Even staunch shoe devotees may know his work — but not that there’s a designer behind it.
Despite his memorably odd-sounding surname (pronounced FLEW-vog, Norwegian — more about that later); despite the celebrities sighted wearing his often clompy footwear (Kit Harington, Scarlett Johansson, Woody Harrelson, Beyoncé, Sam Rockwell, Marisa Berenson); despite the bizarrely disparate cult following of punk rockers and alt-rockers, academics, techies, nurses, New Wavers, senior citizens, artists, neo-Romantics, the orthopedically inclined and many, many foreigners; and despite a reputation for high quality and comfort, Fluevog and his edgy, funky women’s, men’s and gender-bending shoe and boot collections have been anomalies, outside the pale of the footwear establishment, ever since they first appeared in the 1970s.
Amiably cool and mild-mannered Vancouver native Fluevog, 70, doesn’t disagree. Wearing a goatee, a jaunty scarf, a sweatshirt and Helmut Lang breeches displaying toned calves above the nicely worn Angel boots of his own design, he was in reflective mode recently at his company store that opened last November in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn.
“I like the idea of being a little off-center — quirky yet very solid,” he said.
In today’s trend-averse fashion universe, that may be the key to this brand’s endurance in a skittish retail world. Business doubled over the past six years, said Stephen Bailey, Fluevog Shoes’ chief managing officer. And Claire Foster, the director of accessories and footwear at WGSN, a global trend forecasting company, predicted that “we will start to see more of his current and past designs in the fashion media and among influential tastemakers in the coming couple of seasons.”
This has begun. In stores this month, Fluevog Shoes is teaming with Opening Ceremony to make silver glitter and black and pink renditions of the Louis XIV-esque Munster pump, that club-scene favorite with its big buckle and 4-inch bell-bottom platform heel, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Price? $355.
“I like these shoes,” singer Lady Miss Kier has said, “because they’re easy to dance in, unlike the majority of high heels.”
She famously wore her Munsters on the cover of the 1990 Deee-lite debut album, “World Clique.” Madonna also had them on in the 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare.”
Opening Ceremony styled the Munster “with dresses and tights that elongate the leg — mod-style,” said Carol Song and Margaret Austin of that store’s women’s buying team in an e-mail, adding: “There’s no question that the Munster has influenced a lot of young designers today. And we feel it will really resonate with our customer who vies for that special piece.”
Lisa Safir-Barness, a former fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour who is now a personal shopper, said: “I remember Fluevogs seeming so outrageous and ‘alternative’ back in the day. They don’t anymore. They’re sort of classic now — almost ‘sensible shoes’ for funky old ladies. They and their cool daughters both love them.”
Edgy and whimsical
Fluevogs look historical, like a Baroque-Rococo-Victorian-’20s-mod-grunge shoe museum exhibit gone slightly amok. The floral-print oxfords (for men as well as women), bizarrely colored Mary Janes, salmon and beige wingtip brogues, high heels with six straps and twisted sole, crepe-soled gladiators, spats, slightly klutzy fishermen’s sandals, and high-platform boots evade easy categorizing.
Such idiosyncratic shoes are not exactly cousins to Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, et al., although Avena Gallagher, a fashion stylist, has pointed to “a weird parallel between the Fluevog shoe sensibility and Prada’s,” noting “a similar eccentricity and potency in their designs. Both do power shoes, taking up a lot of real estate.”
And yet Fluevogs are too edgy, too whimsical, to fit into the tamer Aerosole-Dansko-Mephisto comfort-shoe universe.
If they belong anywhere, it’s in a tiny, rough-hewed corner they occupy with such other craft-oriented labels as Cydwok, Camper and Trippen. While these brands may come across as artsy or precious, Fluevogs have more of a zany pizazz.
Conditioned by sneakers and Birkenstocks in the summer, perhaps the fall foot, too, will demand daylong comfort. Certainly the eye is ready as never before to accept Fluevogs’ generous foot beds, thick and springy soles, decadent heels and often whimsically rounded toes (although there are also dainty and rapier-like toes).
Bucking the trend of brick-and-mortar stores closing, new Fluevog Shoes locations have been opening at a steady clip. Eleven of the two dozen in North America opened in just the past few years — in cities such as Minneapolis (in the remodeled Uptown Theater space in November 2012), New Orleans, Denver and Montreal — while the Los Angeles, Toronto and Boston stores have recently relocated to larger quarters, and a second Boston store is opening this summer.
There is also a new European beachhead, in Amsterdam, and flourishing e-commerce.
Fluevog takes a serious view of shoes. “A long way from the eyes, they’re the soul you’re standing on, showing self-awareness or lack thereof,” he said cryptically. Evidently seeing his footwear as spiritual appurtenances, he has long had messages engraved on the soles, the most quoted of which is found on the Angel series: “Resists alkali, water, acid, fatigue and Satan.”
“He seems easygoing, but has the discipline of a master, passionate about construction and materials,” said Maggie Langrick, the head of LifeTree Media in Vancouver, which is planning to publish a Fluevog book.
The shoes are made at small artisanal factories scattered around the world. In many cases, they’re hand-assembled, “each one touched about 2,000 times before it reaches the stores,” said Denny Garbuio, manager of the Haight Street store in San Francisco, who has been on the job for 20 years.
“Part of what I do is my name,” Fluevog said. His offbeat surname is no happenstance; it was chosen by his grandparents, whose original surname, Nilsen, was very common when they emigrated to Canada by way of Minnesota and South Dakota. To avoid mail mix-ups, they changed it to the name of the tiny Norwegian hamlet they came from, Fluevaagen, altering the spelling slightly.
Inspiration from Mexico
Fluevog’s career began in 1970, when he took a job at Sheppard’s Shoes in Vancouver. Entirely self-taught, he soon began designing shoes in his head, he said. Within a year, he and a fellow salesman, Peter Fox, left to open their own shop, initially stocking pre-existing styles.
In a Mexican factory, they came upon a stash of turn-of-the-century Mexican buckle shoes, which they dusted off and sold as is. That informed their taste in antiquated styles.
Soon Fluevog began making plaster of Paris models, bringing them to small factories for production.
Fox, also a shoe designer, and Fluevog amicably parted ways in 1980.
In the ’80s, Fluevog became possibly the first retailer in North America to stock Doc Martens, riffing on their chunkiness and air cushioning in his own jazzy leopard print and pastel-colored uppers. Around the same time, he began designing his Angel and Munster series.
Today he works with a seven-person design team but continues having input in every single design.
Langrick cited Fluevog’s home base of Vancouver as “always a place for rebels, a destination for draft dodgers and a counterculture hotbed in the ’60s and ’70s, allowing a designer like John to cultivate a maverick sense of style based on individualism. Here he’s been free to make his own rules.”