In 1985, budding Vancouver shoe designer John Fluevog sold his car—a 1973 Jaguar E-Type—to open his second store, in Seattle. Saying goodbye to his Jag was necessary; since day one, Fluevog has funded his footwear company entirely with his own money.
“I was always underfinanced because, basically, I didn’t have any capital,” Fluevog recalls about the early days, seated at the communal table of his company’s headquarters situated above his high-ceilinged Gastown store. “In order to grow, you can’t take big steps, you have to take mini steps. At times, it was one step forward and one step back. For me it’s taken my entire career to stay in business and to grow. That’s been my lifetime, actually.”
It is quite a rare thing, this level of independence: Fluevog has no financiers or board of directors to answer to, and has never been bought out by a larger company. The result is a wholly genuine enterprise that keeps its creator at the wheel. “I still consider myself in the boutique business and I think for me, to remind myself of that is pivotal,” he says. “There are very few independents that are running a boutique-style business.” It means creative freedom, for one thing; for another, it means fans of the brand, which is known for high-quality shoes in quirky designs and bright colours, can actually connect with its designer.
Growing up with dyslexia, Fluevog struggled in school and never had the grades to attend university. Instead, he went on a hitchhiking trip along the West Coast and then returned to Vancouver and began working with shoe designer Peter Fox. They founded Fox and Fluevog in 1970, and cordially parted ways over 10 years later. That left Fluevog to strike out on his own, founding John Fluevog Shoes in the early ‘80s. And though he began to expand quickly, first with that Seattle store funded by the Jaguar, and then with even more locations throughout North America, it wasn’t always easy to be the captain. “I didn’t have the boldness, I would say, in my life earlier, to think that what I was thinking and the thoughts that I had were, basically, good enough. It took me quite a few years of my career to sort of take that step to go, ‘Actually, you know what? They’re okay. My ideas are actually okay,’” admits Fluevog. “The business has been a characterization of my life, in a sense. It’s been me finding out about who I am as a person throughout my whole life.” The confidence grew as his company did, and his designs have since been worn on the famous feet of Madonna and Alice Cooper; and John Fluevog Shoes continues to expand even these days, with its 24th store, in Victoria, opened in June 2017.
Now approaching 70 years of life and 50 of business, Fluevog’s biggest question is: what’s next? “I need to set the company up so that it can operate without me,” he says. “And that’s a challenge. Because it’s like my little art project. Suddenly if it’s going to [continue] after I pass on, what’s that look like? I need to do what I can to ensure—it doesn’t guarantee it—but I’ll do what I can to ensure that it will.” But Fluevog has no plans of stepping down before his time. “I guess that’s the answer: why not?” he says, when asked if he will keep working for as long as he can. “I really quite enjoy the feeling and the emotion behind it. I like the way, it’s not even fashion, I like the way current culture moves, expresses where we’re at as people. I like the feeling even of colours and how they play with who we are as people.”
Fluevog is still zealous, still learning and expanding his personal and professional worlds, still continuing to be inspired by his surroundings and turning those moments of creative clarity into vibrant footwear that expresses individuality and truly champions the weird. So why, at this stage, should he quit? “I ask myself that question: ‘Am I coming out to pasture now, or what am I doing?’” he says. “And I kind of had an epiphany or something: it occurred to me that no, actually, I can and should have greater expectations.”
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