Credit: Evaan Kheraj

Fluevog, shown at his Vancouver flagship store, has stayed true to himself

Don’t expect the creator of shoes like the Pilgrim, the Mini and the Angel to put his feet up anytime soon

In his long jacket and tall black boots, John Fluevog still looks every bit the dandy who started making his mark on the fashion and retail worlds five decades ago. He glides down into the showroom of his gorgeous, high-ceilinged flagship store in Vancouver’s Gastown, where the back stairs lead to a workshop for shoe designs that keep on coming to him.

Fluevog opened this location in 2008, in the same neighbourhood where he and former business partner Peter Fox launched their first store back in 1970. His eponymous company is a global brand, with 27 locations in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Jack White are just a few of the celebrities who have sported his quirky, distinctive, reasonably priced and well-made shoes and boots.

But as he reveals in his new book, Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls, there were plenty of ups and downs. As a kid in Vancouver, where his late father, Sigurd, owned a drive-in ice cream parlour, Fluevog loved cars and clothes but struggled in school because of dyslexia. After enjoying early success on his way to becoming a notable designer, he narrowly escaped bankruptcy in the mid-1980s and again in the late 1990s. Now happily married, he’s been through two divorces, and this past decade he twice overcame leukemia.

Equal parts memoir, primer on his creative process and tribute to Fluevoggers everywhere, the lavishly illustrated book devotes a chapter to the often encouraging messages he prints on the bottoms of his shoes. A spiritual man who believes in divine inspiration and has quietly given to the arts and charity throughout his career, Fluevog was never just in it for the money.

“I’ve grown, but it’s always been organic,” he says, sprawled across an upstairs sofa as he nurses a bowl of soup. “And I suppose part of my reason for growing is an artistic one. I want to influence people. I like influencing culture.”

Fluevog, 71, notes proudly that besides $13,500 in startup capital from his dad, he’s had no investors. “I’m so glad I never did that. I’d be so unhappy,” he says. “People now think, Oh, well, all I’ve got to do is flick this lever here and flick that lever there, and I’ll be a zillionaire. I don’t know anything about that world. Man, my life was one shoe at a time.”

What made you open your first store? Why shoes?

I guess an answer would be, be careful what you start, because you might end up doing it. I was in partnership with somebody for 10 years, from my early 20s to 30s. He was 15 years my senior and knew a whole lot more than I did, and probably still does. I bought him out in 1980 and was doing the same sort of thing we had been doing. I was a retailer; I’d go to Europe and bring things into the boutique. And I was trying to make things look different, so I’d go to the factories and try and change bits on the shoes the best I could.

Trying to pay him back with a recession happening, around ’85 it got really difficult, and I ran out of money. I ended up with two stores, on West Broadway and Granville Street, and I made a bold decision to move the store on West Broadway to Seattle.

That did a few different things to me. The business did quite well, and then I changed the name of the company from Fox & Fluevog to John Fluevog. When I did that, it was a pivotal shift personally and in consumers’ minds. Suddenly there was one name, the Fluevog name, and therefore I became a designer. I wasn’t really before.

Why did you decide to do a book?

There’s not a lot of independent fashion retailers that are still in business 50 years later. And I call myself a boutique rather than a chain store or multi-stores. It’s a boutique because it’s my collections of things that I put together that I have thought of, made and put out.

So I wanted to celebrate the fact that I’ve made it thus far. I also wanted to celebrate the fact that it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. When I look back at my life, some of the hardest parts have been the best parts. It’s deep-down satisfying to go through a really tough time and come out the other side of it.

How is the shoe business doing? What are its big challenges?

When I started putting my own name on my shoes, I don’t think I understood the implications. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know if I’d be in business today, because of the Internet. If I’m just selling other people’s brands, I’m competing with all the other online retailers. And traditional retailing has fundamentally changed, so you need to have your own feeling, emotion, schtick, energy—whatever you want to call it, you need to have your own grasp on it. Because if you don’t, all your products can be had cheaper and more conveniently on the Net.

There’s a side of the business that is completely mechanical. The shoe business is an inventory control game. So I have all these new styles coming in all the time, and I have to get rid of the old ones and maintain my margins. It’s really Retailing 101.

And the other part of it is, I’m really, at the root of what I’m doing, not selling shoes. I’m selling a feeling, an emotion. I don’t sell a commodity. In one sense, nobody needs my shoes to function, but they might need them to get through life. They might need them to make themselves feel special. And I hope my shoes do that, they make people feel special.

Credit: Courtesy of John Fluevog

With Peter Fox (left), his former business partner, Fluevog rocks Gastown in 1970

What advice would you give the young John Fluevog if he were starting out today?

Probably the same advice I’d give anybody: be yourself. If you’re starting a business and are looking at another successful business and you just copy or emulate it, I don’t know that that’s going to be successful. If you have your own idea, your own energy, your own feeling of how you want it to be, and you go into it with both feet, you’ve got a much better chance of being successful, no matter what it is. It’s putting that stamp of your own DNA on something.

One of your slogans is that good soles leave small prints, no matter what the shoe size. Given your own efforts to create eco-friendly shoes, how can the fashion industry reduce its environmental impact?

People, particularly the media, want to tout me as being environmentally friendly. And I do try. I try to do leathers that are chrome-free; I try to do soles that are biodegradable; I try to do heels that will biodegrade. But really, there’s the very act of being in business. I’m shipping things all over the world. So for me to say, Oh, yes, I’m so environmentally friendly, look how marvellous I am, is bullshit. I spend $100,000 a year on FedEx sending samples back and forth.

I think the bigger thing I’ve ended up doing is that my shoes have become collectible. They’re not super in fashion; nor are they super out of fashion. So people collect them.

I find that’s the biggest environmentally sound practice I can do. People are reusing them, and someone else gets to enjoy them for a while. And they last a long time. I try to make them so they wear well, so you don’t wear them 10 times and want to throw them away.

There are 300-plus "families" for the thousands of shoe styles that John Fluevog and his team have created over the years

Credit: Courtesy of John Fluevog

Your shoes are designed in Vancouver, but why aren’t they made in B.C., too?

I wish they could be made here. It has to do with the infrastructure. Shoemaking areas in the world need components around them; so many components go into footwear. You need insole manufacturers, shank manufacturers, sole manufacturers—which is not a factory. A factory gathers all these parts up from all over and assembles them. And the lasts that shoes are made on, you need a manufacturer close by. So you need an industry around it, and there isn’t that industry here in Canada, particularly on the West Coast. There never was.

Where is retail headed? What’s the future of brick-and-mortar stores like yours?

I don’t see brick-and-mortar disappearing, but I think if I was a landlord and had a mall store somewhere, it wouldn’t be a good picture for me. Because the kind of things they’re selling are all things that are obtainable online. So stores, then, need to become a social place where like-minded people get together.

What’s next for you?

I’ve been through some health issues, and that changed my perspective. I think as you get older, you maybe become a mentor. You become a watcher. I’m not powering out on every little nuance of the business every day, but I’m still there in the background. My son Adrian is generally running the business, but he has a team around him.

I’m still doing the shoes. I can ask leading questions, I can look at bigger pictures, and I can look at the morality and the things I’d like to achieve and the legacies I’d like to leave. That’s partly why I did the book, because it’s a legacy.

In one sense, people look at me and go, Oh, John, you’re so successful. And I go, Well, not really. It’s just my life. It’s what I did. So maybe I wrote the book so I can look back and remind myself, Oh, actually, John, you did OK. You’re still here.