Indie shoe icon, John Fluevog
When you embark on a collaboration, it's a leap of faith, like deciding to take a trip with someone you've just met. You are drawn to them and respect what you know so far, but how is it really going to go?
In the case of John Fluevog, all expectations have been vastly exceeded. The deeper you dig into this brand, the more layers of integrity and creativity you find. I leave this collaboration proud of what we created and inspired by this older independent company (Fluevog was founded in 1970) to be more fearless and to fulfill more dreams for my own labor of love, in the making these last 15 years.
Thank you, John and Team, for the gorgeous trio of cases and this heartfelt interview.
Read and ride on!
SteamLine Founder, Sara Banks
In Conversation with John Fluevog
SB: First off, congratulations on your 50th Anniversary in 2020 and gorgeous book! 2020 didn’t turn out to be the ideal year for celebrations, did it now; how are you making up for it in 2021?
JF: We’re not through it yet but there seems to be a new normal and we’re noticing a new positive energy and we’re definitely on an upswing.
SB: We are delighted to be part of this milestone with our collaboration. How did you settle on our luggage design? Our colorway and the scroll design looks like your Swirl boot from the 90s; is that right?
JF: Everything I do seems a little swirly so that boot would not be the only one that you would be able to reference. However, that particular boot was the result of my breaking out and finding my own voice so elements have always stuck with me.
The Fluevog x SteamLine Collection includes Carryon, Hatbox, and Vanity cases.
SB: I read in your company story that in 2000 you “continued to make traditionally-made untraditional shoes and started experimenting with eco-friendly, vegetable tanned leathers and water based glues wherever possible.” It’s admirable that you’ve been paying attention to your footprint since the early aughts. We’re currently working with natural and vegan leathers and sustainable plant-based materials, and it is a learning curve, but it feels so good to be moving the needle. Has it ben challenging to find eco-friendly materials of equivalent comfort and durability?
JF: Short answer, yes! It's as much about the look of the materials as how they age. Good quality leather improves with age as it softens up, so sourcing alternative materials that improve with age is definitely a challenge. Leather is a marriage of the wearer and the product. The material submits to the wearer as it were.
SB: Yes! I've loved saying that our leather collections are travel records that improve with every adventure! And apart from luggage, shoes have always been my favorite accessory. When my husband and I came into your store, the shoes bowled us over as an ideal aesthetic match for the spirit of SteamLine. Then I was really struck by your quote from the 2018 New York Times article, “A long way from the eyes, they’re the soul you’re standing on, showing self-awareness or lack thereof.” I think you hit on something I’ve also tried to say, when one wears stylish clothes but carries shabby or even just boring luggage, it gives away the whole image. Self-awareness (versus self-consciousness!) is a powerful thing, and I agree that how you present yourself says something about how you treat yourself, which affects how you interact with the world. Is this what you meant by this statement?
JF: Pretty much, although I think you said it much better hahaha. It’s understanding that you are unique and then learning to walk confidently in that uniqueness. Using that confidence to bring others up, around you. Isn’t it funny how sometimes they’re just shoes, or it’s just luggage, in that they have a purpose and a real job to do but they are so much more than that a lot of the time. They have the ability to show well! To enlighten!
SB: Beautifully said yourself! As a fully online brand, I am curious about your opposite experience. You are known for your fabulous stores, which you’ve been opening increasingly as the world’s gone more digital. I can see that the in-person experience must be a vibrant part of your brand. How have you found transitioning to the digital age and can you say anything about balancing that with brick-and-mortar?
JF: The brick and mortar is a place to experience the magic of Fluevog. The stores become part of the community where they are located where people come to connect and step out of the mundane of daily life and get transported to a place that I like to call, Vogville. One of the things this pandemic has shown us is that a lot of us like to be around people, to have interactions, to have relationships and feel a part of something. Our stores have always been one of these places, and a huge part of that is due to our incredible Fluevogologists. I often shake my head as I can’t believe I get to work among such amazing people.
The John Fluevog Gastown store in Vancouver, the brand's hometown.
Shoes in a Post-2020 World
SB: I know the pandemic affected the shoe business heavily, with everyone’s feet out of screen sight under their desks at home! Of course we were hit hard but lucky to weather the year with some creative messaging around using our luggage for decorative home storage and emphasizing our handbag range for daily adventures. Did you and your team pull off any fancy footwork you’re proud of to get through the year? And now we are lucky to be partaking in the global travel comeback. Are you seeing shoes make a comeback, too?
JF: These are great questions btw :) What got us through the first year of the pandemic was being able to shift quickly to a more digital focus, and thankfully we had already built a great community (Flummunity as it’s known) on various platforms. We repurposed some roles and we had to think fast and learn a great deal to be able to keep going. We were very fortunate to collaborate with our provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry who herself is a Fluevoger, to produce a shoe in her honour and raise a substantial amount of money for the Food Bank. The response and support was humbling and overwhelming. Pairs of those limited shoes can now be seen in multiple museums across Canada.
SB: Going back to your Fox and Fluevog days before breaking out on your own, you’ve obviously always been brilliant at marketing. As a brand that seeks to feel modern with an old soul (or should I say sole!), it’s just so smart and fun. Have you mainly trusted your gut in marching to that proverbial drum of one’s own or do you have a specific ethos about marketing you’d be willing to share?
JF: It’s really about not taking myself too seriously and trying to be genuine and have a little fun in the process.
SB: That's so refreshing to hear. And I understand you lead a team of designers but still participate in every single design. What’s your favorite part about the design process?
JF: At the moment, I'm trying to let go of total control and encourage the team members to take more ownership and trust their gut instincts with the design process. I introduce a basic shape with descriptive words and then allow them to “riff” on it.
SB: When I read about how you broke out on your own in the 80s then sold your car to open your second store, in Seattle, I was inspired by your fearlessness—which seems echoed in the rock ‘n’ roll spirit of your brand. I would love to hear about how you’ve approached risk-taking, moments of doubt; who or what has helped sustain your self-belief?
JF: I had to be willing to make mistakes and to get it wrong but to keep on trying. Thankfully in many situations, my risk taking paid off. In truth I will design something because I like it and it feels good to me, regardless of if it sells well or not. A big piece of my success was overcoming a fear of failure. It was part of me for so long, but then slowly I learned over time that my way of viewing the world was actually the key to my success.
SB: I was also inspired by your open-source footwear design initiative, inviting fan design ideas then acting on them and giving credit where due. You’ve so many ideas I’d like to borrow—letting your community have a tangible voice in your brand seems not only the way to a customer’s heart but a beautiful way to do business. Similarly I’d love to hear more about FluevogCreative, the platform you designed to “bring advertising back to the people.” In the digital world we are talking so much about the authenticity of UGC: “user-generated content”; you were on this long before. What inspired you to make FluevogCreative a reality?
JF: I realized that my customers had opinions and ideas that they wanted to share with me so we created a platform where they could do that. The brand doesn't really belong to me—it belongs to the community.
In the Community
SB: Reading about your FlummunityFest reminded me how much I love and miss events, much work as they are. (My husband created Dublin’s Street Performance Festival!) What role do events play in your business and community building?
JF: Wow, the Street Performance Festival sounds amazing! Events play a huge role so this pandemic has been a challenge. Events especially have a role to play at Fluevog because Fluevogers are a special bunch, and finding ways for us all to get together is really important to the emotion and identity of that community.
SB: Last compliment, your brand voice is so authentic, it just leaps from the screen. So hat tip to you and your team for conveying what seems like a most positive and fun-loving brand spirit. If it’s not top secret, can you say something about the alchemy between your voice and the person(s) behind your brand storytelling? Does the messaging on the Fluevog website sound just like you? It’s infectious!
JF: Oh man… well it’s hard for me to answer that. I guess one would have to think that I’ve had an influence given that I started it, and I’m here everyday thank you very much :) The truth is, we have a loving, familial, wonderful group of people in all areas of the company, and that brand voice is not developed at an agency or guided by a brand book, but is the authentic voice of the people that work at Fluevog everyday… It's really who we are as a collective and I think that’s what makes it so consistent and so authentic, and to your point, so human and somewhat infectious.
John Fleuvog's Travel Comeback
SB: Last question, may I ask if you have already taken a travel comeback or are planning one? And where was/will it be? Wherever you go next, I do hope you’ll be taking your SteamLine Flugagge...and sending us pictures!
JF: We are going to New York from Vancouver very soon which will be the start of my travel comeback! You can bet I will never be far from my new favo(u)rite carry-on :)
It’s been an absolute pleasure working with you and your team, and you have truly beautiful product. Thank you, and here’s to hitting the road again!