A Fluevog Fairytale
How an Inspired and
Forward-Thinking yet Majorly Improvable Shoe Company Can Regain its Rightful
Chief Cobbler of the Milky Way
Once upon a time, in a province far, far away (British Columbia!), a young man named John Fluevog spent his days manning his father’s drive-in ice cream parlor and his nights dreaming of shoes. He soon began selling other people’s shoes and eventually became the first importer of Doc Martens in North America. A thousand grunge bands bloomed, but still John was not satisfied. Seeing a need for magical yet comfortable shoes, he began designing and selling his own. And thus Fluevogs were born: chunky, clunky, otherworldly, occasionally asymmetrical, yet shockingly wearable, shoes.
There were no other shoes like them on the planet. His heels were shaped like hearts; his soles bore message of world peace. Shoe lovers were drawn to his designs like moths to the flame-red suede of his Lady Spool Pumps. The shoes were wacky, yet comfortable, attention getting, but work-appropriate. And so the Fluevog Empire flourished. Throughout the 80s and 90s, college students clomped around in Fluevog’s “Angels,” proven to repel acid, snow, and Satan. Punks, goths, alt-rockers and free spirits were united by their Flueg-votion. Men who had heretofore been hemmed in by dull loafers now sported electric blue wing tips. Stars of stage and screen walked a mile in his shoes—Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Lady Miss Kier of Dee-Lite, and our favorite Michigander, Madonna Louise Ciccone.
But then something changed. The ‘90s gave away to the 2000s, and the 2010’s. New shoemakers began tromping through the landscape, flaunting innovative ways to design, make, sell, and buy footwear. Zappos, Shoe Dazzle, Shoes of Prey, and others began offering massive choice and instant, customizable footwear. Fluevog fever began to fade from a typhoid fire to a mild flush in the cheeks of the loyal.
And still: the company hung on. It had a small but loyal, almost fanatical fan base. It had a reputation as a generous and empowering employer. It moved its manufacturing to Vietnam, China, and Peru—and managed to maintain the quality of its production. It continued to open stores—including one in Minneapolis. But the luster of its leather, and the sheen of its brand, had begun to fade. To many among the younger generations, the name “Fluevog” now meant nothing.
Fluevog is a company that deserves to claim its rightful place as the most innovative, responsive, original, and dynamic shoemaker on the planet.
The company has already made a number of efforts to modernize its business, namely:
Open Source Footwear. You, the customer, can submit sketches of your wildest shoe fantasies. If John chooses your design, he’ll manufacture them and send you a free pair of shoes.
Support. Every employee I’ve met, in every Fluevog store (and I’ve been to many
stores, from L.A. to New York), is an encyclopedia of shoe lore and Fluevog
history. They love the product and are dedicated, in a cult-like way, to the company. (But not a bad cult! A good cult, like the Catholic Worker Movement.)
Fluemarket. Ebay for Fluevogs! It’s an online swap meet of Fluevog enthusiasts.
In-Shop Cobbling: You can bring any old pair of shoes to a store and they’ll work with you to repair the heel, sole, or any part of the shoe that’s worn or broken.
QR code videos: Some lines of shoes feature a QR code that links to a video of that particular shoe (not just the model) being made, step-by-step.
But this is not enough! Fluevog, an innovator since its inception, must do more, much more, to create the Superior Shoetail Experience!
Humans are wired for stories—this is evidenced by the popularity of The Moth, Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon, the StoryCorps initiative, and more. Consumers now yearn more than ever to feel connected to their goods-- rather than being part of a transaction between a single individual and a faceless corporation, they want to know a real person is on the other side. Story is the way to make this happen. Some companies have started making storytelling part of their business model—the new television program Fashion Star is a genius example of attaching products to stories: the Project Runway-like “reality” show features young designers striving to meet challenges—and offers the viewers the chance to buy the winning designs at the end of each show. The viewers feel invested in their products because they've followed the harrowing tales of triumph and misfortune.
For Fluevog, the QR code video is on the right track, but these videos don’t tell a story so much as show a process. The website does feature quirky stories about John’s inspiration, but they’re tiny and hard to find. Fluevog would to better to make stories a central part of the shopping experience: each shoe should come equipped with a unique story, from the origin of the design, to the story of the designer who created it, to a narrative about the person actually physically making the shoe in an overseas factory. The story could be written inside the box, engraved on the sole, or take the form of a video linked to via QR code. The shoe isn't just a shoe, but the culmination of an engaging narrative.
ULTRA CUSTOM, ULTRA COMFORT
The one-size-fits-all model of selling is over. From Starbucks made to your liking, to Coca-Cola Freestyle 100-beverage vending machines, we’re in an era of total customization. And the biggest complaint people (especially women) make about shoe shopping is that it’s hard to find shoes that fit and feel good. Fluevog preaches a message of acceptance-- but the shoes don't yet reflect an acceptance of all feet. Fluevog is perfectly poised to solve be the first specialty shoetailer to offer custom-fitted shoes.
Fluevog uses a single shoe “last” (the form on which the shoe is shaped) for each shoe. If your foot isn’t the shape of that last, you’re SOL in Voglandia. To make Fluevogs accessible to everyone, the company could create a “Freestyle” experience, offering each shoe in a much wider variety of widths, arch heights, and heel heights.
Even better, Fluevog could adopt Shoes of Prey’s model of creating new lasts for custom shoes: at home or in the store, the customer would measure his or her feet along several dimensions, and the last would be altered to reflect these changes. This level of customization is doable: Shoes of Prey manufactures its shoes overseas and offers fine leather shoes at the same price point as Fluevog.
Furthermore, in an age of mass customization, Fluevog should offer at least a few shoe models that give creative control to the consumer, from color, materials, to heel height, to embellishments. From John’s heart to your foot: the shoes are made for you.
In an era of increasing social isolation, people seek community more than ever. Fluevoggers are rabid and cult-like in their devotion to the brand, and Fluevog is perfectly poised to harness this fervor and create opportunities for like-minded ‘Voggers to connect. An annual Festival de Fluevog, a convention featuring designers, talks, fashion and design panel discussions, booths for likeminded retailers, shoe swaps, fashion shows, and more, would bring together devotees around the world. Individual stores could host Vog Nights, cocktail get-togethers where shoe-lovers could trade stories. And a well-designed website forum could allow customers not only upload photos of themselves wearing their shoes, but interact, share stories, and connect.
Consumers are more interested than ever in how their goods are created: who made the product? Was she treated fairly? Were the raw materials ethically sourced? The recent factory collapse in Bangladesh is just the latest reminder that we know very little about the conditions in which our goods are produced. Consumers want to feel that they are doing good, not doing harm, in their purchases. Fluevog is well positioned to lead; they already offer a line of "Vegan" shoes, and the company does maintain that its global factories meet "Western" labor standards. But this information is buried in a FAQ on its website. Commitment to ethical manufacturing is a major selling point in today's market-- Fluevog's participation in ethical business practices should be front and center, a main component of its branding. A dedicated ethics page on the website, a fair-labor ad campaign, or pointed details on its packaging could highlight its solid business practices.
Some Fluevog loyalists have complained lately that Fluevog’s styles are more staid than they were in the company’s heyday. Sacre bleu! To generate excitement, Fluevog would create limited-time partnerships, a la Target, with creative collaborators chosen carefully to mesh well with Fluevog’s unique brand. Up-and-comers plucked from art school, musicians (Amanda Palmer), artists (Miranda July), or even writers (Neil Gaiman) would collaborate with John for short-run lines that bear the creative stamp of a living artist.
Retro-looking websites are in, but not unintentionally retro. Fluevog.com appears to have not been updated since 2005. Simply put: the company needs a website that’s clean, navigable, and modern.
And thus equipped, John Fluevog and his empire strode forth into the new day,
adopting some or all
of the above business strategies.
Their soles felt light as
the dawn rose.
Their spirits Flue, and the Vog lifted.