ‘What about Victoria’s Secret?’, you’re thinking of the wrong league. Whether they’re made of cotton, linen or the fabulous silks she’s known for, Morton’s pieces are luxurious works of art. Women (and men) who appreciate the finer things in life walk into Holt Renfrew, Nieman Marcus, Saks 5th Avenue or the 130-odd boutiques that carry her line, and by-pass the racks of polyester dainties. Morton’s collection is found hanging alone, with the stores’ private collections or with those competitors she does have—like English designer Daniel Hanson, who produces a cashmere and linen line.

“People come to us for very high-end lingerie,” says Morton. “There are a lot of people already in the synthetic market and in the last few years, every major designer has launched a lingerie line—Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan. They all see that it’s an area of growth. But we’re still above them.

silk1“I’ve actually tried to go the other way, but every time I’ve gone from trying to create something of beauty to creating something synthetic, or something that’s cheaper, I’ve lost it. I put the best into each piece, so every piece is something of beauty and comfort and luxury and makes the woman who wears it feel wonderful. There’s a quality about our product that’s unique, and maintaining that is what’s important to me. People recognize what is Christine, so everything has to have the same look and feeling.

“This is an extremely competitive business and it says something that I’m still here, and that what started as a home business is now an international company. Through the 80s especially, a lot of companies came and went. In the last five years, I’ve seen this company really emerge to a place where we’re seeing major growth.”

Morton no longer does custom work, nor does she do bridal. She’s strictly wholesale, and she develops private label lines for Nieman Marcus, Saks and Holt Renfrew. From her West Vancouver studio, Morton also produces four collections a year. Each collection is 100 pieces: panties, thongs, tap pants, pyjamas, penoir sets, loungewear, robes and sarongs. Her camisoles start at $75, pyjamas $250. Robes run from $350—Saks Christmas catalogue this year featured one for $800 (US); others sell for up to $1500 (US). And people have no problem spending that—her sales are sitting at around $2 million.

One of the keys to Morton’s success is her unique fabrics. For inspiration, she travels to Paris, where she scours the flea markets looking for old fabrics, old laces. She develops her own prints and fabrics from there (today, about 1/3 of her items carry lace). She used to have a ‘lace man’ whose job was to scour North America for quality lace; now she designs her own and has it made in France and Switzerland. Her ribbons come from Japan, her prints are made and dyed in Korea and China, and everything is made in Vancouver.

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“If the fabrics weren’t unique, I wouldn’t be here,” she explains. “That’s what people want—silk sewn over with pieces of chiffon, or heavy brocade, or layers of iridescent silk. It doesn’t matter what it costs; each piece has to be fresh and new but remain true to itself. That’s why development is so important, and I think one of the big keys to my success is being fashion-forward—the development of new colours, new silk textures, new styles.”

There are practical reasons for this development. There are many women out there with closets full of Morton’s pieces—they own everything she’s made, her stuff doesn’t wear out and she has to give them something new. She also has to stay ahead of the competition, which constantly copies her.

“I can’t keep people from imitating me. The important thing is that I did it first and the competition can’t get it out until next season. You make the most of it when it’s new and it has your name on it. Because you know that someone like Victoria’s Secret will have it out next season, only in polyester, made in Hong Kong and retailing for $45. It’s unavoidable. I’ve learned to see it as flattery.”

Another key to success in the fashion business is knowing one’s customer. Morton’s demographic is broad—women age 25-75. The difference is not who they are but what they want. These people want the best of everything. They’re often wealthy, but there are secretaries out there wearing Morton’s lingerie under their suits. They don’t earn a lot of money, but they’d rather pay $250 for a Christine camisole and some tap pants than get a new winter coat. The lingerie always wins.

“Our customer is the woman who loves beautiful things,” explains Morton. “Many women wear our camisoles as outer garments, under suit jackets. Our loungewear is worn on cruise ships, around pools, on beaches—we do sarongs and drawstring linen pants. Women also wear our things at home, while entertaining—we do a lot of silk velvet lounge pieces.

silk2“I think the explosion in lingerie sales has got to do with people spending more time at home, having fewer large parties and more casual dinner parties, and with the desire to not flaunt their wealth. Also, as the baby boomers age, they want to look good, feel good and be comfortable, but they still want the best. Also, there’s a certain obsession about lingerie. And we have a large male following—men want to see their women in fabulous things.”

In the last five years, Morton’s company has experienced 20% growth annually. This is because, in the mid-’90s, she made a strong commitment to advertising, public relations and promotions.

“Because I’d always been making unusual things, I’ve always had a strong press following—members of the fashion media just go crazy when they see my things, so I’ve never had trouble getting editorial. I decided to take that a step further. I like working with my stores so I didn’t want an agent per se, but I needed a full-time presence in New York.”

Morton retained New York press agent Randall Rutledge. The arrangement has made a huge difference to her business.

“I have my collection there, I can send buyers to him, stylists from magazines, films and TV shows go in there, members of the media go there. He has the right connections, he stays on top of things and takes care of my press releases and media kits. He gives me guidance with marketing and when I’m in New York, I use his show room and do some of my business there. And he organizes events for me, such as a recent fashion show at the Canadian Consulate. I’ve been very pleased with the arrangement. I’m being seen a lot more in the media, and people call from everywhere to find out where they can buy.”

Morton’s relationship with her press agent has brought vastly increased media attention: in the last year, her pieces have appeared on Winona Ryder in the film Autumn in New York, in the hit movie Traffic, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, for photo shoots, on the bodies of Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Jodie Foster, Sharon Stone, Courtney Cox and Lauren Bacall. She’s also had spreads in Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Flare, Style and Victoria. (The magazine—not the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, although Morton notes: “I had several pages in there—I just didn’t make any of the pieces.”)

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“That kind of publicity grows a company. The film and TV work is great and we have stylists coming in all the time but, from the marketing perspective, the big thing is media attention. We do four shows a year in New York, but the media attention draws the buyers. And it helps our agents—we have one in Canada and one in California. The appeal for the media is that it’s lingerie, it’s beautiful, it’s unique and it’s fashion.”

Morton travels to New York four times a year, to launch each line, so she organizes shows around those launches and advertises the shows in trade magazines. The rest of her exposure comes from co-op ads—she does about 20 a year, including participation in the Holt Renfrew, Saks and Nieman Marcus catalogues. Co-op advertising works well for her—it’s always booked against an order, and her 3% contribution is simply deducted from her sales at that store.

In addition, since 1997, she has been given grants from the Matinee Fashion Foundation. The foundation offers funds for specific projects—Morton recently up-graded her logo, for example, and changed the label name from ‘Christine & Company’, to ‘Christine Vancouver’. The foundation focuses on its chosen designers, hosts an annual fashion show, and features its designers’ photographs on billboards and in advertising spreads in major magazines.

There was a website, and there will be one again this year. In the mid-’90s, she posted an award-winning site which got thousands of hits from all over the world, but it was ahead of its time and the e-commerce thing didn’t work. The new site is under construction; it will carry items not sold by her stores—they will be priced for younger people and will be meant to make men of all ages comfortable with shopping on-line.

silk9Morton has no plans to go directly into retail. In the past, she has successfully competed in Europe, against the high-end European lines, but says that it became financially unfeasible. Her market is strictly Canada, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia (it’s her clothing that Saudi princesses wear under their black abayah, and they buy a lot of it).

So there appears to be no reason for Morton to expect that her 20% annual growth with drop off. People will always insist on the best, the wealthy are increasingly discreet about how they spend their money, women will always want to feel beautiful, and men will always want to buy lingerie for the women in their lives.  Because, as Morton puts it: “Lingerie is much more than underwear.”

Blitz Magazine, March 2001

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On Anorexia

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Blitz Magazine, September 2000

British Prime Minister Tony Blair takes a lot of flack for his occasionally ridiculous attempts to please everybody. And when he responded to the concerns of his medical community by summoning members of the fashion and advertising industries to No. 10 for a recent confab on Britain’s escalating problem with anorexia nervosa, I just shook my head.

Like everyone who went to an English boarding school, I have rather too much experience with anorexia nervosa, that pernicious disease which has long plagued girls’ boarding schools in the UK. Of the 30 girls in my house, two were anorexic. I’ll call them Rebecca and Sarah. I don’t know what became of Rebecca, but I do know that Sarah died of a heart attack, at 15.

Sarah was a preternaturally talented athlete. Rebecca hoped to become a physicist. They agonized over Latin verbs; I never saw them give themselves more than a cursory glance in a mirror. Six days a week, we played sports for two hours, studied for eight. Make-up was verboten. No one read Vogue. We didn’t have TV. Or a mall to shop in. And we didn’t care.

So, while I’m no expert, I have watched someone starve herself to death and can confidently state that it’s absurd to blame anorexia on advertising. Note that the fashion, cosmetic and entertainment industries did not exist 200 years ago, when Cambridge University began documenting and studying cases of anorexia.

I was just looking at a picture of Stella Tennant, a glaring example of what the British medical community is upset about. She’s the English aristocrat/haute couture favourite who is 6’ and, maybe, 110 lbs. A well-adjusted teen-ager looks at Tennant and thinks ‘Ugh.’ But it does not automatically follow that a mal-adjusted girl thinks ‘I must look like her.’ That conclusion is too simplistic.

Anorexia is a complicated psychiatric issue, not a consumer issue, and it’s pointless to blame it on marketers. Advertising probably exacerbates existing psychological problems, but it doesn’t cause them. And even if that blame were correctly placed, is Calista Flockhart going to be fired for being too thin? No. Are the creative directors for Prada and Gucci going to start using chubby models in print ads? No. Because, for now, skeletons sell.

We all know the blah blah about the entertainment and marketing media’s objectified portrayal and exploitation of the female body. But when discussing anorexia, that conversation is secondary. Because anorexia is the result of bad parenting. By people who give their girls cash, credit cards and pagers instead of books, pianos and cleats. Who are too busy to notice that their daughters feel so rejected, inadequate and powerless that the concept of ingesting food (mysteriously) becomes repulsive. Anorexia is a disease born of neglect, not emulation.

The advertising industry can be blamed for contributing to rampant consumerism. That’s its job. Agencies are paid by producers of consumer products. Who operate in a free market. Blair cannot say to these companies: ‘Change how you do business because you’re killing our daughters’.

As for the Downing Street ‘Anorexia Summit’, we’ll evidently never know what was discussed. All requests for information to official sources were ignored, and none of the organizations dealing with eating disorders were included or up-dated. Which leads me to believe that there was no solution found. Of course.

 

 

Gun Violence, Music & Advertising: Enough is Enough

Blitz Magazine, January 2006

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I, like all Canadians, am proud of how we’ve been able continue our various cultural traditions, grow our own superb artists and successful industries, and maintain a distinct Canadian identity (no one can quite describe it, but it’s there). We’ve done this in spite of our proximity to the United States, whose culture has permeated that of every nation on the planet.

I, like all Canadians, am also proud of how we’ve been able to keep out the worst of the US—especially the war mongering and the obsession with guns. The proliferation of handguns, long the scourge of that nation, has been kept at bay. Rather, had been kept at bay.

Since last January, Canadian cities have been seen a shocking increase in gun-related violence. Edmonton has just clocked its 37th murder, while Toronto experienced a veritable bloodbath, losing 50 of its citizens to bullets. A couple of weeks ago, a promising young artist was shot dead on a Vancouver street by a complete stranger with no apparent motive.

You want creepy? Visit http://www.nra.org. As I look at it, it’s headlines are: ‘NRA to File Lawsuit Challenging San Francisco Gun Ban’, ‘Historic Victory for NRA as President Bush Signs Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act’, and ‘American Rifleman Wins Folio: Gold Ozzie Design Award’. Yee haw.

The NRA exists for no other reason than to ‘protect the right of Americans to own guns’. (In fact, the US Constitution does not specifically grant that right.) Given that the only purpose of guns is to take life, you have to shake your head at the mentality of people who fight tooth and nail to own lethal weapons and endanger the lives of their fellow citizens. In Florida, Jeb Bush—who is obviously as dim and malleable as his brother—has enacted a law that justifies homicide if the killer (read: shooter) feels threatened by the, uh, dead person.

What has this to do with media communications?

Last week, I get home from a party. I flick on the TV, to CNN. But I’ve pressed the wrong buttons and I get MuchMusic.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m watching a ‘music’ video (there’s no actual music in evidence). In it, a scantily-clad young woman is ordered onto all fours, then a man puts his foot on her back and pushes her to the ground. She gracefully submits. I stand there and watch a couple of these videos, one by a band named ‘Pitbull’, sandwiched between ads by Coca Cola, Cadbury and Maybelline. All of the videos feature thug wannabes yacking about who-knows-what and surrounded by half-naked, writhing women and I’m thinking: “Please tell me that these losers aren’t the role models of Canadian teen-agers!”

The ‘musicians’ in all of these bands are black. And they’re twisting themselves into knots trying to show their ‘Street Cred’ and their ‘Hood Gangsta membership, making themselves look very foolish in the process. It’s not only boring, it’s sad. This is not what people should be led to believe of black culture. Black culture is not about crime and rape and abuse and drugs and guns. Millions of people are working to get away from this garbage, and it helps no one to see it glorified and to have these stupid and shameful stereotypes perpetuated.

In the US, the latest media darling is rapper 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). He recently made a movie: Get Rich or Die Trying, and has had great success with songs like How to Rob, Ready to Die and No Mercy, No Fear. His parents (murdered long ago) were well-known drug dealers, he has a very long rap sheet and has survived being shot nine times. “Well, good for him,” everyone says. “He got out of the ‘hood and has become a success.” (The media rarely mentions black teachers and doctors who rose from the ‘hood—too boring. It’s violence that sells.)

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Jackson has already faced censorship in Canada—a planned concert was barred from taking place. But I’m loathe to encourage censorship. It can’t be the role of government to control what people read, see and hear. Parents have to do it. And many of them are doing a lousy job, thinking it’s better if their teen-agers play blood-soaked video games and watch the aforementioned crap at home, rather than hanging out at malls.

Advertisers also have to take some responsibility. Marketers have to look at what their ads are supporting—it’s their money and their choice. Does Maybelline, for example, want its customers to think that it’s OK for women to submit to abusive acts by men? No? Then it has to be careful about what it’s advertising around.

Paul Martin was slammed (by the Conservatives) for promising a handgun ban at the launch of his election campaign. People called it “opportunistic”. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan had to do some fast talking in her home province, telling an Edmonton reporter: “The handgun ban doesn’t apply in Alberta. It’s a provincial opt-in.” Her Tory riding opponent, Laurie Hawn, took the tried-and-true NRA route, calling it an “excuse to target law-abiding citizens.” Well, law-abiding citizens don’t own handguns. Handguns are not an effective means of protection: they’re used for crime and, when kept in the home, are often used by children—to shoot other children (anyone remember Columbine?).

As far as I’m concerned, if Martin enacts a handgun ownership ban and makes possession a heavily-punished crime, he’s a hero. The bloodshed and violence and fear associated with handguns is one part of American culture that we do not want, and the Canadian media and advertising industries should not be encouraging it by seeking to profit from it.

 

AG Whiz: AG Professional Hair Care Products Works Consumers Into Lather & Cleans Up

Blitz Magazine, July 2000

In the late ‘80s, a friend of John and Lotte Davis’s came to them with an idea. He planned on starting a line of hair care products, which he would market in California. He figured that, since California has the same population as Canada, but in a much smaller space, he would make a killing. John, a former hair stylist who was then in the antiques business and Lotte, a graphic designer, dropped everything and became immersed in their friend’s venture. Which promptly flopped. There they were, unemployed and broke, with a little momentum and a bit of knowledge of the hair care products industry. They decided to continue and, in April 1989, founded AG (Advance Group) Professional Hair Care Products.

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Their first step was to contract a local company to make a shampoo and a conditioner. They said they wanted the products to be rich and creamy, be pink in colour and smell of strawberries. Other than that, they were unable to dictate product specifications. They bought a used peanut butter-making machine and spent their evenings filling and labeling bottles. Then they started knocking on salon doors. With great results.

“Our advantage then was that we knew what not to do,” recalls Lotte. “From our previous experience, we knew that we shouldn’t dream too big, that we had to start small, and do it in our own back yard. The California venture failed because we didn’t live there and we didn’t understand the market. Here, we went to one salon at a time and we didn’t rely on someone else to sell our products. No one has the conviction to sell a product like the people who make it.”

John and Lotte started visiting salons, developing relationships and persuading stylists to try, then recommend, their products. Although they initially hoped only to be able to make enough money to cover the mortgage, first-year sales topped $127,000.

“There was a well-established industry standard on how you did business,” remembers Lotte. “We came along and said ‘We don’t know how everyone else does it but here’s how we have to do it because we don’t have any money’. We had to get attention on a very short budget. So we offered salons a 10% discount if they paid us upon delivery. Our competition all had 90-day receivables. We allowed the salons to make a huge margin, and it got word of mouth going.”

Demand was increasing, but John and Lotte couldn’t rely on their private-label supplier for consistent quality. They knew they had to manufacture their own product. So they sold their home and used the proceeds to open a manufacturing facility.

Most professional brands, it turns out, use private-label manufacturers. They can make specific requests for formulations, but they have little control and don’t know if their recipes are being sold elsewhere.

“We needed the kind of product we could succeed with, not the kind of product our supplier was making for us,” says Lotte. “And we realized that it’s like cooking. You start with the basic formula, you get creative, you devise your own recipes. If you add the finest ingredients, you’ll have much better products. And John turned out to be an excellent chef. Making your own product is a lot more work, it’s more time-consuming and it’s more expensive, but it’s also cost-effective because that control over the finished product pays off.”

To Lotte’s knowledge, the only other salon product made by the marketer (the name on the bottle) is Joico, which is AG’s main competitor. In the BC market, AG and Joico are usually neck-and-neck, or AG is slightly ahead. Continent-wide, AG competes with Paul Mitchell, Aveda, Sebastian, Matrix, Nexus. It’s a rich business, with Mitchell reporting annual retail sales of $200 million, Matrix $300 million.

AG remains the only Canadian company in the field. Its sales aren’t leading the market yet but the company is doing well, with 100 employees and 1999 wholesale sales of $11 million (translating to retail sales of $18 million). In 1994, the company won the Canada Award for Business Excellence from the National Quality Institute; in 1996, Profit Magazine named it Canada’s fifth fastest-growing company, with five-year sales growth of 5,426%.

In addition to AG’s Vancouver headquarters, there are offices in Calgary and Toronto. This year, distributors opened up two Washington State markets—Tacoma and Seattle/Bellevue and, in California, San Diego and northern Los Angeles. There’s one distributor in New Zealand; in Canada, there are 35 AG sales reps, plus five independent distributors.

The AG line is now sold in 4,500 salons. The line currently consists of 30 shampoos, conditioners, styling products, finishing products and perms, priced at $9-$14. There are plans to expand into colouring products, and the idea of opening AG salons is under discussion.

Lotte attributes much of AG’s success to timing. “In today’s market, if we said ‘We’re going to try and take some serious market share from Joico’, people would think we were crazy. The field is just so competitive now, we probably wouldn’t succeed. But we stayed focused on how to make this work. We also had a knack for marketing.”

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When AG was founded, salons carried one or two lines; now they may carry 15. A salon is a busy, noisy environment. If you want to sell product, you’re going to have to get people’s attention. John and Lotte did this with bold, aggressive point-of-purchase (p.o.p.) materials. This sounds elemental now but, at that time, Lotte says that no one used p.o.p. materials to sell professional hair care products in salons.

“Back then, p.o.p. materials were a drug store thing. We invested in high-quality racks, we introduced specially-priced Christmas and travel bundles, and we introduced price-driven promotions on litres. We used easily-remembered names and colour-coded our products so they’d be quickly recognized. Our p.o.p. materials are very bold and they quickly deliver the message to consumers, talking about the products’ benefits and uses and providing instructions. Everything’s high-quality, very colourful, and there’s lots of it. We provide salons with posters, header cards, mirror talkers, shelf talkers, masks. The competition doesn’t do that.

“Also, with Joico being around so long, our real advantage, because Joico’s an American company, was that we could offer salons a higher margin. That, along with our p.o.p. materials helping with sell-through, in addition to getting our products noticed and increasing sales, allows salon owners to focus on what they do best and still achieve an extraordinary retail business.”

John’s knowledge of the stylist mentality, and catering to that mentality, is another key to AG’s success.

“Stylists traditionally think of themselves as artists,” continues Lotte. “They’re not comfortable selling. They’re in the business of cutting hair. It has taken a lot of education—from the whole industry—to convince them that if clients can’t maintain their styles after leaving the salon, the clients are going to be upset. And you need hair products to maintain those styles. You have to know what products to use and how to use them, or your hair will go back to being limp. We had to convince stylists that, although they don’t have to do the hard sell on clients, they can at least tell clients what they used for their styles.

“That’s the basis of our business. The average woman sees her stylist every six weeks and buys at least two products each time. About 2% of consumers buy professional hair products because they’ve seen ads in magazines, 75% buy because stylists recommended it. At the beginning, we knew stylists weren’t actively recommending our products, so the p.o.p. materials had to do the job.”

This also led to another innovation—a salon education program, consisting of product introduction seminars, and styling, cutting and perming classes. AG sends top stylists into salons to introduce new cutting techniques, styling techniques, perming techniques. And, of course, to teach stylists how their clients can use AG products to keep their hair looking healthy and beautiful between salon visits.

AG also does 10 trade shows each year, with an enormous ‘booth’ that Lotte likens to the Steel Wheels Tour facility. At trade shows, AG stages hair shows complete with professional costumes, choreography and sound effects. “We spend about 3% of our sales on hair shows,’ she says. “It pays off because we have to educate stylists and that’s what keeps them interested in us.”

Stylists have always been impressed by AG’s innovative marketing approach. For example, no one else used customized delivery vans. AG’s reps used vans stocked with product and emblazoned with the AG logo. When a salon agreed to carry AG products, the rep only had to go out to the parking lot, return with the stands and products and set up the sales area then and there. As the company became more successful, it had to switch to couriers—reps had to constantly return to fill the vans—but they are still used in rural areas, small towns and when opening new markets, where they serve as excellent advertising vehicles.

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Also, no one else offered a refill program. AG customers receive a 25% discount if they bring empty bottles back to salons and refill them from larger dispensers. AG is still the only company in its industry that does this. AG is also the only company to offer samples in half-ounce bottles, while the competition persists with foil samplers. ‘Try-me’ bottles, in fact, have a higher perceived value and a greater capture rate.

Another innovation—this was the early ’90s—was the promise that no AG products were tested on animals, and that AG products contained herbal extracts, natural oils, vitamins, natural proteins and aromatherapy elements. They use things like silk protein, wheat, oat and human hair protein, and non-PABA based sunscreen. They offered alcohol-, wax- and oil-free formulations, and pH-balanced products made from photo-degradable and biodegradable ingredients. Products are blended in an herbal extract base and, perhaps most importantly, AG uses no sodium chloride.

Salt, it turns out, is what most other manufacturers use as a thickening agent. Salt dries out the hair and scalp. AG uses natural thickening agents, which are more expensive but make your hair feel better. It was important for AG to let people know about this, so much so that AG reps go into salons and make a drug store shampoo on the spot, using beakers and test tubes, fragrances and colours—and a box of Sifto.

AG uses very little water in its products, which means that they’re highly concentrated. So a $9 bottle of AG shampoo will last much longer than two $4 bottles of drug store shampoo. Advertising this had the effect of making professional products more affordable for, and accessible to, average consumers. AG was also able to promise consumers instant results.

Many people believe that it doesn’t matter what you put on your hair—that it’s what you put in your body that determines what your hair looks like. But we know that some products make hair look better. And we know that the wrong products can ruin hair. (You want alcohol on your hair, in a spray, but you don’t want it in setting lotions because it saps moisture. You don’t want oils because they stick to hair and can go rancid. Lanolin is not good for hair, silicone is.)

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Educating consumers and stylists about all of this has been crucial to AG’s success. But the key is in the final use.

“The first thing people do is take the cap off a product and smell it,” explains Lotte. “So it has to smell great. Next is its appearance as it’s being poured—it has to be creamy and rich-looking. Ultimately though, when someone gets in the shower, does she feel good about it? Is she going to buy it again? Having spent that money, is it giving her a good experience? We can say ‘yes’. Our products work. If we say that a product will make your hair look thicker, it will. Because our products do what we say they’ll do, we have a very high repeat performance. Which pays off for us, and for salons.”

Over the years, AG has worked hard to anticipate what consumers want. “We have an R&D team with two full-time chemists and we’re always changing ingredients, always looking for something of a higher quality,” notes Lotte. “We look at trends in fashion and hair styles, get stylist feedback and sales rep feedback about what people need and want. We don’t copy our competition because, if you do that, you’re always one step behind. We try to come up with innovative products before anyone else does.”

Packaging is also a big issue. In the early days, Lotte did all of the company’s design work. Two years ago, AG retained Vancouver’s M5 Design, which has just redesigned AG’s packaging.

“Packaging has to be something that people can relate to and find attractive,” explains Lotte. “But lately, people are into interesting packaging. As soon as new packaging comes out, consumers gravitate toward it. They’ll spend $30 on a bottle of bubble bath because they like the bottle. And now you’ll find salons with one chair and racks of product. So packaging has to make the product easy to spot. We went eight years with the same packaging, we’ve just changed it and we’re already looking at changing it two years from now. Joico recently changed its packaging and has to do it again because it wasn’t successful. We refresh our image, but we’re careful not to lose our brand image.”

The majority of AG’s marketing budget is spent on marketing directly to salons and stylists. Ads are placed in trade magazines; a PR firm, Vancouver’s Turtle & Hare, makes sure that AG’s products are regularly mentioned in fashion magazines. A web site went up last year. It’s lightly-visited and has not been a big part of the company’s marketing plans, although it will be in the future and it is about to be revamped. Its main purpose has been to attract new distributors.

AG is very deliberate in its choice of markets and distributors. One of the reasons for its success is single-line distribution, meaning that AG products go directly from the manufacturing facility in Vancouver, to contracted distributors, to salons.

One benefit of this is that the practice of ‘diversion’ is avoided. Diversion takes place when people buy products from salons for 10% more than the salons paid. Then they sell it to drug stores for a higher percentage. This is why you’ll see pieces of professional product lines in drug stores, but never the full line. In the US, diversion is harder to control because there are so many levels of distribution, but AG has been successful at controlling it.

And why would it matter if their products popped up on drug stores shelves?

“Drug stores sales are the death knell of a professional product line,” explains Lotte. “Once you start selling to drug stores and putting your product into a mass-market venue, you’re taking business from the salons and forcing  salons into competition with drug stores. The salons will drop you. Drug store sales also degrade the image and professionalism of a product, because it’s instantly associated with the cheaper, lower-quality products. So drug stores sales are absolutely contrary to our distribution plans.”

Lotte says that AG’s distribution methods are another area in which it is unique. “Most distributors carry multiple lines. So a sales rep will go into a salon and say ‘I have these lines, which one do you want to buy today?’ Our distributors can only sell AG. They can carry brushes or nail products from other companies, but AG is the only wet line they can carry. But we provide our distributors with a turnkey operation. All the p.o.p. materials, the education programs—everything that has made AG successful is passed on.”

So what’s next? New York?

“No way,” says Lotte. “We look for opportunities where there’s still opportunity, not where it’s over-crowded. Now that we know what works, we want to expand into markets that are about to take off.”

Make-Up for Men: Take a Pass, Please

Blitz Magazine, May 2005

makeupI had a bit of a shock the other day. I ran into a man I hadn’t seen in years. He is now a newly-divorced father of three, in his late ‘40s, red-headed, handsome and successful. We started chatting and I realized that he was wearing make-up. This man has red eyelashes. Had—now they’re jet black. And I could see powder on his chin and cheeks. I must be more old-fashioned that I thought, because I was just floored to see this (presumably) hetero man wearing mascara.

We’ve long been hearing about the boom in sales of men’s cosmetics. In the US, sales are now at $18 billion. In Japan, sales are growing by 4% each year, with 2004 sales hitting 13 billion yen. Much of this has to do with a greater concern for skin care, which is a good thing. And we experiencing a baby-boomer divorce surge—now the kids are in university, their parents are finally giving up the ghost. So there are a lot of men who have to go back to dating again, and it’s perfectly logical for them to want to look more appealing. But seeing this man wearing make-up just totally creeped me out. Like, gag, dude.

I wanted to see how marketers are communicating with men, so I Googled ‘men’s cosmetics’ and found thousands of pages. The Internet is the perfect medium for sales of these products—because, I imagine that most men don’t want to be seen hanging around the Estee Lauder counter at The Bay.

I find this one site—4V00 Distinct Men, whose sell line is ‘Have Fun. Be Sexy. Feel Luxurious’.

I read about its Confidence Corrector, which is ‘an excellent solution for most men!’ and a stick that will give men ‘luminous lips’, by accentuating lips and making them ‘sparkle with sensuous appeal’, as it ‘provides a youthful softness and creates a desirable wet gloss.’ Lipid Lip Serum makes lips ‘fuller, smoother, more sensuous!’ as itrestores collagen, hydrates, plumps, smoothes, and conditions lips to make them sinfully desirable.”

Ewwww! Really! If I meet a man for a drink after work, do I want to see Confidence Corrector over his 5:00 shadow, and his lips plumped and sparkling? No! No! Absolutely not!!!

I freely admit my hypocrisy here. Because of my spectral whiteness, I never leave the house without lipstick. So there’s a definite double standard. But I’m going to claim that it falls into the realm of ‘woman’s prerogative’. Or something like that.

Women, of course, will buy just about any cosmetic substance. They believe every claim, regardless of how bad the ad copy is. A recent Holt Renfrew catalogue touted Clinique’s new line as being “suitable for people with ‘reactionary skin’. Huh? Holts also wants us to know that Alexander McQueen’s “body lotion is enriched with mandrake root, an ingredient known for its magical properties. Bewitching!” And Neutrogena tells us that our skin is ‘disorganized’ and that its products will, uh, reorganize us.

Elizabeth Arden now offers: “Lip Lip Hooray…fortified with a mint-flavored breath freshener and zinc citrate, known for years to counterbalance volatile sulfur compounds in the mouth which cause halitosis (bad breath). Zinc citrate is not a new compound and has been used for years in toothpastes to help decrease malodor in people’s mouths.”

There’s an Ecosense herbal lipstick containing ‘natural waxes, neem, Aloe vera and Vitamin E’. There are a million ‘herbal’ products now, containing things like oils and roots and leaves and, I dunno, gravel from a pit in Mozambique and seeds from Tibetan cow pies. ‘Fact is, most women don’t want to know what’s in their cosmetics. The truth would hurt.

It’s human nature to want to look good. It’s the nature of animals to want to attract the opposite sex—or, in some cases, the same sex. The survival of the species requires that we all take steps to find mates. We all want to feel good too, and we feel better if we know we look good. And, in this navel-gazing, appearance-obsessed society, a lot of people are seeing cosmetic enhancements, spa treatments, skincare regimens and plastic surgery as essential to their career success. ‘Strange, but true.

So I shouldn’t be slagging men for wearing make-up. I only hope that they wear waterproof brands or avoid getting caught in the rain.

Bum’s the Word: If You Want To See Kathleen Staples’ Business Plan, Look Under Her Skirt

Blitz Magazine, November 1999

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In the minds of many, the idea of an entrepreneur constantly pushing a product is considered ‘shameful self-promotion’. (Somehow, constantly running television or radio commercials is not.) However, the success of BC entrepreneur Kathleen Staples shows how self-promotion, without benefit of paid advertising or PR services, can build a booming business.

Staples’ entrepreneurial flair first exhibited itself in high school, during the course of which she designed, sewed and sold 5,000 bathing suits. While she had great swimwear, she never wore any underwear because she couldn’t find any that were comfortable. She hated the feeling of exposed elastic and inside seams. She wanted the luxury and comfort of silk, but silk was too expensive, too fussy and too hard to care for.

In 1992, following a stint at Sotheby’s, Staples found herself with her own Vancouver antiques store, selling beautiful things to people who didn’t need them. She decided that she’d rather sell something that people needed.

Then, light bulb. Product: Underwear. Name: Staples—You Need Them Every Day. Concept: High-quality, silk knit underwear which is attractive, comfortable, affordable and easy to care for.

In 1994, after designing her patterns and arranging financing, Staples arrived in Hong Kong with no contacts, no industry experience and no idea of how to find a manufacturer. When she went into a government building to pick up her travel documents, she saw a notice saying that the Chinese Silk Industry Trade Show was taking place at that moment, in that building. Within hours, she’d given a pattern to two dozen manufacturers; a few months later, her chosen manufacturer—a mill near Shanghai—shipped her first order of 1,500 white briefs. Staples contracted a local woman to hand-dye them; she made her own tags, improvised a corded package and began to sell them.

How, you might wonder, does one sell underwear? In Staples’ case, she cold-called lingerie shops, then sent retailers pairs for their own use. Nine out of ten calls resulted in purchases, then repeat orders. She dropped into stores and showed her product to owners or sales managers. Who bought them. And quickly sold them. She also leased a small space near the cash register at The Bay in downtown Vancouver, and laid her panties across people’s hands as they waited to pay. It worked like a charm. Because, in the case of Staples lingerie, once people feel it, they buy it. All Kathleen Staples had to do is get it into people’s hands.

In 1994, Staples sold $1000 (CAD) worth of lingerie. In 1995, sales were $10,000. In 1996, $100,000. In 1997, $500,000. In 1998, $1 million. She projects sales of $10 million for the next fiscal year. In 1998, she shipped 150,000 garments; over the last year, business has increased by 1000%. She now has 20,000 customers.

According to Statistics Canada, in 1996, Canadians spent $2 billion (CAD) on lingerie. In 1997, sales of lingerie giant Warner’s were $4 billion (US), while the popular Joe Boxer line takes in $40 million (US) a year. Many credit Calvin Klein’s ground-breaking PR and marketing work for the fact that, in the last decade, the foundation garments market has grown by double digits every year. It’s now a no-lose business. If you have a quality product and can get it to market, it will sell.

staples1“If you think about it, it’s so simple,” says Staples. “Everybody needs underwear every day. So the biggest problem is meeting demand, which is unending. You can’t niche-market because everybody wants it. Consumers want extra-large sizes, they want it for grandmothers, teens, children. Women are screaming for bras; body shapers account for almost half of the market. You find a cost-effective way of manufacturing it, you put it out there, it flies away. The secret to success, though, is being able to deliver—getting those orders to customers and giving them 100% attention, time and service.”

A 1998 Style Magazine survey found that what women want from underwear is minimalist purity of colour and fabric. They want fine materials which hug the body and won’t interfere with movement or clothing. Price was most important for 69% of respondents; 57% stock up on lingerie twice a year. Only 29% preferred silk over cotton (69%). But there is very little brand loyalty in lingerie purchases, and that’s where Staples has been able to squeeze in and flourish—once people start wearing her underwear, they rarely wear anything else.

The first attraction is the feel and concept of silk. Staples looked at samples from Vietnam, India, Africa, Italy, France and Japan—the Chinese was the best. Silk keeps you cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It lifts moisture off the skin. Clothes won’t stick to it and, contrary to popular belief, it does not need dry-cleaning. From the ethical perspective, Staples’ manufacturer is not a sweatshop, nor does it use child labour. Unlike cotton, the production of silk requires no pesticides—it is a protein fibre spun from the heads of well-fed caterpillars. Staples uses silk stitching and natural, cold water-and-vinegar dyes.

The second attraction is in construction. The knit allows for a 75% stretch. It washes quickly, dries quickly. Front seams mean that panties won’t ride up. The elastic is concealed and the underwear fits like a glove—no added bulk, no panty lines.

The other big selling point—for men as well as women, is functionality. Staples sells 20 items: for women, there are three panty styles, for men there are fitted boxers and Speedo-like ‘Cary Grants’. For men and women there are undershirts, biking shorts and leggings. Colour names have personality—Go Fly A Kite Blue, Sugar Petal Pink, I Love Lilac. Her biggest seller remains the ladies French Cut, size medium, in Jet Set Black. Prices range from $20 (for panties) to $100 (for sleep shirts). And, if they’re hand washed and hung to dry, they last for three years.

So Staples has a unique product. But, she says, she’s been “panty-rich and penny-poor”. At the beginning, without funds to hire an advertising agency, conduct consumer advertising or pay for public relations campaigns, she took the pragmatic approach and is now well-known for her attention-getting promotions.

She mailed panties to professional women golfers, telling them that Staples will allow them to think about their back swings as opposed to their back sides. She has appeared at Christmas parties as Panty Claus. She has sponsored golf tournaments where the hole flags were replaced with pairs of underwear. She has carried a Staples-clad Barbie doll to parties. She has stuffed underwear into popcorn boxes and sent them to guests of the Vancouver International Film Festival. To Staples customers, she handed out t-shirts reading ‘Ask Me About My Underwear’, knowing that people couldn’t resist asking. After addressing a meeting of a women’s business association, she dropped her pants.

She is also a master at media relations. Her press releases are short, to the point, and iconographically intense. Her copy is irreverent and witty, e.g. ‘I Am Woman, Hear Me Snore’. Her press kits always include lavender-scented samples. A consummate schmoozer, she hosts four parties a year, and calls media members regularly.

“I tell them what I’m doing, and I always put a spin on it so it’s news. Or I give them a photo to op, like the Panty Claus thing. Journalists need stuff to write about. If you give them light news, make it funny and don’t send them a pile of stuff to read, you’ll get coverage. Reporters like stories about women, about entrepreneurs and about underwear. Plus I’m a good talking head; I give good interview.”

Staples has been interviewed on CBC Radio and cable television, and is a favourite with the fashion press. She got a lot of ink in 1997, when she launched a lingerie vending machine. It was fully-computerized, with instant credit card verification and interactive directions in 10 languages. At the time, there were only three such machines in North America (also tested by Ralph Lauren and Joe Boxer). Although the machine would have been perfect for an airport, train station, bus station etc., Staples couldn’t find a permanent location for it. But she hasn’t dropped the idea—before returning the machine, she placed it in the Vancouver office of a large corporation for two weeks and had to re-stock it daily. It also earned her spots on V.TV and the CTV National News.

Back in 1996, Staples hosted a Gaunch Launch at a restaurant—your drinks were free if you danced in your underwear. BCTV’s Pamela Martin came, then ran an eight-minute piece on the BCTV Newshour. This was 10 days before Christmas; for the next month, retailers’ racks were picked clean of Staples items.

That led to a feature story on Venture. At the time, Staples was supplying all Bay stores. For publicity for all involved, she set up her own ‘trading post’ in front of The Bay at Toronto’s busy Yonge/Bloor intersection. Venture ran an ad in the Financial Post reading: ‘Woman With Knickers in a Knot at Yonge & Bloor’. On the day of the promotion, she told passers-by that she’d trade anything for a pair of silk panties—she received stock tips, jokes, a thermos, an emergency bee sting kit. Meanwhile, models walked around inside the store wearing her pieces. The Venture piece ran; The Bay promptly sold $30,000 worth of Staples’ pieces.

Then The Bay changed buyers and Staples’ deal with the chain ended (she’s now back in seven Bay stores). By that time though, many people knew about her products and started e-mailing orders. Staples realized that she had to move from guerrilla marketing to electronic marketing.

Staples first had a web site designed in 1995 but, in 1997, she partnered with BC Tel to offer the first Christmas of secure shopping, becoming the third pilot site in BC Tel Interactive’s E-Commerce credit card encryption project. Now, sales on the site (www.staplesonline.com) account for half of her company’s revenue. Most orders come from the US and Canada, but she has loyal customers from Sweden to Brazil to Hong Kong, and she recently arranged for her site to accept JCB, Japan’s largest credit card.

Like all of Staples promotional materials, the site is not fancy. Staples prefers to use lots of white space, no more copy than is absolutely necessary, and line drawings and cartoons instead of photographs. This bare-bones approach is probably why the site has worked so well; shopping on it is easy. The site contains testimonials from satisfied customers, a Q & A section, sizing charts, store listings and a ‘Katalog’ with drawings and descriptions of each product. Staples has removed the password system; now shoppers need only register and click their purchases into personalized shopping carts.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in sales due to the Internet,” says Staples. “New customers are coming in more rapidly, existing customers are shopping more often and buying more.”

Staples is an avid pamphleteer and promotes the site at every opportunity. She will give anyone a $10 gift certificate toward a web-site purchase. Or a fridge magnet bearing the site’s address. She has sent out coupons with orders of Chinese food, she donates to countless charity events and tries to give away 10% of her stock. Every garment tag bears the web site address, as well as her 800 number.

“The 800 number has at least doubled sales,” says Staples. “The web site gets about 2500 hits a month, which is not a lot, but 10% of those visitors make a purchase—many sites get millions of hits but make no sales. The 800 number is used by people who are calling specifically to make a purchase, and we get about 40 calls a day.”

Callers to the number (800-397-7228) speak directly to Staples’ shipping manager, who works out of her home. There is no Staples office. Kathleen Staples’ fax machine and files are in her parents’ home. She carries out her business with only a lap-top computer, a 3-watt cell phone and a canary-yellow VW bus. Two other assistants handle database and paper work; she has eight agents acting on her behalf in the US and Canada.

Staples is now in 24 US stores (60 in Canada), but sales in the US have been thwarted by American quotas on the importation of Chinese silk; a labeling law ditched a deal with Nordstrom. She has, however, been approached by several catalogues and is looking at the lucrative practice of private labeling. She recently signed her first deal: Staples lingerie will soon be found in 900 US Harley Davidson locations, bearing that company’s logo.

Incongruous, perhaps, but Staples isn’t worried about projecting any particular product image. This is, after all, underwear. And, as she says; “The medium is the message—or maybe it’s the large…”

 

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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