Ask John Fluevog why he felt it was time to tell his life story and the answer you’ll get is an involved one. This makes sense once you spend some time with the Vancouver-based entrepreneur and game-changing shoe designer—who’s now the author of a new book titled Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls.
The Straight sits down with the West Coast legend at the expansive Gastown store that serves as a showroom for the famously styling footwear he’s been coming up with for five decades. Over espressos, Fluevog reveals himself to be many things, talking thoughtfully and philosophically about career highs and character-testing lows.
After suggesting that he’s not really a religious person, he acknowledges being spiritual and convinced that we’ve all been put here for a purpose. (“They’re angel-powered and Satan-resistant,” one of his ad tag lines once boasted.)
A city boy who’s spent much of his adult life doing business in the great urban centres of the world, he’s happiest these days on the Sunshine Coast, where he has a getaway residence.
While he freely admits to being somewhat rhythmically challenged, one of his greatest loves is funk and raw R&B. For his willingness to break rules and bring an element of surrealism to a sometimes ordinary world, Salvador Dalí ranks at the top of Fluevog’s favourite artists.
The 71-year-old businessman and philanthropist is perhaps proudest of the fact that he’s a devoted husband, dad to three, and grandfather to five.
Even though he’s a fashion fixture not only in Vancouver but around the world, Fluevog has always seen himself as something of an outsider, forever standing on the fringes of pop culture. Just because Lady Miss Kier proudly wore a pair of his orange Munsters on the cover of Deee-Lite’s 1990 smash World Clique doesn’t mean he’d be comfortable standing on-stage busting nu-disco moves to “Groove Is in the Heart”.
“I was a cult hero during the punk explosion,” Fluevog reminisces as he flashes back to the early ’80s. “I remember seeing, spray-painted on the side of a wall, ‘John Fluevog is God.’ It was like, ‘Oh my gosh—are you kidding me?’ I saw that in different places—some kid had graffitied it. So I became synonymous with a culture that I oddly wasn’t really connected to wholeheartedly. I mean, I did it, but I was always kind of on the periphery, looking at it from the outside. And I think that’s an important thing for why I’ve stayed in business for 50 years. I’ve always looked at things from the outside. I’ve never been completely immersed in one look.”
His hope for Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls is that he’s able to be an inspiration, and not just to those who dream of carving out a legacy in the fashion world. Dyslexic, he struggled to finish high school. University wasn’t an option, which was fine except that he grew up in an era when kids were taught that those who didn’t go to university end up as ditch diggers.
After an initial stint in shoe sales, Fluevog reasoned that maybe—despite having no formal training—he could start designing them. Today, after overcoming some considerable hurdles along the way, he’s the head of a mini-empire, with 27 stores spread across Canada and the U.S., as well as in the Netherlands and Australia.
Fluevog’s styles are now iconic, like his first buckled Pilgrim loafers from 1986, in which Victorian England meets the Wild West with dangerously pointed toes, or the dagger-sharp black Swordfish style worn by alt-rock royalty later in the decade. His fans today include everyone from high-wattage celebrities like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Jack White, and Scarlett Johansson to everyday folks who happily swim in a different current than the mainstream. (Check out his creations at fluevog.com),
There are many pieces of wisdom in Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls. But the biggest one might be that the only thing stopping you from realizing your dream is you. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, Fluevog does.
“What is significant to me, and probably a reason that I wrote the book, is that I’d like it to be an encouragement to people who don’t think that they are equipped to do something,” he says. “You don’t always need to go to school, and you don’t need to have training. I am, and was, dyslexic. I never got into university because I didn’t have good-enough grades. I’ve never been to design school. I wanted to let people know that you don’t need to do that stuff. If you’ve got a dream, you can actually just start chasing it.”
Some people ooze rock-star cool, and Fluevog is one of them. The first thing you notice is that he places value on listening. He also has no trouble articulating ideas that he freely admits can sound “airy-fairy”.
“I believe that we are created and I believe that everyone is made special,” he says. “And that’s what I found out in my life—that I was actually okay, and it wasn’t like some big mistake was made. That’s kind of the main theme behind the brand, that ‘You’re okay.’ I’m not into one-upmanship fashion. What I do is maybe a little different or unusual—you can call it artistic when I put messages on it. But the goal of the product is to feel special and good, and hopefully make people feel good about themselves. That’s maybe my little mission in life.”
Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls is packed with archival photos, sketches, vintage ads and posters, and reproductions of the zine-like catalogue he’s put out over the years. There are countless inspirational messages (“The best miracles come in the everyday living of our lives”) and, of course, gloriously colour-saturated shots of the shoes that made him famous.
Think, for example, his ’90s spin on creepers, with their striped thick soles; the chunky classic brogues with Angelic soles; the Baroque beauties with their bows and hourglass heels; and the funky blue-, green-, yellow-, and mauve-striped, ankle-strapped Biancas that took a starring role in a ’60s-inspired As You Like It at Bard on the Beach last year.
Besides offering a pop-culture rush of visual stimulation, the book tells Fluevog’s personal story, and not just the successes. He was born in Vancouver on May 15 in 1948, to Ruth and Sigurd Fluevog, devout Christians with roots stretching back to Norway via Alberta and the American Midwest. Fluevog’s childhood was as interesting as it was charmed. A skilled mechanic, Sigurd was also an entrepreneur, opening up a successful garage near Kootenay Loop at Hastings and Boundary, and later a soft-serve ice cream spot called the Luxury Freeze Drive-In in Burnaby.
Noting that cars were a status symbol in the ’50s, Fluevog recalls that the drive-in became a magnet for those who lived to show off their wheels.
“You could be unpopular, but if you had a cool car, you could get a pretty girl to drive around with you,” he writes. “My dad and I shared a love of cars, and by the time I was 10 I knew everything about every model that would pull into the drive-in. Now I realize that’s where I kind of developed a feel for shapes and lines and the feeling they create.”
After graduating, and following a meandering path that included everything from working in a sawmill to ending up wide-eyed in a druggy commune in ’60s California, Fluevog found himself back in Vancouver.
In his book, Fluevog documents his going to work at a high-end men’s store called Sheppard Shoes as the ’60s gave way to the ’70s. It was there he got to know a family friend named Peter Fox, whom—thanks to a loan from Sigurd—he’d go into business with selling shoes under the name Fox & Fluevog.
When Fox moved to New York in 1979, Fluevog bought him out. For a while he was content moving Dr. Martens through his first stand-alone store on the Granville Mall, under the Commodore Ballroom. If you were in a punk or new-wave band in the ’80s, Fluevog was the man who set you apart.
“Punk became new wave and postpunk and all those other anarchic movements, and then by the mid-1980s, grunge had started to emerge from Seattle,” he writes. “It was a powerful fashion moment, and I was right in the thick of it. The Dr. Martens I was selling were the footwear of punk and grunge. I should have had it made. Instead I was running out of money, and, for a while at least, it seemed I was at a dead end.”
Eventually, he realized that he’d rather focus on designing his own shoes than selling someone else’s. Being able to pay attention to things like sustainability by using natural latex was a bonus.
Looking back, Fluevog has had booms and busts, the euphoria of opening new stores in Vancouver and beyond counterbalanced by the reality that there’s no sure thing in retail. In Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls he acknowledges that he’s flirted with bankruptcy more than once.
“I’ve had a few peaks and valleys,” he says with a laugh. “When I’ve bottomed out, now, those are some of the most precious times to me. They were pivotal, and formed a new me. I think that the bad times that we go through are actually good times. They are part of the mosaic that makes up our life. It’s not all good—we go through shit and get mired down. Many of us go through depression and moral dilemmas as we traverse our daily lives.”
In one of the most powerful moments in Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls, Fluevog recounts a time in Chicago at the end of the ’90s. A marriage is falling apart, stores across the continent are in trouble and creating cash-flow problems, and his life is generally a mess. While in the Windy City and unable to sleep, he starts walking the streets at 4 a.m., coming across a plastic, lit-up sign advertising the Primitive Baptist Church.
Fluevog ends up attending a service, where he’s a spiky-haired blond in a sea of African-American faces. And he knows somewhere deep down that the pastor is speaking directly to him when she preaches: “You think that you have it bad now, you think things can’t get no worse. Well I’m here to tell you that things can get worse. But I’m here to tell you that God won’t take you to any place that you can’t bear.”
Recalling that day, Fluevog says, “The punk stuff in the ’80s took me through almost to the end of ’98. My stuff got copied a lot, and people were bringing in stuff from China that were kind of look-alikes. Small boutiques couldn’t afford the prices of my shoes, and the look was kind of waning—it was a variety of things. So I had to reinvent myself.”
And so he did. For a while he was living in a dark and dank basement suite on 16th Avenue, away from his family, and aware there were drug-abuse issues with staff members at his company.
“I guess I just decided to leave everything behind and focus on what I knew how to do,” Fluevog says. “I was like, ‘I can’t fix this, and I can’t fix that, but I can do shoes. So lemme narrow things down, and put some shoes together that are going to work and sell, and just focus on that one key thing.’ That’s what I did. A couple of shoes started selling, and it slowly crept back.”
His message to everyone who’s ever walked in his shoes is that if you’re lucky enough to lock onto something you love, you owe it to yourself not to give up when things get tough.
“I had nothing to fall back on,” Fluevog marvels when asked about his perseverance over the years. “I didn’t have a skill—I have no other skills, so I thought, ‘Man, I’m going to be delivering mail.’ Except that I wouldn’t even be good at that. Even as a kid, I had a sense of what looked good. And I always knew that people, when they met me, found that I had a certain presence that they liked. And I knew that I wasn’t stupid, even though everything that I did didn’t work very well.”
Except that eventually it did.
“I’m very thankful that I did what I did and stuck with it and that I’ve lasted for 50 years,” Fluevog muses. “I became part of the culture of Vancouver, and I’m very thankful for that. That’s one of the reasons that I put the book together—to really celebrate that and how much this city has supported me.”
For all of his success today, he suggests that he’s really nothing overly special, which he hopes will inspire others who aren’t sure if they have something to offer the world. Pay attention to what Fluevog has to say in Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls, and you just might learn something about yourself.
“I probably put this in the book, but I feel like I’m a conduit,” the designer says. “So when people meet me and go ‘Oh John, you’re amazing,’ I’m really not. I’m just a guy that listens. I see what people have to say, and then I have the boldness to go and do it. That’s something that we all have—I don’t have a corner on that. A lot of people feel like ‘I can’t fit into that crowd,’ or ‘I feel like a fraud,’ or ‘I don’t have anything to offer.’ Those are incorrect thoughts. We need to know we’re all worthy.”