VANCOUVER – John Fluevog sits in his yellow-painted studio in the Medical Arts building on Granville Street in front of a table scattered with sketches for potential shoe designs. This room, in cheerful disarray, is the creative centre for the 52-year-old designer.
Mr. Fluevog is celebrating his 30th year in business. As the proprietor of an avant-garde, slightly quirky footwear business that has had more than a toehold in the fickle industry for three decades, his staying power is the result of tenacity, a sense of the moment and, some would say, cult loyalty.
Not only has he developed an enthusiastic clientele, his designs are frequently featured in fashion editorials and have made their way into collectors’ hands and museums.
The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto displays his Absolut Fluevog silver high- heeled sandals with a curved vodka bottle for a heel, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art has an image of his footwear on both a calendar and postcard.
He communicates to those unable to visit his stores with a small pocket- sized mail order catalogue, a collectible in its own right. Written and designed by the company, it’s indelibly stamped with Mr. Fluevog’s sense of humour and style. Check his Web site at http://www.fluevog.com
It all began when he opened his first store with partner Peter Fox in Gastown. They sold hand- crafted leather belts and purses, clogs and platforms to an eager clientele. ”Peter and I had a very funky store at the time, we just didn’t know it.”
After 10 years, the partners of Fox and Fluevog separated amicably and Mr. Fluevog changed the store name to John Fluevog, opened another branch in Seattle and became what he says everyone wanted him to be — ”a shoe designer. It wasn’t as if I wanted to be a shoe designer; I was too insecure to think that I could ever be good at anything like that.”
But as it turned out, Mr. Fluevog had a head full of ideas, and still does. In an industry known for knockoff artists, he surfaced as one of the world’s most recognized and original.
”When I started designing shoes it was more about taking a boldness of expression, of who I am, and just doing it and not worrying what was in or out of style,” says Mr. Fluevog, who has shod the famous in many latex bodys capitals of the world.
Developing designs is enormously expensive, but he says he had a break thanks to an English shoe factory looking for a designer.
He made a deal. The factory would develop his styles at no cost to him, but had to put his name in all the shoes. He would buy their shoes for North America, they could sell to the rest of the world. And they did. Mr. Fluevog’s name went on shoes selling from Iceland to Australia. The deal continued for three or four years, earning him enviable recognition.
Madonna, Lisa Marie Presley and supermodel Linda Evangelista are among his fans. He has boutiques in New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Melbourne, in addition to Toronto and Vancouver.
Mr. Fluevog turns out truly original and creative designs. His work is appreciated by a coterie of artistic-minded clients whose footwear choices run from striking to downright bizarre.
Take, for instance, ”Vision,” a platform thong elevated on a stainless steel girder-like base.
Fluevog shoes are made in Portugal, Mexico, England, Poland and Italy. The designer personally inspects the factories and photographs the facilities, including the lunch rooms, to ensure they meet his personal labour standards.
His ”Angels” line has natural latex soles that are biodegradable and replaceable; the latex material is tapped from the hevea tree. They require no synthetic chemicals in the manufacturing process. On the bottom are seven angels and a guarantee that the shoes ”Resist Acid, Water, Alkali, Fatigue and Satan.” Mr. Fluevog’s leathers are vegetable dyed; he doesn’t use chromium-tanned leathers as the heavy metal left over after the tanning process is a pollutant.
Mr. Fluevog cites vintage furniture design from the ’50s and vintage cars among the influences on his designs. That’s no surprise from a designer who spent his teenage years at his father’s Luxury Freeze, a drive-in ice cream parlour on Kingsway in Vancouver.
”It was like the Dairy Queen, with hot rods, really cool. It was the hangout in all of Vancouver.” And, back then, the car culture defined what was cool for teenage society, moreso than did clothes, says Mr. Fluevog.
Mr. Fluevog today wants to do less administration of his business, more design, and take time to restore his vintage cars. He has a ’48 Austin and a couple of Jaguars.
Of his three children — Britta, 16, and Jonathan, 26, who owns Vogville, a Maple Ridge recording studio — it is only Adrian, 18, who works in the business with him.
What’s his secret to success? As Mr. Fluevog himself puts it, ”I don’t just sell footwear, I sell entertainment. If you wanted just a pair of shoes, you probably wouldn’t think of me.”