Think your flip-flops have been through hell? Try a pair of Gandys
If there’s a single iconic travel fashion accessory, it’s flip-flops.
The universal footwear is worn the world over by backpackers, package tourists, beach bums and wealthy vacationers alike.
It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
For British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan, flip-flops also represent a memory, a legacy, a way of life and the avenue toward a dream of establishing a successful business, as well as a network of orphanages.
In 2012, the entrepreneurial pair launched Gandys, a brand of colorful flip-flops they hope to make a household name around the world.
But theirs is no ordinary company start-up or socially conscious marketing pitch.
Gandys was launched only after a tragic and compelling tale that made world travelers and, eventually, orphans of the brothers themselves.
Gandys is their way of paying tribute to that story.
The brothers grew up on the road.
Their parents, Kevin and Sandra Forkan, owned a successful fashion/social enterprise in the UK. Tired of the business and wanting a more meaningful life, the Forkans sold their home in 1999 and took up a lifestyle of travel, working on charity projects in developing countries.
Four of their six children came along, including Rob and Paul, while the two older siblings remained in the UK.
The family’s journey began in India, where the Forkans set up base for four years, raising money for local causes and volunteering in orphanages.
For the children, conventional schooling wasn’t an option.
“We went to school for four or five months, then we were meant to be home schooled, but that probably only happened for one afternoon in four or five years,” says Paul Forkan. “We learned by going to museums and visiting history sites rather than reading about them from books.”
For Paul and his siblings, India is where their fondest family memories were made.
After India, the Forkan family went to Sri Lanka.
In 2004, the Boxing Day Tsunami hit Sri Lanka, engulfing the seaside resort where the Forkans were staying. The tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in Asia –- among them were parents Kevin and Sandra Forkan. Their children, Rob, Paul, Matty and Rosie, just 17, 15, 12 and eight years old respectively, became orphans in a flash of water that ripped open the doors of the resort and barreled into the rooms.
With no belongings, food or money, the children hiked some 200 kilometers (124 miles) over the course of a week to Colombo where, with the support of the British Embassy, they made it back to the UK to live with an older sister.
“We were lucky that after traveling around so much as children, we always saw situations that were a lot worse (than ours),” says Paul, reflecting on his past inside the London headquarters of Gandys.
“I think if we were just there for a two-week holiday it would have been a lot harder. But as children, we were volunteering at orphanages and we’d seen a lot of bad stuff, so we were a lot tougher than most people would normally be.
“It was bad in the first 12 months, but we just got on with life. We did things that we enjoyed, like playing sports and going away at the weekend. Obviously we miss (our parents) still. You just have to keep yourself as busy as possible and focus on the good stuff.”
Moving on from their harrowing experience took time, but the brothers were resilient.
Waking up in the UK one morning after a long day at a festival, Rob blurted out that he had a dry mouth, “like Ghandi’s flip-flops.” In that instant, the idea for a footwear business was born.
Rob shared his inspiration with Paul, who was working and traveling in Australia at the time.
“Rob flew out for my 21st birthday,” says Paul. “He told me about the idea and then he wouldn’t shut up about it.
“When he came to me, it was just an idea. But he said, ‘let’s do this.’ So I came back and we went from there.”
Keen to avoid offense to the famous political family, the brothers named their business Gandys, rather than Ghandi’s.
Next, they designed their own colorful flip-flops, put together prototypes and found an investor in self-made millionaire Dominic List.
London isn’t the most obvious place to base a flip-flop start-up and Paul concedes that at one point wearing Gandys year-round left him with “a horrendous cold.”
Like much else in their life, the Gandys journey has been difficult, but a spirit of perseverance has gotten the brothers through the tough spots.
“There’s are times when you’re like, ‘Jesus this is tough, this is hard,’ but being a good entrepreneur means that when you come up against a big brick wall, you find ways to go round it,” says Paul.
“I actually had a lot of mates that laughed at me. It’s only in the last couple months, when we launched in places like Topshop and a few celebrities have been seen wearing Gandys, that people have started saying, ‘Yeah, we can see you guys being like Havaianas.’ We never really thought about coming up against Havaianas as a big brand, we just did it.”
From a business that started in the bedroom of a shared flat in Brixton, Gandys is forecast to turn over more than £1million ($1.51 million) by 2014. The flip-flops are sold in more than 30 shops and boutiques around England.
“We want to be famous for flip-flops,” says Paul. “We want to be a household name around the world for flip-flops. ”
A social enterprise
As part of the company’s “For Orphans, By Orphans” initiative, the brothers are setting up their own foundation, which will open Gandys orphanages around the world.
The project will kick off in India, and is due to be unveiled in 2014 before the tenth anniversary of the Asian tsunami.
In the meantime, the brothers donate 10% of profits from Gandys to Mango Tree Goa, a UK-based charity that helps disadvantaged children in Goa, India. In one year of operating Gandys, the brothers say they’ve donated enough money to Mango Tree Goa to provide school supplies for 100 children and fund a teacher for a year.
“We want to help children in particular because we were very lucky to be able to come back to a Western country and be taken in,” says Paul. “If something happens (to children) in a non-Western country, there’s not the support there, so we want to help people where there’s no support.”
Gandys flip-flops are currently available only in the UK, but they’re due to launch in the United States later this year.
Paul is aware of his rapidly expanding business obligations, but says being an entrepreneur isn’t so different from being a traveler.
“The good thing about being an entrepreneur is that it’s like backpacking,” he says. “When you’re backpacking and you don’t know where to go or you get lost, you’ve always got people to ask. It’s the same in business. There are always people who will give you advice and you can trade ideas.”
At its core, Gandys is a travel brand rooted in the brothers’ childhood.
The flip-flop is reminiscent of their traveling days; the Gandys stamp on the sole represents the stamps in their passports; the foundation they’re setting up is in memory of their parents.
As with every great trip, every step the Forkans take feels like a meaningful one.