Interview: John Fluevog on how to turn your customers into a community

“As entrepreneurs, we create something that wasn’t, something that’s new. It’s art, and it’s awesome.”

Shoe designer John Fluevog

“A cult brand doesn’t need to be only for a select few.” John Fluevog in the location he opened in Toronto’s Distillery District in 2013. (Richard Lautens/Toronto Star/Getty)

John Fluevog founded his first shoe store in Vancouver 45 years ago and has since built his cult footwear brand into an international chain with 19 stores across North America. Having supplied custom kicks to celebrities like Madonna, Jack White and Alice Cooper, he talked with us about the importance of turning customers into a community.

You’ve been selling shoes for a long time—since 1970, when you opened the Fox & Fluevog shoe store with your former business partner, Peter Fox. What have you done to stay relevant?

I’ve been through a lot of eras. I started off selling to hippie and natural types, then it veered into disco, then rock, then into the alternative scene. I think part of my longevity is that I’ve never become fully immersed in any particular era; I never went completely into a “look.” I’ve always kept away from being trendy. Obviously, I’m in the fashion industry; I have to appeal to different feelings that come into the market. But I’ve always tried to maintain our own identity. It’s not an easy game.

Has the Internet age helped or hindered your business?

It has changed things dramatically for us. We’re selling fashion; we’re selling a feeling. When someone can go onto the Internet and find so much, it becomes a little more difficult to stand out as original. But at the same time, thanks to the Internet, there are now so many different ways we can interface with the customer.

How have you used the Internet to deepen your relationship with your customers?

Well, with something like FlueMarket [a portal on the Fluevog website that allows customers to buy and sell used Fluevog shoes], we saw eBay becoming big and thought, Well, if people are selling used Fluevogs, they might as well come to our site to do it. That way, even if they’re not buying new shoes, they stay in our community. So we set that up, and other than hosting it on our site, we really have nothing to do with it. Our customers keep it going.

What about Open Source Footwear, which allows customers to submit their own shoe designs to the company? Why let the public weigh in on your design process?

It seems such a trendy thing to do now, but really, it came out of something that had been happening for years: I’d be in a store, and people would say, “I have an idea,” and hand me little scraps of paper with sketches on them. After a while, I thought, We might as well give them a vehicle to do this. I see our customer base as a community. It’s precarious, and it’s precious. So with things like Open Source Footwear, I feel I’m providing a service for like-minded people. I feel privileged to be able to do that.

There are stories of Fluevog customers who collect your shoes; some of them have 100 pairs. Did you set out to create a cult brand?

I never expected that to happen. It surprises me when people get so into it. People will meet me, shake my hand and say, “I’m glad to meet you and glad you never sold out.” I never know what to say, because I don’t see it like that. I just do my own thing, and I see no reason why it has to have limited appeal. As long as we maintain the originality of the product—the ethos of what we’re doing—I think it’s great when more people can enjoy it. A cult brand doesn’t need to be only for a select few.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

No, it wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. I was shy, dyslexic; I didn’t do well at school. I couldn’t get into university, so I started selling shoes in a store. I started working with Peter Fox, who was 15 years my senior. He told me he wanted to go out on his own, and he asked me if my father could help him out. My father is not a wealthy man, but he’s from the Prairies—he’s a frugal type of guy who saves his money. So we went to my dad, and he said ,“Yes, I’ll lend you $15,000… if you make my son a 50% partner.” And that was how we started the business.

You bought out Fox’s share of the company in 1980. What made you want to go it alone?

It wasn’t really me—it was him. He wanted to go out alone and start his own line. Peter was very much a mentor. He was artistic, and he understood the market quite well. And he taught me about things like margins and markups. But for the first 10 years, I worked in the stores, and he basically ran the business. It wasn’t until I bought the company from him that I really started to be an entrepreneur, in that I was making decisions on my own.

What did that process teach you?

I was thrown into the deep end. I had to deal with all the things a small business owner has to: cash flow, marketing, staffing. And it was the mid-’80s, and we’d just gone through a recession. It was a rather difficult time for me.

Do you miss having a partner?

I’m very happy to not have a partner. I’ve had one, and I am happy not to have one now.

Why is that?

This is purely personal, but like Sinatra, I’ve done it my way. I grew the company out of its own profits and my own energy. If I’m being critical, maybe that’s a point of pride because I’m insecure. But it means a lot to me. The business has been a vehicle to find out about myself personally and to express myself. It’s almost been like my own art project. As entrepreneurs, we create something that wasn’t, something that’s new. It’s art, and it’s awesome.

Fluevog is known for having a strong corporate culture. How have you maintained that as the company has grown?

In the early days, when we just had one store, I ran the business on love. I’d visit the store; people would talk to me; they’d say, “That John is such a nice guy. I want to work for him.” That doesn’t work anymore. We have 19 stores now. I physically can’t be there all the time, and besides, I don’t have the energy anymore. But I’m very conscious that even though I personally can’t be solely responsible for keeping morale high, and the community and culture strong, as a business we have to put energy into it. So I have people on staff who talk to employees about their personal goals, how we can help them meet those goals, and how they can fit into the company as a whole. And that helps us make sure people understand Fluevog as a brand. Not everyone gets it, and that’s OK, but we need to hire people who get it. What we sell is a feeling, an emotion that makes people feel good. People who work here need to understand that.

What’s the best lesson you’ve learned about running a business over the past 45 years?

You can’t just look at what’s going on around you today, because that can make you very discouraged. You have to have a broader vision of what you’re doing. Those are simple words, I know. But I can get quite down: There are days when things are going sideways, and I’m putting out fires; everything is wiggling and wobbling. I’ll get stuck in my little office, worrying about numbers and whether a category is going down and all this nonsense we as business people have to think about to keep going. It can become overwhelming.

So what do you do to combat that?

As an entrepreneur, you do need to be detailed, to a degree, but you cannot let the details tear apart your larger vision, or you’ll go crazy. I’d also encourage business people to set aside a piece of the profits for charity, for things they’re passionate about. Some days you come to work and it’s crap on crap. On those days, if you’re doing some good in the community, at least you have that. Those things give longevity to our careers and help us carry on.

What excites you most about Fluevog’s future?

Because of our strong culture and unique product, Fluevog has the potential to really go global. I may take it there. But even if I don’t, the idea that I can is nice. It’s like buying a Ferrari: You’re never going to go 300 kilometres an hour in it, but you can. Just having the potential feels good.