Innovative shoemaker, Donald J. Pliner, known for elegant classic footware, comes to BoiseFriday, March 26, 2010
By Dana Oland
Even though Donald Pliner is ready to launch a new, lower-priced shoe line, he admits that his sandals, shoes and boots still are pretty spendy.
"I can't make cheap shoes. I don't know how to make shoes that don't fit," the shoe and fashion designer says.
Comfort is the most important part of a Pliner shoe, he said, and comfort costs.
"If your body is uncomfortable, so is your mind and, someone once told me, your soul. With our shoes, it's about the technology, and technology costs."
With prices ranging from $250 to $600 and up, a pair of Pliners is a real investment and one that Pliner, who personally designs each Donald J. Pliner shoe, doesn't take lightly.
But it's been a hard-earned reputation that came from his dedication to design and his years spent in the retail shoe business, where he learned to create from the sole up, he said from his New York offices.
It was press week there when he did this interview, so he was in the city, taking care of business, but not for long.
This week and next, Pliner is on the road, making personal appearances at Dillard's stores across the country, including the store at Boise Towne Square. He will be promoting Peace for the Children, a nonprofit he co-founded with his wife, Lisa. Its focus is to help children in distress by eradicating disease, educating, encouraging communication and teaching children the skills they need to solve problems and make peace.
Pliner will be working with Dillard's sales staff and signing shoes. You will be able to make a donation to Peace for the Children and receive a free T-shirt. You also will be able to check out the new styles from Donald J. Pliner, some shipped in just for this event, including some from the new Lisa for Donald J. Pliner line, said Suz Watts, Dillard's store manager.
Expect to find Lisa's lower-priced styles, which range from $165 to $265, at the Boise store later in the season.
Pliner is hoping to meet his real clients: the men and women who buy and wear his shoes, he said.
"The biggest problem, I think, with designers and other manufacturers is they sit in their towers in New York or wherever, and they never really see who the real customers are," Pliner said. "I'm really a retailer at heart, not a wholesaler. It's so important to meet the real customers."
Pliner says he immensely enjoys traveling to smaller cities because that's where he gets the best feedback.
"It's a very warm satisfaction I get when I go to a city like Boise," he said. "Because people have much more appreciation for things like this. Sometimes I wish my customers were my (wholesale) buyers, because they're so much better."
Pliner grew up in Chicago around the retail shoe business. His family ran several Florsheim Shoe Stores, where his dad, Leo, taught him the secrets of merchandising, Pliner said.
"Some people grow up with a silver spoon; I grew up with a silver shoehorn," he said.Even so, he began designing by accident.
"It was during the Vietnam War era, and I didn't want to get drafted, so I went to college for five and a half years," he said. "I studied the history and painting because I thought that would be the easiest to take."
When he finally graduated in 1967, he joined the National Guard and took his older brother up on an offer to open a Papagallo's shoe store in Beverly Hills.
"Papagallo's were like the Manolo Blahnik of the 1950s and '60s. Everyone like Jacqueline Kennedy wore those shoes," Pliner said.
The store was a huge success, grossing more than $1 million in its first year. Then in 1971, Pliner opened his Right Bank Shoe Co. and the Right Bank Clothing and Tea Room that carried clothing by European designers such as Thierry Mugler and Il Bisonte and Trussardi. That's when he started designing his own clothing, accessories and shoes, working directly with manufacturers to get the look and feel he wanted.
"That's how I did it. I never did go to design school, but as I started opening my stores, I would go to the manufacturers and not know what I was asking. I'd say, this is a flat, can you make it as a high heel? This is closed toe. Can you make it open? God only knows how difficult it was, because I didn't know what I was asking. I knew nothing about design."
His aesthetic came naturally, he said.
"I always loved fashion when I was younger. I liked the arts in different formats," he said. "I learned creativity from my mother, who was an interior decorator, and discipline from my dad."
He learned his artistic bent on his feet - literally.
"The two most important classes I took in college were anatomy and portraiture. I look at everything from those two perspectives," he said. "It's not just the picture, it's the anatomy. The first thing you hit when you get up in the morning is the floor, with your feet. Too many designers forget about the feet."
An avid runner, he knows the importance of good shoes that don't just look good but work for your comfort.
"I know what it's like to go down the street with a pair of regular shoes versus sneakers," he said. "When I was doing clothing, I would do running outfits, but I'd do them in cashmere and suede. So, take the running outfit from the gym to the streets. And the same thing happened in shoes. I just got very conscious about the technology and how it could be applied for comfort. You can wear pretty shoes and be very comfortable. That's what Donald Pliner is all about."