Iconic Shoe Designer Throws His Skill into Many Arenas
By Quinn Bender
It can be argued there are more prolific designers in the world, but in terms of versatility few, if any, can match the admiration people feel for John Fluevog. Whether it’s the design of a shoe, a car, a building or a pair of sunglasses, he brings together an unlikely cross-section admirers—from rock stars and fashionistas, to soccer moms and backyard mechanics. The obvious reason for his appeal is the uniqueness of his creations; he’s a self-described subversive designer with a deep streak of Rock ‘n Roll who speaks to our need for personal identity. It’s a level of creativity anyone can achieve, he says, which comes down to courage and authenticity.
“That’s really important. Sometimes I follow trends, I skirt the edges of trends, but the fun things happen when I just go and do something completely wacky that’s all about myself.
“I think that people don’t have the confidence in themselves all the time. They’re afraid of this, that and the other. So it’s a lifetime of learning about yourself. Fortunately, we’re now in an era that a business and my personal self can interconnect.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Fluevog acquired an early love of cars by working in his father’s drive-in ice cream parlour. But his reputation for automotive design wouldn’t take root for many decades after first making his mark as a shoe designer in the 1970s. The progressive entrepreneur was the first in North American merchant to import the hugely popular Doc Marten footwear, before seeing his own creations on the stage with iconoclasts like the Beach Boys and Alice Cooper. By the early 90s his “Angel” shoe became a trademark of Seattle’s Grunge scene, while his “Munsters” received 15 seconds of fame on Madonna's feet in her documentary Truth or Dare.
With his footwear now available in North America’s most important cosmopolitan centres, it was at this point in his career that his versatility in design started rolling out. Because to sell a shoe, one first needs a store. And by taking the lead in their design, Fluevog settled on some common elements, like unique leathers found in his shoe designs, but like his shoes, he ensured no two designs were alike.
“Small business can be an expression of who we are … if it’s not, you might as well give up and go home,” Fluevog says.
Last year Fluevog put those words to action yet again with the opening his flagship store in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district, just one block away from where he got his start in 1970 with then partner Peter Fox. The new store is nothing short of a minor tourist attraction. From street side, it gives the impression of being a vacant lot between two brick buildings. With a glass ceiling spanning the two structures, the store has been compared to a greenhouse, but in truth it seems to celebrate and mimic the gritty, back alley feel of the district. Inside, a rich palette of leathers and wood add warmth to the otherwise concrete and brick environment. The display shelves are made from slabs of old-growth trees and repurposed pipeline, which substitute as tables and stages during store events.
Fluevog’s design approach might be best described as the improvement of existing designs. Like his shoes, building upon classic designs of the Art Deco era, the Vancouver store is both a reflection and improvement on one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods.
“It’s being able to see things,” he says. “It’s like any design, even if you’re building a house or your interior decorating or painting, you need to be able to see something first. Once you can see it, you need the humanity, the courage, the guts, the skill—even slight skill—just to go start and do it.”
Fluevog’s stores are now as much a part of his branding as his shoes themselves. Shoppers are likely to find any personal touch of decor imaginable, such as in the Portland location that houses 1965 Jaguar MK 10, fully redesigned by Fluevog and for which he has catapulted himself into a new realm of fame with auto enthusiasts.
This was no restoration project, but a redesign. Purists will be quick to criticize Fluevog for abandoning the original design of the car, but true to his creative philosophy he is unapologetic for his actions, saying the original design was probably incomplete anyway, that car manufacturers, limited by budgets and technology, are constantly updating and improving designs every production year. His approach is to simply carry on with that tradition of renewal, asking himself what the original designers may have created if they faced no limitations.
“You need to see past what it is now, and see another vision for it,” he says. “I kind of closed my eyes halfway through and I thought, "What would the
designer of this car have liked it to look like before the corporate heads got a hold of it?"
"When they did this car, they had a feeling for it, but they kind of got stuck with the structure that was in this car. They didn't have the freedom to take it where it could have gone."
Fluevog is currently redesigning another classic, this time a 1951 Jaguar drophead coup. With a steampunk theme, the finished product will surely inspire as many designers as it upsets the restoration community.
"But that's what good designers do," he says. "That's where it gets distinct and becomes complete and a whole."
Follow Quinn Bender on Twitter: @qbender