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Shoe Stories by John: Opening in Seattle

[Photo: John gracefully blows out the candle to celebrate the original Fluevog Seattle store’s First Anniversary]

By John Fluevog

In 1986, there was a recession and it was a bad time for a lot of things including fashion, music and youth culture. I had just come out of a 5-year decline in sales and ended up with two shoe stores in Vancouver. One of them was starting to pick up a little with the advent of punk rock and Rockabilly, while the other was struggling in a part of the city surrounded by offices and healthcare. Suffice it to say, things were hard going.

So I start thinking: What to do? If I closed down the slower store, I would limit the company’s ability to get different shoes and just owning one shoe store seemed like a boring future to me.

At the time, my bank loans were at $100,000, which was way over the margins that they should have been lending me. Even so, I knew that if I did not make a move, I would be stuck in a hard situation for a long time. Another location in Vancouver didn’t seem wise and neither did other large cities in Canada. Besides, the closest one was Calgary, a city 900 km away with a less than stellar economy at the time itself.

Then I started to think foreign. Seattle was only 140 miles away. What did I have to lose? So with no capital for a new venture, I drove down to Seattle, walked around, and found the street and the location that screamed to me: This is it. It had some gritty fashion energy to it and as I wandered back and forth, I looked up to see a “For Lease” sign. I met with the landlord’s agent and she was so impressed with this foreign guy driving a splashy 12 cylinder E-type Jag, that she decided to lease the place to me, oblivious to the fact that I was on the verge of financial ruin.

I hired a contractor to do $10,000 of work to the 660sq foot space and went back to Vancouver to clear out the struggling location. Meanwhile I had to come up with the $10,000 USD to pay the contractor. Remember I said I had the fancy jaguar? I recall the exact place on the road going home one day where it struck me: Hey! This is one thing I own… I can sell it! Bingo! I liked my car, but this adventure was going to be way more important than a car.

I placed an ad for it and only one person came by to look at it. He said he wanted it and gave me a $500 deposit, but over a month went by and the car buyer was nowhere to be found. Things were not looking good, but as luck would have it, on the same Friday that I needed to pay the contractor, the buyer finally showed up in the morning. He gave me a bank draft for $13,000 CAD which converted to exactly the $10,000 USD I needed to pay the contractor in Seattle. I jumped into my less than stellar old Subaru and got there in time to pay the contractor.

Surprisingly, during this time, an optometrist saw my closing out sign at the Broadway store, gave me a few thousand for the fixtures and took over the existing lease that I was on the hook for. If you’re thinking I seem to have been awfully fortunate to have pulled it all off, you’re right. I was so focused on pulling off the end-goal of opening in Seattle at the time, that I didn’t do a great job taking care of the little details. But someone up there thankfully knew that things needed to be taken care of.


[Photo: John Fluevog Brings You The National Shoes (ca.1986) was one of the first catalogues released after the opening the original Seattle store]

Around this time, I also changed the name of the company from Fox and Fluevog (Fox was my partner in the 70s) to John Fluevog Shoes. It was the beginning of the punk era in Seattle. I had hired a hipster dude who had been in jail, had zero experience and was the picture of disorganization to work the store. Things could have gone either way. But Seattle had never seen shoes like I had: Pony hair Dr. Martens, pointed black strappy boots, everything with an off-beat, alternative vibe. Sales were 3-4 times higher than they had been at the old Vancouver location and John Fluevog got wrapped up in the Seattle grunge movement as it began to take off.

But a bigger issue was afoot! It was about my name. With my name on the storefront and shoes people had never seen before, many were under the impression that I designed them. In reality, I was just going to shoe factories in the UK and mixing and matching different old patterns they had. So when I saw that people wanted there to be a John Fluevog shoe designer, I thought: Hey, I can do that! I’ll start to design and make my own shoes. And that’s when I learned a bit more about myself: that I could design shoes and had a design aesthetic that people liked. It was at that point that I started to design and carve my own lasts and heels, all by hand, because I had never had any formal training and that was the only way I knew how.

It was all about timing. Opening in Seattle, changing the name of the store, being a part of the grunge movement and witnessing the alternative nature of youth culture at the same time. It was not unlike the 60’s era that I had grown up in. I understood it. From that first small beginning, my name started to spread across both countries with the crazy alternative catalogues I did. Somehow, the pictures of myself dressed in crazy costumes I always included and the bad drawings of the shoes I did myself spoke to an alternative audience who seemed to appreciate my unique soles.

To think, I could have been one crazy gamble or a few chance encounters short of realizing my career in design. There’s immense creativity inside you, sometimes you just have to stumble upon it…with or without your swanky car.jfsignature

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