John Fluevog on Managing a Business

John Fluevog | BCBusiness
John Fluevog gives the keynote speech at the Vancouver Leaders Breakfast during the 2013 Buildex Vancouver conference.

Iconic shoe designer John Fluevog shares his story of struggles while building and maintaining a business and explains the accidental cult following of his brand.

As part of the 2013 Buildex conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre, Canadian design icon and entrepreneur John Fluevog gave the keynote speech at the Vancouver Leaders Breakfast on February 14. Fluevog shared with the audience candid tales from his life story (“I barely graduated high school”), the struggles of building and maintaining a healthy business and the accidental cult following that exploded around his shoes.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Fluevog worked at Sheppard’s, a local shoe store, before going into business with his friend Peter Fox. Fluevog’s father gave Fox a loan to open his own shoe store, but with the caveat that Fox had to make Fluevog’s son a 50-per-cent partner. The deal and loan proved fortuitous, and the two friends opened the Fox & Fluevog shoe store and soon had customers flying up from L.A. to shop their eccentric selection.

In 1980, Fluevog bought out Fox for his half the company and had to quickly learn how to run the business side of their two-man operation. “I was really a player in his band,” says Fluevog of his business partner. “I felt like a really tiny minnow in a big pond and I didn’t really know what I was doing.”

After securing a $100,000 loan from the bank, Fluevog opened two new stores, changing the company name to John Fluevog. At that point, he was sourcing a diverse range of products that made the store a destination for shoe junkies, but had yet to sell his own designs. “I saw everyone wanting me to be this designer, and I thought, ‘I guess I can do this,’ ” he says. “It was very mercenary, truthfully. Desperation is the mother of invention and I was desperate. So I designed a shoe.”

The Pilgrim, Fluevog’s first shoe design, got him revved up creatively, and on the business side of things, he opened his first New York City location. It was about that time that press for Fluevog began to blow up: his designs were featured in fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and Madonna was wearing his shoes. “You start to freak out and think, ‘How am I going to keep this up?’ ” he says.

Fluevog points to his personally hand-drawn shoe catalogues as part of the PR boom his business was enjoying. “I just didn’t want to spend money on a designer,” he admits. “And that’s kind of how the brand got out there—these crazy little hand-drawn catalogues.”

In the late-‘90s the business began to stall. “Everything started to crash,” says Fluevog, in part because he felt pressure to do everything himself and take on too much of the burden of running a business and conceiving the designs.

With the little money he had, Fluevog tried opening a new store in Chicago, but the business’s finances were in tough shape. “My account got moved to special forces,” he jokes. “I had reached crisis point.”

It was then, at a near breaking point, that Fluevog reassessed his strengths in the business and decided to design a new shoe. The feeling at the time was, “If this shoe doesn’t sell, you might as well go home.” Despite being a far cry from the current shoe trends in the market, Fluevog’s new design sold well. He considers the success a testament to staying true to himself and his brand.

Fluevog now has 16 stores across North America. “Things have changed,” he says. “I’m still self-financed, but I don’t have the bank calling me anymore.”

One of the greatest lessons Fluevog has learned relates to his views on management. “Managing a design team is a bit like putting cats in a bag,” he says. It can be a tricky game, but it’s crucial to the lifeblood of a creative business to have good designers with strong wills. “I don’t like wallflowers in my office—they don’t do very well” he says, adding that he likes people on his team to argue with him to defend their points.  

Fluevog likens the design-team dynamic to a jazz band: somebody sets the tone and flavour, and while the others can have solos, they’re all following that one leader. The leader gives the team a theme and lets them run with it inside a set of parameters.

“I need my creative team to see the unseen; there’s no sense in doing something that’s been done before,” he says. “The potential for doing better overwhelms me.”


Kristen Hilderman is the assistant editor at BCBusiness magazine, specializing in retail and manufacturing. | Twitter