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Living on Star Island was a blast, Donald Pliner recalls. Gloria Estefan would let everyone shower at her place after hurricanes because she was the only one with a generator. When Pliner's wife would be out walking the dog, Shaquille O'Neal, then in training to be a cop, "would put the siren on and say, 'Get in this car! You can't be out here alone!'" Diddy's mom stopped by all the time.
Shaq, Pliner remembers, wears a size 22 EEE. Alonzo Mourning is a 17.
"I always look down before I look up," the shoe mogul says.
Pliner grew up in Chicago and then spent years in art school and Europe trying to avoid the Vietnam War draft. After finally enlisting in the National Guard in California, he helped open a shoe store in Beverly Hills in 1967. That led to his own clothing store, where "Elton John would spend $30,000 a month on sunglasses and furs."
Pliner's fortunes came and went multiple times. After operating a store in New York, he lost everything — "my house and seven figures" — and moved to Williams Island in the 1980s. He started his own shoe company on 20 credit cards. "I paid $25,000 a year in finance charges."
He was $495,000 in debt, he says, when Nordstrom offered to feature one of his designs — a Western boot and pump — in Vogue.
"I thought, If I can make these in time, I can turn things around."
"I've always been about comfort," Pliner says. "If your feet are uncomfortable, so is your body, and so is your mind. If I can get a guy into my shoes, I own him."
Pliner became known for "anything with stretch." His incorporating of elastic led to "a whole new way of making shoes." Popular high-end designs have included woven styles, boots, elaborate sandals, and shoes embellished with peace signs and skulls.
After 28 years, Pliner sold his business two years ago. But he still designs a signature line for men and works as a consultant on a women's line. Now 69, he spends 200 nights a year on the road, between his New York headquarters and appearances at his stores in L.A., Houston, Orlando, and Miami.
"Teenyboppers want my picture," Pliner says with amusement. One fan showed up at an event with 30-some pairs of Donald J Pliners that he keeps in original boxes and takes out only to admire as artworks.
When not promoting good taste (Crocs are "really horrible, just wrong," flip-flops "are dangerous," and Uggs terrify him), Pliner hangs with his wife Lisa, also a shoe designer, and their 9-year-old daughter, adopted from Kazakhstan after they lost a child. In 2007, he and Lisa started the Peace for the Children Foundation.
The couple has since sold their Star Island home, but with a touch of pride, Pliner says he hears that the captains running the tourist boats still tell their audiences: "There's Donald Pliner's house. You can't buy his shoes at Payless."