The reluctant shoemaker

Joe Famolare built a family business into a $90 million worldwide phenomenon

BRATTLEBORO — Joe Famolare was a colorful guy who lived a colorful life.

Famolare, who died on July 11 at age 82, started working in his father's shoe manufacturing business when he was 12.

Then, as a shoe designer, pattern-maker, and executive himself, he took his talents to a higher level.

For Capezio, Inc., for example, he designed the dance shoes for the original Broadway production of “West Side Story.” He also designed ballet shoes for the Bolshoi Ballet and footwear for competitive gymnastics. Some of his designs are still in use.

In time, Famolare became the designer and executive vice president of an international shoe company, Marx and Newman, a division of the giant United States Shoe Corp. Living in Italy and New York City, he designed and manufactured shoes and traveled the world.

When that paled, he started his own company, Famolare, Inc., which grew to have offices in the U.S., Italy, Switzerland, and Brazil. At its height, his business was doing $90 million in yearly wholesale sales.

Pictures of his attractive and fashionable shoes, sometimes perched on his nose, appeared frequently in magazines such as Vogue. In 1973 he won the prestigious Coty Award for fashion designers, and in 1995 was inducted into the Fashion Association Hall of Fame. His designs are on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and in the permanent collection of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Cincinnati Museum of Art in Ohio.

In the end, his success made his father proud.

“He was surprised, but proud,” Famolare said in a 2005 interview. “My father and I became friends when I was 26 or 27. Until that time, he was a working man and I was a kid getting into trouble. But by then we were in the same business and could talk to each other. That's the way it was in those days. A man was a working man. He wasn't learning how to be a father; he was supplying the money. That's what he was supposed to do.”

The early years

Famolare went to Middlebury College for a year in the early 1950s, then switched to Emerson College, the theater and broadcasting school in Boston. By that time he was singing in nightclubs and bars.

“I wanted to be a singer because I didn't want to be in shoes,” Famolare said. “I hated the shoe business. It was so dusty and boring, and the people didn't seem happy. I could sing, and I studied voice seriously, and I found that people liked to hear me sing. So I went to Emerson to be an actor."

Famolare met his future wife at Emerson, and then was drafted before he could get his degree. He was ready to ship out as a radio operator when the Korean War ended in 1953.

Famolare got out of the service at 23. He had already abandoned the idea of a singing career over of its long hours and meager pay. He wanted to go back to Emerson, but his father insisted that he start working. So he joined his father's company and, like many Korean War veterans, attended college at night.

During the 1960s, Capezio, Inc. was famous for fashion, dancewear, shoes, and dance shoes. Famolare went to work there in 1960 as director of design, production, and technology.

“I did the shoes for all the Broadway shows like 'West Side Story' and 'Redhead,'” Famolare said. “I did the boots for [actress and dancer] Gwen Verdon. It's not like I knew her; I was the shoe guy. I would go in and say, 'How's that feel?' I designed and organized all the shoes for the Bolshoi Ballet – they needed soft ballet boots. So I was the shoe designer for almost all the Broadway shows for two years. Every kind of shoes – boots for pirates, all these crazy different shoes. The shoe I designed for 'West Side Story' was called the jazz oxford. Dancers still use that.”

After two years, Famolare left in disagreement over a new shoe design.

“They wanted to make certain kinds of shoes,” Famolare said. “They were going for a look – and forgetting about making the shoes comfortable for the feet. I said I would not be part of that mistake. And the year after I left they went bankrupt from those shoes.”

Famolare went back to his father's company as a pattern maker, but in 1965 he was hired as executive vice president of Marx and Newman.

“They hired me because I knew all the technical stuff, and they needed someone who knew that and who could also be an executive. That was hard to find. They took a chance on me,” he said.

With upscale customers such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, Marx and Newman hired Famolare to create, manufacture, and import shoes from Italy.

“So I went to Europe and ran all their technology and a division for them: Bandolino Shoes,” Famolare said. “And I made that a great success. So I'm doing well for six or seven years. We're living in Italy and the U.S. My daughter was born in Florence. We lived almost 25 years in Florence. I went to Berlitz [International] to learn how to speak Italian. I drove myself to all these factories I would find in the hills, and I was able to develop a business. I really learned a lot.”

But internal politics and turmoil at Marx and Newman convinced Famolare he should leave.

He then built a new company from scratch. With offices in the U.S., Switzerland, and Italy, Famolare ran Famolare, Inc., from 1969 to 1988. He also established and ran a second company, Fabras, in Brazil.

“It was a fun business,” Famolare said.

His shoes were wildly popular in the 1970s, but by the 1980s the shoe business had changed. Department store consolidation made the market difficult for manufacturers such as Famolare. Also, he said, he was burning out.

“I was on airplanes all the time,” he said. “I was like a machine. I could feel myself going. You could almost smell the smoke coming out of your ears – that's what burnout is like. I could tell I was making bad decisions.”

In 1988, Famolare licensed his entire business to U.S. Shoe, and retired to Vermont.

“That was a mediocre decision, but I got to hand off all my employees,” Famolare said. “I didn't have to fire people, which I was concerned about. Everybody ended up being employed.”

Coming to Vermont

Back in the late 1970s, Famolare visited a friend in Westminister West and fell in love with Vermont over lunch.

“You know how we have those three or four days that are absolutely incredible here?” he said. “Well, I was visiting on one of those days. If you ever want to sell something in Vermont, get the people up here on one of those days. We only have three or four of them a year. Not a cloud in the sky, blue, the grass was green, the birds were singing and the little butterflies are going by. My friend says, 'Would you like to buy the land next door?' And I bought it, just like that.”

Famolare had his brother-in-law build him a house because he was too busy to do it for himself. In 1979, he also bought a 120-acre farm near Fort Dummer State Park in Brattleboro because he thought his daughters might want to keep horses there. The Interstate runs through the property.

“The farmer called me up and said, 'I want to sell you my farm,'” Famolare recalled. “I [asked] why, and he said, 'I hear you'll take care of it.'” He was running about 80 cows here at the time.”

Ten years later, Famolare was restless and up for a new challenge. He turned that farm into the now-flourishing Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center (VABEC).

“I was sitting at home, which I hated,” Famolare said. “I really, really went bonkers. I decided to make an office at the farm. I put in a construction trailer, and I put a sign outside that said Famolare Field Office - because I was out in the field.”

Famolare had no idea what business he would go into.

“So I sit there, and you know what? Within two months I needed a secretary. And I tell people today, if you retire, what you do is get a place with a telephone and a desk, and now a computer, and two chairs on the other side of the desk for people to talk to you about whatever the hell you're going to do, and that's what you do. Then you get out of the house and have some place to go.”

Then Famolare decided that Brattleboro needed a center for education and agriculture.

“I remember Al Moulton saying, 'Brattleboro needs a higher education location,'” Famolare said. “So I put the sign up: Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center. I had not one tenant, and it cost me $5,000 for the sign. I believe that whenever you go into business, you buy a sign – an expensive sign. Because then, if you pay enough for it, you're going to pay attention to what you put on it. So you're going to think in your head about what you're going to do.”

The educational part of VABEC came first.

“Nancy Chard was my first tenant,” Famolare said. “Then UVM came. We're in the milk house, and while I'm talking to them a rat is running right up the post beside them while I'm trying to give word pictures of how beautiful it was going to be. We didn't have any contract. We shook hands and I built the place to their liking, and we signed a contract when they moved in. I said, 'I'm going to build it, and if they don't come, then I'm the dumbest guy who ever happened.' But they came, and they've been here ever since."

Union Institute & University followed. Then the Thompson School of Practical Nursing, which is now part of Vermont Technical College. UVM Extension is also there, and it's a hub for 4-H programs in Windham and Windsor counties.

Famolare has said developing VABEC has cost him “beyond millions.” But it stands today as a testament to a lifetime of restless creativity and hard work.

According to his daughter Hillary, a memorial service for Famolare is scheduled for Sunday, Aug. 4, from 1 to 3 p.m. at VABEC's campus.

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