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In the Mad World of Shoe Biz, Master Cobbler Joe Famolare's New Line Is Making More Than Just the Old Ripple

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Joe Famolare suffers from what seems to be terminal insomnia. “If anything goes badly,” he explains, “I don’t sleep.” Famolare, who won a Coty in 1973 for his wood-and-plastic clog molded to the contours of the foot, has had good cause for sleeplessness during his 25 years in the manic-depressive shoe business—particularly when falling sales of his revolutionary line of clunky, ripple-soled shoes took him into the red. But that was last year. This spring Famolare, 49, should be sleeping soundly: He’s come out with a snazzier—he calls it “sweeter”—line featuring bright colors and a moderated version of the original wavy sole. “People want me again,” he exults. “They like my shoes. My product is selling.”

For Famolare, who does all his own designs, the success is a personal redemption. He can laugh now about the time not long ago he ran into violinist Isaac Stern on a flight to Paris aboard the Concorde. “Why don’t you make better-looking shoes?” growled Stern. “Get yourself a new designer!” Lately Stern commissioned Famolare to make him a half-dozen pairs, including white sport shoes for day and patent leathers for his concert work. “Joe’s shoes,” proclaims the convert, “have taught me to enjoy walking again.” Gregory Peck, Walter Matthau and Shirley Jones are also Famolare fans—as is Paul Newman, who not long ago ordered a half-dozen pairs of Famolare’s Race, a sneaker with tiny “snorkels” hidden inside for ventilation.

Famolare’s comeback has been trumpeted by a nationwide ad blitz starring the shoemaker himself. “Why should I get a model when I have Joe?” asks advertising whiz Jane Trahey, whose agency mounted the “Footloose and Famolare” campaign. “He is extremely photogenic and radiates friendliness. Joe’s teeth are so beautiful, his dentist should pay him.” Chain buyers are not swayed by a pretty face alone, however—and Famolare’s new shoes, which retail at from $30 to $85, are sold in 10,000 outlets across the U.S. Famolare expects retail sales this year to exceed $100 million—and to beat last year by 15 to 20 percent.

Joe, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., has been cobbling since he was a boy. Both his father and grandfather were in the business. The third generation admits he was “a disaster at first—I was constantly daydreaming.” To make matters worse, his father was a tyrannical master. “If I made a mistake I heard about it at home. Only when I started being almost good enough did we become friends.”

In 1956 Famolare graduated from Boston’s Emerson College, where he majored in theater and English and met his wife, Sandra. (They have two daughters, Bibiana, 21, and Hilary, 20.) He moved to New York two years later and went to work making costume shoes for Broadway shows like Flower Drum Song, The Music Man and West Side Story. He spent another seven years as a designer for the tony firm of Marx & Newman before finally striking out on his own in 1969.

These days Famolare shuttles between his home in Vermont, his offices off Fifth Avenue and his Italian headquarters—a Florentine villa, where he sleeps in the gardener’s house. Whenever he is home, Joe Famolare still kicks off his shoes as soon as he closes the front door. “When I’m alone,” he confesses with a shrug, “I like to go barefoot.”