John Fluevog is one of the most accomplished artists you have probably never heard of. His devout faith guides his artistic process. Fluevog’s funky shoe designs rose to fame in 1991 when Madonna wore a pair of Munsters in her Truth or Dare documentary; since then, artists like Beyonce, Jack White and Robin Williams have followed suit.
Fluevog, now 70, was raised in an evangelical home in Vancouver, Canada. His love of design began when he became enamored with the stylized cars that frequented his father’s drive-in ice cream shop. The avant-garde curves and whimsical color combinations incorporated into Fluevog designs are still reminiscent of cars. The brand is known for the playful, sometimes cryptic, messages written on the soles of its shoes, including Scripture quotes, quirky aphorisms, and the famous slogan: “Resists alkali, water, acid, fatigue and Satan.”
There are now 25 Fluevog shops in North American and Europe. This summer, RELEVANT visited Fluevog’s Vancouver headquarters to speak with him about the relationship between art, faith, business and leading an authentic life.
RELEVANT: At a younger age, were you interested in art or drawing?
No, I wasn’t. I did not know that I was made artistically because I did not come from that kind of family. We didn’t talk in that language, and I always considered artistic people a bit flakey. My business was actually God’s way of forcing me to understand how He made me. It has been a reflection of my journey of faith, finding out with small steps here and there that I could actually do this.
Your experience reminds me of the famous Francis Schaeffer quote about art being seen as only “window dressing” by so many Christians.
Yes. Art was not considered a proper spiritual endeavor. The only thing that had value was how many souls were won by standing on the street corner. But the Divine was not sought after in artistic endeavors. I think design is far more important in our lives than we tend to give it credit for.
I went to Poland after the wall fell, and I saw the soullessness of the buildings. If there was art, it was not integrated into anything. It was so dark and so utilitarian, and that is not how we are made to be. We are made to be extravagant, made to shine. That’s part of our humanity, who we should be.
This focus on the beauty and artfulness of everyday objects reminds me you came to shoe design through your love of cars. Can you tell me a bit about that?
I grew up in the 1950s working at my dad’s ice cream drive-in, seeing all the cars that drove in. At that time, cars represented expression: what you did to your car—the color, the upholstery—was a personal expression. You identified yourself through this object. Before I was 10, I saw cars with raised fronts or backs, tire colors changed from black to white, grills taken out, and I saw how objects can represent our mood or culture.
That’s how I started drawing. I never considered myself good at it, but that’s not the art of it. It’s the ability to think beyond ourselves. It’s the divine in us and it’s the divine outside of us.
It’s interesting how the Church often has not encouraged this kind of creativeness. I don’t know why. It should be the most creative place on Earth. For some reason, it hasn’t done that.
Do you think that that having an artistic awareness is essential for the life of a Christian?
Yes, because we are created amazingly. Each one of us is not like the next person; we all think differently. We are made to work in units and harmony with other people because we all have different gifts. For instance, we all can’t be shoe designers. Someone has to make the shoes. But even in the making of them, in the production line of things that need to get done in order to make things work, there’s this idea of being in the Spirit that guides us in all of our endeavors.
It really does seem that of all people, Christians should be creative—especially if our conception of reality is larger than just the material world.
We are connected to and part of the created universe. I don’t know what the deal is. There is often a feeling of correctness in the Church, that we have to be “correct” to earn our salvation. And if we see someone not quite behaving properly, we become suspect and think maybe they are not really Christian.
When I see people sometimes hanging on to a culture that makes them comfortable and they associate with faith, it makes me wonder if they really have all that much faith. Why are they hanging onto this culture that has nothing to do with Christ’s redemption? Why are they picking on other people who aren’t exactly like them? It just seems that they don’t know the full gospel.
You’ve said that being truly yourself, being unique, is a great act of faith.
Of course it is an act of faith. I did not realize until later in life, at least my thirties, that what I thought about art was actually OK. I thought I had to think a certain way and there would be my salvation. To go away from that would be a scary place, and my questioning of certain things was wrong. We all need to open up a bit and let the sun shine.
It sounds you’re advocating for a very holistic view of faith that touches all parts of life, not just a narrow religious sphere.
One’s life needs to be completely transparent. I can’t be thinking wacky thoughts on one side, then acting different on the other. I need to deal with my own helplessness and my own sin. Why are so many trying to hide it rather than dealing with it, exposing themselves, saying Lord help me, opening up, falling down on their knees, etc? Why would I want to be inauthentic? There’s really no simple answer, no formula. It’s a walk, right?
I am no different than anybody else. I have had faith all of my life but I also am very human. My hope is for this humanity to resonate with people when I am authentic and throw messages from my life onto the soles of shoes. Maybe they don’t even understand the message, but then they are curious and it opens up their heart a bit to consider what it means, then God does the rest. We can’t convert anybody; I am far from converting anybody. That’s not my vision whatsoever.
I have heard some say that I am doing so much for the gospel. But no—I am just being myself through the grace of God.
I have seen that people love working and hanging out in your stores, and your website includes a fan-run resale shop where fans can design shoes and ad campaigns. Can you speak about how all this relates to your faith and overall vision?
I feel like I am in the entertainment business. We all have different giftings, and I feel my job is to make people feel good. When you put a pair of my shoes on, I hope and pray they make you feel different. Life is battle, good and bad. We are working our way through a maze. If I can give people pleasure when the shoes emit a feeling, and there is a sense of walking in my story, that’s great.
And we are made to work in community with each other. The fashion business at its core kind of sucks because it has an exclusiveness to it, an “I’m cool and you’re not” attitude. Hopefully, I don’t play that game.
And this emphasis on community and inclusion relates to the ethical ways your shoes are made, by hand in mostly family-run factories. Can you speak about your motivation for this part of the business model?
Profit is not the No. 1 motivator; it’s as simple as that. The No. 1 motivator is to walk in the Spirit. And when I am there in that place, with that ability to commune with the Creator, it’s a wonderful place to be. Yes, we need to make a profit, and I am always looking at the sales. We have to pay the rent! But it’s basically a boutique business, and I have never had anyone put money into it because I don’t want anyone telling me what I can do and can’t do. I’m not rich but I have enough. And I get to create and make things. What a wonderful thing to do with one’s life.
Dr. Mary McCampbell is Associate Professor of Humanities at Lee University, where she teaches courses in postmodern theory and fiction, film and philosophy, and cultural studies. She is currently working on a book titled Postmodern Prophetic: The Religious Impulse in Contemporary Fiction.