Joseph ‘Joe’ Famolare Jr. Dead at 82

Footwear designer combined a heritage in shoemaking with the instincts of an entertainer to produce a number of signature trends in the Seventies and Eighties.

Joe Famolare

Joseph Philip “Joe” Famolare Jr., who combined a heritage in shoemaking with the instincts of an entertainer to produce a number of the signature footwear trends in the Seventies and Eighties as the president of Famolare Inc., has died at the age of 82.

This story first appeared in the July 15, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

He died of cancer at his home in Putney, Vt., on Thursday.

His Italian-made, molded wavy-sole platform shoes, dubbed the Get There, were a staple of the era, forever associated with the hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans that frequently sat just above them. Yet Famolare was as focused on function as he was on fashion. This came as much from his background as a patternmaker working for his father’s shoe business in Boston as from subsequent tenures at Capezio, where he designed shoes for Broadway dancers, members of the Bolshoi Ballet and Twyla Tharp’s dance company, and at Bandolino.

“With a wife and two daughters, he never accepted the idea that a woman’s feet should hurt because she was wearing a high heel,” said his daughter Bibiana Famolare Heymann. “And he knew how to go into a factory and make sure that the shoes that came out of it looked right, fit right and wore right. He knew how to get the foot and the shoe working together properly.”

Famolare received a Coty award in 1973 for shoes which were “ergonomically designed and quite ahead of their time,” said Diane Forden, the editor in chief of Bridal Guide magazine, who first saw them during an early editorial stint at Seventeen magazine.

Famolare deviated from standard operating procedure not only in the style and construction of the shoes that bore the family name but also in their promotion. A brief hiatus from his father’s business as a nightclub singer had provided him with confidence as a public speaker as well as an appreciation of the value of theater.

“He was sort of the Barnum & Bailey of footwear,” said his younger daughter, Hilary Famolare. “He could promote and sell anything.”

Initially looking to avoid imagery that focused on women’s legs and might be viewed as sexist, Famolare became the face of his company’s campaigns, which were devised by Jane Trahey and shot on several occasions by Richard Avedon. He was often surrounded by his own shoes in the ads, but Trahey saw him as an enormous asset.

“Why should I get a model when I have Joe?” Trahey told People magazine. “He is extremely photogenic and radiates friendliness. Joe’s teeth are so beautiful, his dentist should pay him.”

His promotional toolbox included a crowded calendar of personal appearances. Hilary noted that her father sold Nordstrom Inc.’s Bruce Nordstrom on the viability of his efforts with in-store events “where people just went nuts. He brought cultural and social meaning to the shoes and broadened the audience with shoes for older women, for men and for kids.”

As sales moved past $100 million, his patented styles were not only imitated but often litigated as footwear makers sought to capitalize on his popular looks.

Indulging a lifelong love of flying, he received his pilot’s license in his early 60s and frequently flew in and out of his home in Vermont, where he founded the Vermont Agricultural Business Education Center, a renovated farm that served as an education site bringing together business, government and agriculture, in Brattleboro. He continued to work at VABEC until just before his death.

A memorial service will be held at VABEC from 1 to 3 p.m. on Aug. 4.

In addition to his daughters, he is survived by Sandra, his wife of 55 years; his brother, Leo; two grandsons, and two granddaughters.