The Fats Domino song “I'm Walkin'” comes to mind when meeting with University of Florida alumnus Joel Rabin, a design major who graduated from the then College of Architecture and Fine Art in 1959. College of the Arts Dean Lucinda Lavelli and I had the privilege of a lunch visit with Rabin near his home in Coconut Grove last week. The song “I'm Walkin'” was released in 1957, about the same time Rabin was completing his degree from UF and just starting to get his feet wet with his father's shoe business, which would eventually become today’s Jack Rogers shoe brand, now under new ownership.
We took a walk down memory lane with Rabin to hear his story. We were all ears - and feet - as Lavelli showed off her appropriate footwear for the occasion, an orange pair of Jack Rogers sandals. Rabin smiled and recalled his time at UF as the best time of his life. It was a time where he learned the meaning of good design and marketing.
In coming to UF, Rabin said, “For the first time in 13 years of education, I truly was enjoying what I was doing in school. My professors ignited an appreciation of art.”
Rabin transferred that passion to his work at his father’s modest shoe business. In order to make high-quality shoes, Rabin enlisted an Italian shoemaker from Capri to aid with the design of a variety of shoes. The high-quality design allowed them to sell the shoes to top-of-the-line retail outlets everywhere from New York to Florida, including Miami, Palm Beach and even Pinner’s Shoes in Gainesville.
“We built relationships back then, and the people that we did business with in selling our shoes became our friends and family,” Rabin said.
So who was Jack Rogers?
"I'll get to that," he said.
While Rabin was working at his father’s company, the company hired a salesman from Los Angeles who was impeccably dressed in his own style. His name was Jack Rogers.
Rabin was assigned to work and learn from him. During his travels with Rogers, Rabin carried his bags of shoes everywhere from department stores, mom-and-pop shops, and high-end shoe stores across the country. He learned sales and marketing from Rogers and grew to admire and respect him.
Fast forward a few years, and Rabin took over the family business. He decided to focus the company's limited resources on one shoe – the iconic sandal made popular by Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s. While the decision to do so was strategic, the trick was to increase capacity, as they had already taken the line from one shoe maker to a production of 100,000.
“We could not do that with such a variety of shoes,” Rabin said. “I thought this design, this shoe, was the one for our focus.”
After years of selling the iconic sandal, Rogers eventually retired. In his honor, Rabin named the shoe for him, as Jack was an integral part of the brand and knew style so very well.
While we were at lunch, Rabin gave a memorial donation to his alma mater, UF College of the Arts, in honor of the late Bill Pinner of Pinner's Shoes. The Pinners became part of his family in the shoe business. Duke Pinner, Bill Pinner’s son, was honored by this gesture.
“People do not know that Joel is one of the icons in the women’s shoe industry,” Duke Pinner said. “He is widely respected and a most humble man who sold his Jack Rogers shoe company without fan fair several years ago. Joel has been a mentor to me and took me under his wing. As a result, I have become a very good shoe merchant. You do not meet a lot of people like Joel in a lifetime.”
Pinner went on to share more stories about Joel. He shared that Joel, he and his father Bill were the first to create orange and blue game day shoes with the Jack Rogers brand that then was emulated nationwide.
Now, when I see those beautiful UF girls wearing Jack Rogers sandals as they are a walkin' around campus and on game day in orange and blue, I will think of that Fats Domino song and remember of meeting with Joel Rabin and hearing his amazing story with a smile!