The Interviews

John Fluevog


Designing Unique Soles for More Than Four Decades

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
January 10, 2017

johnfluevog
John Fluevog has been crafting high quality, funky shoes for more than 46 years, yet he’s not a household name like Jimmy Choo, Jessica Simpson, or Steve Madden. Mainly because his shoes are not sold in department stores, and the designs are bizarrely unconventional. Let’s just say, when you wear a pair of Fluevogs, expect to get noticed. People either love them or they don’t know what to think of them, which is precisely what Mr. Fluevog has intended.

He’s kind of like the Tim Burton of the shoe design world. Like Burton’s films, Fluevog’s designs are colorful, over the top, and decidedly offbeat. He’ll never fit in, but that’s perfectly fine with him. It’s all part of his brand strategy. Fluevog has been creating “unique soles for unique souls” since 1970. The shoes aren’t just showstoppers though, they’re designed to last many, many years, constructed with high quality, eco-friendly materials. He lives his motto, “good soles leave small prints,” by specifying vegetable tanned leathers and water-based glues.

Fluevog’s mission is to bring his customers along for the fun and quirky ride. The Fluevog community, called “Flummunity,” encourages customers to submit shoe designs and create ads that reflect their own sentiments about the brand. There’s even a “Fluemarket” for buying and selling used Fluevogs. This brand strategy of involving his customers has paid off handsomely, as “Fluevogers” are repeat customers and tend to evangelize the brand mission. Every point of contact with the brand has been carefully curated from the online shopping experience, to the delivery of your product in a beautiful blue box, containing a custom shoe horn, Fluevog stickers, and sometimes a personal note from the person who shipped the shoes.

Here we talk to Fluevog about his brand’s unusual heritage, his inspirations, and staying ahead of design trends.

Did you have any training as a shoe designer?

I have been self-taught. I did not even take art in high school. In fact, I’m not sure I ever graduated from high school. I have never taken a shoe making course nor an art or design course, and have never done any post-secondary training. Art was not encouraged in my family. Music yes, art no.

Your shoe designs certainly go against conventional design. How do you know what’s going to work and what isn’t?

It’s about seeing or being a “see-er.” My eyes got opened out of necessity to make a living sometime in the mid 1980s. I knew that if I was going to enjoy being in the shoe business and see it grow, the company needed a “reason” for being. In a way, I was forced into it to make a living. I remember telling myself, “I need to do my own shoes,” and not having a clue where to start.

I was living in Vancouver, and not only was there no shoe industry, there was no fashion industry. As I look back on it, I can now see that this was a good thing.

I did not follow anyone or look at magazines. I closed my eyes and opened them again with a different understanding. I began to see shapes, and I would doodle them down and then try and figure out how I was going to get them made. Getting them made is the hard part, and still is in fact.

Where are your shoes actually made, and have the materials changed a lot over the years?

I have different shoes made in different factories around the world. The decisions as to where to get them made and in what country is not a straightforward answer. I use factories where I have a personal relationship with the owners—this is important. We need to trust each other, not just on payment issues but give and take and making the products that best suit their factory. And being consistent, especially with the ordering times, and not to decrease or increase orders too much from season to season, so they can plan ahead.

Do you sit down and consciously try to come up with new designs, or do the ideas just come to you at random times?

Both… the best ones come to me at random times, usually when I lie down at night to sleep. The designs float into my brain in parts. I’ll see the front only, so I get up and jot it down. Then I lie down again and see the side or the top, and have to get up again … and on it goes. Sometimes I’ll get a thought shape, and it will haunt me until I draw it … then it leaves me alone.

When I have deadlines, I have to sit down and draw up the next season, so I force myself to do it. But the process is still the same. It’s one of seeing, listening, and obeying by being bold enough to do what I have seen.

Do you have a design muse?

No, I can’t say I do. I’m a little too much of a rebel to look to someone else or design for a specific person.

Having said that, we do put things into approximate categories for men and women, but the categories shift a bit from season to season and are more a mindset rather than a person. I have found over the years that very few people who are really into a look or vibe can change. … Maybe I could be accused of that. I hope not.

Are there any popular fashion styles today, that you love to hate?

I think all things are OK… but it’s all about being fresh, being on the front of a wave and understand why that wave is going to drop quick or increase into a tsunami.

How did you become such a taste maker?

I think some of us are born with good taste. How things look to me is important.

Living in a world where how things look doesn’t matter would not be living. It would be a depressing place for me.

How have your design sensibilities changed over the years … or have they changed?

I think over the years, they’re kind of the same. I have a line sense that seems to keep popping up, and when I do them they are the ones that sell the best. I am influenced by trends, but I try to only give nods to them, and still do my own take.

Who is the Fluevog customer and is she/he always a repeat customer?

People seem to like the attention that my shoes give them.

They like the individual energy they give, plus the messages and stories that go with them send out an energy that makes their heart feel groovy. I believe that because my shoes come from my own soul, they resonate with their soul.

Where do you go first in the creative process: Is it the shoe silhouette, color, materials?

Silhouette for sure. For me it’s all about lines and the shape

How much of your design is whimsy and how much is data driven?

Mostly whimsy. It may not surprise you, but the more whimsical shoes work and sell the best.

Since you only produce a small number of each design, is this to keep demand higher or maintain your artistry?

It’s to keep me from getting bored! I see the brand as a big art project … ever changing and evolving, and this is what I like.

There was a part of me that wanted to pump out gobs of one thing and just manage the money. That was a brief moment, and then I realized that deep down I like hanging on the edge

How much testing goes into your designs? By that, I mean, some of the heels look downright unstable.

Well thanks for that!  A few are unstable, and I have done some shoes that are almost impossible to wear but I mostly take the fit very seriously. We have a group of testers that wear them as much as possible before production to ensure they fit and work well.

How do you come up with the names for the shoes?

They come to me while I am drawing them. There are family names—which are important to me–and then each shoe is named. Each name references the shoe family or someone who is important to us on the design team.

After more than 46 years in business, do you have a favorite Fluevog?

Not really. I like to think of my shoes as a story, and people are characters in that story. When I see them being worn as part of the story and the wearer ‘gets it,’ that’s satisfying for me.

 

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