Sole Man — Pliner still stepping out in styleThursday, March 25, 2010
By Michael Quintanilla
Surrounded by star-struck sales people, shoe designer Donald J Pliner is in his element as ringmaster of his eponymous high-style global brand.
He speaks passionately about the importance of customer service. He demonstrates the proper way to present a shoe (toe always facing the customer). He folds a kitten-heeled sandal in half and opens and shuts it like a mouth to illustrate the shoe's flexibility and lightness.
"My shoes talk," he joked with the staff at San Antonio's Julian Gold recently, before the store opened for a personal appearance that had him mugging for photos with customers -- including a busload of Pliner shoe collectors from Corpus Christi -- and autographing every style they took home: platforms, wedges, heels, flats, even handbags. On Saturday, the designer will be in his Houston store, his second-best-selling boutique after Las Vegas, to do the same.
Pliner, who launched his shoes and accessories line in 1989, learned the art and craft of shoemaking -- and selling on the floor -- in a company operated by his family in Chicago. Today, his designs are known worldwide for their elastic and stretchable micro-fiber technology, which feels like soft leather.
Pliner, 63, and his wife, Lisa, 42, also a shoe designer, also operate their Peace for the Children Foundation, which they started in 2007 after adopting daughter Starr Emmanuelle from a Kazakhstan orphanage. With a percentage of shoe profits going toward the cause, the nonprofit has raised money to build two community parks to date: one in Miami where the Pliners reside; the other in southwest Houston. With a fragrance soon to launch, Pliner is also considering a clothing line and a New York boutique.
Q: Have you always wanted to be in the shoe business?
A: I've always been in the fashion business. I've never been out of it even though I've lost businesses three times in my life -- everything -- let's just say because of legal situations I couldn't fight any longer. For awhile I had Donald J Pliner clothing and sold in Bergdorf Goodman. For a couple of years I didn't do anything. My brother wanted me to open a couple of shoe stores in California, and I did because I knew the shoe business.
Q: How has the economic downturn changed the way people shop for shoes?
A: I've been in the business 42 years and have seen the ups and downs. People with money don't want to be ostentatious and haven't spent as much. Women who used to buy five pairs of shoes are now buying two.
Q: How have you adapted?
A: In the 1950s and '60s, America made the best shoes in the world. Then the unions came, and that resulted in shoes being made in Italy because it was cheaper. My shoes have always been made in Italy and Spain, but now I'm looking to China for some production. My signature shoe goes for $275 to $450, but moving forward, about 25 percent of my business will be done in China -- not to make inexpensive shoes but to lower the prices anywhere from 15 to 20 percent. I want my shoes to return to 2008 prices.
Q: Your wife, Lisa, has a shoe line as well.
A: My wife's shoes, which she started a year ago, are priced $450 to $600. For fall 2010 those shoes will be made in China with price points at $180 to $260 for shoes; boots will be $300 and up.
Q: How do you find newness in shoes?
A: I look to the young designers out there, for the kids coming out of college; they are the ones experimenting. I ran a couple of scholarships with Los Angeles' FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise), and I've just hired two young women who graduated from there. They helped change my fall line and are working on spring. They are my new eyes. My wife, who is 21 years younger than me, has changed the look of the Pliner shoe as well.
Q: What has changed?
A: Shoes, like clothes, have become seasonless. You can wear boots in the summertime and an open-toe shoe in the winter. I don't call my collections spring, summer, fall and winter even though that's when we present them. I just say, "This is my new collection." The entertainment and music industry have changed what the customer wants, too. So have younger women. It's very gratifying for me when a customer says, "My daughter loves your shoes, and she told me to buy a pair also."
Q: What's the best tip you can offer?
A: Try on both shoes, not just one. How many times have you seen women in a shoe department trying on one shoe and hobbling because she has a tennis shoe on the other foot? Please try both on. Make sure your toes aren't hanging off the shoe. Would you let your foot hang off a short mattress?
Q: You speak a lot about comfort even though several of your styles look like they'd be hard on the feet.
A: A lot of my shoes have a footbed inside them, like a built-in Birkenstock. I use elastics and micro-fiber that is more expensive than leather. It is water resistant, has memory, is light and flexible and will outlast anything out there. I always ask, 'How will this shoe work with one's body?' When that shoe hits the cement, I want it to be comfortable. When your feet are comfortable, so is your body, mind and soul.