Over more than three decades, John Fluevog has been bringing a punk-rock sensibility to making and selling shoes. The Vancouver-based designer’s shoes are statement pieces for those who want to stand out with loud colors and lots of flair. He’s also taken a fiercely independent approach to how he runs his business, shying away from taking money from outside investors. And, in the age of online shopping, he’s bucking the trend by continuing to open more stores. He also sells through his own website, but has recently cut ties with third-party sites such as Amazon and Zappos. He was in town recently, hosting a party at his namesake store at the corner of Lagoon and Hennepin in Uptown to celebrate “International Fluevog Day,” a made-up holiday that lands on his birthday. Decked out in an all-black outfit made up of loosefitting pants and a tunic, he took some time before the party started to have a conversation with the Star Tribune.
Q: So can I ask how old you are today?
A: A hundred and what was it now? I believe it appears that having been born in ’48 — 1948 — that I would be 69. It’s like who would have ever thought I would be 69 years old? Apparently, I am.
Q: So how many stores do you have?
A: I still call it a boutique, but apparently other people tell me it’s not. But it’s 22 — about to be 23.
Q: You are still opening stores even in the era of online shopping?
A: Yeah — and people are noticing. I’m hearing from landlords, I’m getting calls from agents, who are like, ‘Um, we’ve got a nice space here.’ Just out of the blue.
Q: So why are you interested in opening stores right now?
A: Well, pretty simply, they all work.
Q: You have your own website, but do you also sell through other sites?
A: We sell all direct. I did sell through some other websites and we have stopped or slowed that down. We sold through Amazon and then we quit. I think you can still go on there and find some shoes but they don’t have our current shoes.
Q: Why did you quit?
A: So I’m a boutique retailer. I don’t really sell shoes. I sell a feeling. I sell an emotion. It happens to be footwear, and the footwear when worn gives people a feeling. I put messages on my shoes. It makes people feel good. And my shoes aren’t cheap. I call them mid-luxury. There has to be a reason you want to buy these shoes. You can buy shoes everywhere, right? You don’t need my shoes. But these shoes make people feel good. And if I’m selling them via a sterile place as Amazon, it’s not a good environment to make people feel good. And then, let’s take it from a purely business point of view, I’m making a lot more margin when I’m selling them myself. So why should I sell them to those guys who are not doing my name and the feeling any justice, making less money and cannibalizing my own retail? I’m being pretty honest with you.
Q: So you weren’t doing so much business through Amazon that you couldn’t walk away from it?
A: Yes, it wasn’t so much that it was a number that was like I couldn’t quit. And we felt that we’d pick it up on our own website.
Q: Are you on Zappos?
A: We did sell them there and I don’t anymore. It’s been such a relief for me always wondering what prices they’re selling my stuff at. If another website is selling my shoes cheaper than me, I feel like I’m stealing from my customers. Why would I do that? It feels like I’m not being fair to them.
Q: So you are saying no to Amazon and Zappos and yes to more brick-and-mortar stores?
A: Yes, I am, because in those brick-and-mortar stores, people can come in and get a feeling of the brand. I have a store in New Orleans. A lot of tourists go through there. And those people can see the store, get the feeling and the emotion, see the stories on the wall. They see the messages and go, “Oh, wow, bam!” And then they can go home and buy the shoes online. It keeps the thing in the family.
Q: How does your Minneapolis store do?
A: The Minneapolis store is one of my slower stores, in truth. It obviously would have had way more traffic if I had opened up in a mall or …
Q: Or the Mall of America?
A: Yeah, it would have. But it still functions. It makes money. And it also, the stockroom is a holding room for the internet. I’m happy it’s here.”
Q: So you have a Minnesota connection, right?
A: Like a lot of Americans my family is an immigrant family. My father’s side came from Norway. [My grandparents] settled in the North Dakota-Minnesota area. I’m not exactly sure where. And when they settled there, they moved into a farming community that was mostly Scandinavian. His name was Nielsen. He changed it to Fluevog because there were so many Nielsens in the community that the mail was getting mixed up. So he, being the practical Norwegian that he is, thought this was a great thing to do. As a kid, as you can imagine, I wanted to be normal and ordinary. There was a kid in my school named John Nelson and I was always jealous of him. He seemed to fit in so much better.
Q: But now that weird name has served you well, right, because it’s so distinctive?
A: It has.