Edmonton's Queen Of Shoes Louise Dirks
Louise Dirks is modest and unassuming. But her chain of gravitypope outlets has an international reputation as a Mecca for shoe lovers.
Dirks is one of the most successful independent retailers in Canada, with three stores in western Canada as well as an online retailer and two franchise outlets she just opened in West Edmonton Mall. Since opening her first gravitypope store in Edmonton 22 years ago, even through economic downturns, she has turned a profit every year.
Dirks learned a strong work ethic growing up on a farm less than an hour north of Westlock,. Her parents, Dutch immigrants, worked hard and so did Louise and her siblings. She learned to be creative, because there wasn’t much to do and they had to create their own fun.
“I didn’t have much of a voice as the youngest of eight,” laughs Dirks. “I was always the odd man out. I think that has given me drive to prove to them I can do it.”
Dirks’ mother made their clothes and fashion was the furthest thing from her parents’ minds with so many other things to do. But Louise read every fashion magazine she could get a hold of and, as a child, played dress-up with her mother’s fishnet wedding gloves. When she graduated from high school, she worked a few years at a clothing chain, but she didn’t want a job. Dirks wanted to build something.
So after graduating from the University of Alberta, she teamed up with a partner and started Polly Magoo’s, an artisan and handcrafted goods import shop.
“I learned a lot in those years,” says Dirks. “I learned how to buy from the ends of the Earth, in entirely different cultures, in completely different ways. I learned about building relationships with people and about paying bills, how being honest with everyone makes life and running a business much easier.”
Dirks heard about a brand of footwear called Monkey Boots from the former Czechoslovakia and flew to Toronto to meet with the distributor. He also carried Dr. Martens, a brand that was up and coming in the mid 1980s, so she bought those as well. Sales came so quickly that soon the shoes were taking over the store and they needed more space. In 1990, they opened gravitypope.
“That was probably the biggest craze of footwear I’ve ever seen,” says Dirks. “Everyone wanted Doc Martens and we couldn’t get them. We would have six-month waiting lists and when we finally got our shipments in, we would have 12-deep lists. If people didn’t pick them up in 12 hours, they would go to the next guy. It was insane.”
Dirks was doing double duty with an intense travel schedule, flying to Morocco, Guatemala, India, Thailand and Mexico to buy for Polly Magoo’s and then to Europe and trade shows in New York to buy footwear for gravitypope. When she got pregnant with her son in 1992, something had to give. The partnership split amicably, with Dirks taking over the shoe business.
People were driving from Calgary to shop at her Edmonton store, so she opened a store in that city — and then another in Vancouver. She expanded into clothing and, while planning a store for Edmonton, the space next to her Vancouver store became available, so she opened two clothing stores at the same time. She also brought in her own private gravitypope label with shoes from Italy, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, and started selling her shoes online. After Vancouver, Ontario is her largest market, so she’s planning to open a gravitypope store in Toronto in September. Meanwhile, within one week of each other, she was offered the franchises for both Camper and Dr. Martens, so at the end of May, she opened two stores for those brands in West Edmonton Mall. While she has many customers from the U.S., including celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres who buy her shoes online or those who cross the border to shop at her Vancouver store, she’s not quite ready to move into the American market – yet.
Dirks has a loyal customer base and figures she’s grown every year because she targets a different market from those who shop big box stores. While her shoes tend to be more expensive – they average in the $350 - $400 price range with the most expensive pair retailing for $1,200 – her customers are looking for quality footwear that lasts. And being a small business, she is able to offer a wide selection of unique shoes with stock that can adapt quickly to changing demands, trends and styles.
Her accountant once gave her advice that she should buy as long as she’s selling. Most of the time, it’s worked well.
“There are definitely times when I have product left over. In fact, it’s all in my warehouse and I often walk through those shelves and go ‘These are my mistakes. I can learn from this.’ I just have to figure out how to sell them, which creates another feeding frenzy, which is good marketing.”
Dirks’ son, Luke, has been helping out in the business since he was 9. Now in his early 20s, he works there full time. He’s now running the two new West Edmonton Mall stores, the first time he’s managed a part of the business himself.
“There’s no silver platter coming his way,” smiles Dirks, who would eventually like to slow down her all-consuming schedule with the business to do other things. “He’s going to have to realize that if he wants (the business), it is going to be hard work.”
Ironically, or perhaps not, Dirk the shoe store owner is not much of a personal shopper and doesn’t have her own closet full of shoes.
“I think I’m a good buyer because I’m buying for the wide variety of people and I don’t put my own tastes in there because I find it hard getting dressed in the morning,” she laughs. “I’m one of those girls who will wear the same boot for a month, a year, sometimes two years straight. It’s like they become my security blanket after a while.”
Dirks’ Gravity Pope business now grosses about $15 million a year and will grow to about 150 employees when the Toronto store opens in the fall.
A footnote: Everyone always asks Louise Dirks where the name Gravity Pope came from. Here it is. Her Polly Magoo’s business partner always used to joke that when a call came through for Louise, it was the Pope. And Louise was down-to-earth, as shoes that touch the ground because of gravity. So, they combined the two words.