Fluevogs at 50: The inside story of Canada's outsider shoe brand

Shoe legend John Fluevog on walking stories, strange prophecies, and why you're made correctly.

Shoe legend John Fluevog on walking stories, strange prophecies, and why you're made correctly

Legendary Vancouver shoe designer John Fluevog has released a book commemorating 50 years in the fashion business. "One of the reasons I wrote the book was it's really a story of me thinking maybe something was wrong with me because I couldn’t perform like other people because of my dyslexia. But you're okay. You're made well. You're made correctly. There's been no mistake. Just believe it."

For 50 years, his name has been synonymous with colourful, whimsical style — from the ankle down.

Vancouver-based shoe designer John Fluevog is famous for his edgy, unique, artistic and fun styles, which are known among devotees as "Fluevogs."

They're sold around the world, and they've been worn by celebrities from Madonna to Beyoncé, and from Lady Gaga to Alice Cooper — as well as a whole lot of regular people, from punks to office workers.

There's even a scene in Madonna's 1991 documentary Truth or Dare where she struts out of a washroom in a pair of black Fluevog pumps and says, "Do you really like them? What do you think People magazine would say?"

This year, the Canadian designer is celebrating 50 years in business, and has a new book called Fluevog: 50 Years of Unique Soles for Unique Souls.

Fluevog sat down with host Tom Power for an interview in the q studio. You can watch the full interview above. Here is some of what he had to say.

Do you remember seeing Madonna wear your shoes?

Well, this might sound a bit egotistical, but I heard about it. And for years, my claim to fame was that I never saw the movie. I didn't actually want to go see it or see her dangling my shoes in front of the screen.

That's very interesting to me that you weren't interested in seeing it. It was a bit of a big moment.

It was. And it's a strange idea. I think it's really inverted egotism. I know a lot of famous or interesting people have worn my shoes over the years. And I don't really like thinking about it, because I like the idea that I am here today and still in business because of everyday people that wear my shoes and walk in my stories. And I am so thankful for them.

Madonna shows off her Fluevogs in the film Truth or Dare. (YouTube)

Can you can you describe Fluevog shoes to me on the radio, how they're different from other shoes?

Well, they come from me. I spent my career finding out who I was, so my career and my personality are kind of the same. They're not two separate things. I've been up times. I've been down times. I've been nearly bankrupt. But I've been real, hopefully. And I put that feeling or that emotion into my shoes. I put messages on the bottom of my shoes sometimes, and they're just what I'm going through at that time. I like to think that when we express ourselves as humans, when we're not just trying to be something that we've seen somewhere else, but we're truly authentic, that comes through. And so I hope that authenticity comes through in my footwear.

Fluevog is known for his distinctive design style — and has devotees around the world.

You grew up in Vancouver. Were you particularly artistic growing up?

So here is this kid who grows up in Burnaby, which is a suburb of Vancouver. Not good at school ever. A little rebellious, a little reckless. The kind of guy that even at the age of six would ride his tricycle on two wheels. I grew up in an ice cream drive-in, which sounds pretty weird, but it was a hangout for teenagers in the '50s. So I grew up with all the feelings of the '50s and every season haircuts would change, styles would change, what people did to their cars would change. So I got into teenage culture, and it kind of got into my psyche, I guess. And I remember rock 'n' roll. "Don't you step on my blue suede shoes." I remember that being played on a car radio in the ice cream drive in. I was eight or something, and I was like, "Bam! That's cool."

Jump to 1969. You're in your early 20s, and you get home to B.C. after a summer in California, and you're still feeling a little bit lost. And then one day you meet someone who changes everything.

Yeah, we all meet people and we all have definitive moments. It was a guy named Peter Fox, and he was more of a friend of my father's. So he said, "Why don't you come down and I'll give you a job working in my shoe store in downtown Vancouver." So I go down, I get interviewed, and everyone thought that I was very arrogant, which I was. But they hired me anyway. So I'm there for a few months, and Peter said, "I'm thinking about starting my own business. Do you want to come with me?" And I'm just a kid and I'm thinking, "Sure." I was making $55 or 60 bucks a week. It was a barely livable wage even back then. And I'm thinking, "Well, I've got nothing else to do."

So we go see my father, who is not a wealthy man, but he's a saver who went through the Depression, and he says to Peter, "Yeah, I'll lend you this $13,000 dollars if you make my son a 50 per cent partner." And I suppose that's pretty defining. So suddenly I'm in business with a man 15 years my senior who has lots of experience and I'm just a kid. On the upside, I was honest. I came to work every day.

John Fluevog and Peter Fox, circa 1971.

What did you think your life was going to turn out to be?

I had no idea. I was completely aimless, I have to say. Being a little dyslexic, I didn't get into university, and I was feeling a little insecure, obviously. I was thinking, well, a part of me kind of gets it. I know what's going on. I got the feeling, I got the emotions. Like I played the trumpet in band, but I couldn't do the notes very well. But I was a good trumpet player.

Looking back, do you think you had an aptitude for shoes at that time?

It's not about shoes; I had an aptitude for feelings and emotions. I understand how people feel. And I would say, if anything, I ended up being in the feel-good business. So my job is really making people feel, and walk in stories, and making them feel a little different.

But that's something you noticed. You went, "You know what? Everybody's selling loafers. But I know something else is going on."

There are reasons why we buy things. There are reasons behind reasons. They're multilayered. They're not all one thing. We purchase things as an identity thing, and maybe I innately understood that. I don't think I ever said that to myself, but that's what happened.

And I liked the feeling that it gave people. I liked the fact that they walked in these stories and that they had an identity. And I like giving people an identity. And I like the fact that they're a bit rebellious, and I like the fact that other most other retailers didn't understand what was going on. And that makes me feel good.

The cover of John Fluevog's new book, Fluevog: 50 years of unique soles for unique souls.

I'm also interested in just what inspired you aesthetically

My business has been a way of me getting to know myself. It forced me to get to dig into myself and do things that were beyond what I thought I was capable of. So when I did that, I sort of leaned back and went "What is it about what people are wearing or doing that affects me? What grabs my attention?"

And when I had the boldness to look at that, certain things would pop into my mind — images — and when I looked at people, I saw what I wanted to see. And I thought, "If only they had this on, or they did this, or they wore it this way or that way." And then I just acted on those impulses. I guess I had the boldness to do it. And I had nothing to lose.

Is the reason the shoes are so timeless because they come from that emotional side? That you don't follow the trends? How do you avoid being boxed into an era?

If we want to be good at art, if we want to hear creation, if we want to bring creation down and reinterpret it, it has to come through who we are as a person because each one of us is unique. There's never been another person like us — the good, the bad and the ugly. And If I could say anything, and if my book says anything to people, it's that they're OK and their thoughts are OK. Go ahead and take the boldness and express who you are in what you do. That's my story. Maybe that's my theme or my song.

Talk to me about the idea of belief. You said you almost went bankrupt. That is a moment where a lot of people would stop and go back to business school. What kept you going?

There have been a few points in my career. Falling in love was a good one that kept me going; it just energized me. I also had a time when I was pretty well done emotionally, and I had actually made a decision to give it all up. And I had somebody come and visit me, and they gave me a vision of what my name would be and what my shoes could be.

John Fluevog includes little messages on the soles of his shoes.

Now I want you to tell me that story.

It was November, right about now, and it was rainy and wet and miserable. I had just opened a Seattle store, and things had taken off in a mini way, but I had basically run out of money. Sales started to dive and I just emotionally ran out of juice. And I said to my then-wife, "Look, I've got to find another source of income because I need to feed my family and pay my mortgage, all the things we want." And a friend of mine called and said, "I'm sending somebody down to see you. A guy from Arizona, he's got this gift."

So along comes a man who walks in, and he looks like he just got out of a Ford hot rod in the '80s. He had long hair and blue jeans. And I start talking and he said "I don't want to hear about what you're doing. Here, just sit in this chair." And he sits me down, and he starts to pray over me, or he lays his hands on me. And he starts seeing pictures, and he says, "I see shoes, and I see shoes in different places. And I see your name, and your name is going to be quite powerful." And he says, "What's your name?" He didn't know who it was.

I'm not really into that sort of thing, very airy fairy, and I'm a little skeptical. But something caught my attention about what he said. He was watching a movie of my life. And that event gave me the courage to keep on going. He said, "Put your name on everything. Your name is going to be powerful."

Says Fluevog, "It's not about shoes; I had an aptitude for feelings and emotions. I understand how people feel. And I would say, if anything, I ended up being in the feel-good business. So my job is really making people feel, and walk in stories, and making them feel a little different."

Was he like a psychic?

Well, let's call it prophetic.

It sounds like you derived some faith, some meaning, from that.

I always say somebody needed to hit me on the head to carry on. And I this person got sent to me to do it. Maybe it's because I wasn't hearing very well or I didn't have the courage on my own. So I got kind of hit over the head, as it were, by this guy from the outside. It was an incredible experience. So I've had a few different things happen to me, but it was a defining moment.

A lot of people listening might be finding themselves in a moment like that. What's your advice to them?

To believe that they are OK, that they are a creative person and what they're thinking is fine. They weren't made incorrectly. You were made correctly. One of the reasons I wrote the book was it's really a story of me thinking maybe something was wrong with me because I couldn't perform like other people because of my dyslexia. But you're okay. You're made well. You're made correctly. There's been no mistake. Just believe it.

This interview has been condensed for clarity. 

Download our podcast or click the 'Listen' link near the top of this page to hear the full conversation with John Fluevog.

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview with John Fluevog produced by ​Vanessa Greco.

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