Walking on sunshine

- Bea Ledesma () - September 16, 2005 - 12:00am
Walking down Glorietta one day, engrossed in the list of errands I needed to tackle, I bump into a crowd of people all standing in a semi-circle around a particular establishment. Assuming that there was a celebrity or some gun-toting crazed bold star on the loose, I quickly walked passed the horde of onlookers and went on with my day. It was only later when I passed the same establishment that I noticed that the crowd hadn’t thinned. Surely, I thought to myself wryly, not even a publicity whore could ham it up for a mall crowd for these many hours.

The next day, a friend informs me excitedly that a Havaianas store had just opened in Glorietta. It is only when I come to meet the owner of All Flip-Flops when I finally realize what that means. The small store is practically covered by a barrage of shoppers, with the entrance flanked by a bouncer in a dark T-shirt that reads "Flip-Flop Security," complete with a strap to cordon off the area if the crowd gets too big. Yesiree, this must be the Havaianas store that girls have been shrieking about in public restrooms, ogling other girls’ purchases like they were diamonds from Sierra Leone.

"First of all, this isn’t a Havaianas store," owner Abba Napa says. Then what’s with the sign on the side that says Havaianas in the label’s signature font? "We are a flip-flop store that sells only Havaianas," she adds. Confusing? Havaianas, for those who have been living a label-free slipper existence, is one of the hugest things to come out of Brazil since maybe Gisele Bundchen. In 2001, a record year for the company, exports of the slippers all over the world caused a global phenomenon the likes of Us Weekly and In Touch were quick to document, publishing photos of celebrities like Kate Hudson wearing the casual footwear and featuring goodie bags from the Oscars filled with Swarovski-embellished versions. Havaianas, which became famous for their claim of comfort and durability (their slippers don’t retain odor or lose shape), are all made in Brazil and can now be found in over 70 countries around the globe. The only slippers solely featured in store windows of exclusive department stores like Printemps in Paris, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, the craze for these rubber thongs has only just begun.
The Slippery Slope
In Manila, the premium-priced sandals (which start at about P600) became fodder for shopping fantasies, with stocks being sold at other local stores carrying the slippers, which is precisely when Abba Napa, a friend of the local distributor of Havaianas, Anne Arcenas, approached her to ask if she could put up a store devoted exclusively to the label. "The stores that carry Havaianas only stock certain styles that match the company’s theme – whether it’s sporty or fashion," she explains. "I wanted to put up a store that had the most styles, whether it’s for sporty activities like trekking or surfing or casual wear for men and women, where you could get any type you wanted." While Abba had approached Sao Paulo Alpargatas, the Brazilian company behind Havaianas, directly regarding her retail concept, she was informed by executives that the company preferred to consign products, but otherwise supported her endeavor. "Terry S.A., the exclusive distributor of Havaianas in the Philippines, and Sao Paulo Alpargatas are extremely pleased with All Flip-Flops," explained PR manager Ginggay dela Merced. "The store upholds the integrity and uniqueness of the brand."
Shopping Fairy Tales
Abba, a young entrepreneur, who at the age of 26 owns a local skincare brand she started up herself along with a successful homegrown brand of dry bags for diving called Rubberducky, was at first skeptical about the idea of premium rubber slippers. What changed her mind? During a trip to Boracay, she and a bunch of friends had left their slippers in a pile on the sand so they could take a swim. By the time she came back, her slippers were missing from the pile. Shrugging, since they were a cheap pair, she got the Havaianas lying next to her feet and sauntered off. The next day, a guy came up to her and asked if she had seen his Havaianas. "Apparently, he’d asked every person on the beach if they’d seen his black pair," she said wryly, laughing a little.

The day we meet at the store, it’s crowded and filled with people buying slippers, sometimes not just one pair but two or three. In a time when the president is calling for energy conservation and the front page of newspapers, extolling rising price hikes and lowering peso values, continually denounce the sagging economy, it seems odd to have a consumer base so eager to purchase. Price is no issue, it seems, for these buyers. Abba, who opened the store only a few weeks ago, already has stories to tell about insane customers willing to do anything to get their Havaianas fix. "One woman called the store about a certain style. When she found out we were ordering stocks for that style, she asked if she could reserve, which we don’t do. She was quite persistent, even going so far as to ask if she could just pay in advance, then the store could just call her up when her pair arrived."

One father, buying a pair for his teenage daughter, had accidentally chosen the wrong pattern (she wanted black on white colored hearts; he had gotten white on black). When he called the store asking if he could exchange it for the right pair, he was told, to his dismay, that there was only one pair left. Since the store was closing in 10 minutes, there wasn’t enough time to come over and purchase it. "If I come in when you open, will it still be there?" he asked Abba anxiously. Since there was still one customer left in the premises, she couldn’t promise him anything. The father, keen on making sure his daughter’s slippers were safe, stayed on the line for the entire 10 minutes till closing so he could wait to find out if they were still available. "The next day," Abba says, "he was there at 9:55a.m., expectantly waiting at the door."
Foot Fetish
The ruckus over these slippers is hard to explain. They are cute, certainly. The plain colored versions, called Top, are simple monochromatic affairs with the straps and sole made in the same color. Inspired by surfers who flipped over their slippers so the colored bottom would show, the line is incredibly popular, with people going gaga over certain colors (copper and chocolate brown are big favorites, usually styles that are first to go out of stock). Boys love Brazil, the plain style that features the Brazilian flag on the strap. "There are guys who come in here searching for slippers for a certain occasion," Abba explains. "One will go, ‘I need something for after basketball.’" Slick and Trekking are two styles that modernize the typical slipper format. Trekking has a strap at the back, so the slipper doesn’t fall off when you’re walking on slippery or bumpy terrain. Slick, a neo-tropicalist style, features an extra horizontal strap, which forms a triangle, while Flash, using an innovative strap design, creates a sleek, minimalist shape that curves sensuously to flatter any foot.

Prints are a big part of the Havaianas look book, with quaint florals and bright bold hues. IPE, the line created for the Institute for Ecological Research, features high-definition tropical prints with animals in their natural habitat like the black lion-faced monkey, a personal favorite of mine. Whenever you buy a pair, seven percent of net profits from the slippers go to conserving parks where these endangered species occur.

Strangely enough, the bestseller isn’t the Top style, which often goes out of stock, but the High Look, the platform version of the slipper. Reminiscent of the Spice Girls, the style seems to be a favorite of mothers and daughters, who often come in pairs to purchase it.
Cool Comfort
Abba claims the huge trend is a result of more casual norms. People don’t dress up as much anymore. "They just want a relaxed vibe," she says. "It’s not so much about clubbing, but more about hanging out at friends’ houses or having a drink at the pub."

"Maybe Filipinos are beginning to realize that we live in a tropical country," she laughs. "You don’t have to wear boots and jackets all the time."
* * *
New styles arrive in October, while the 2006 collection will be here in December, just in time for the Christmas rush.
* * *
All Flip-Flops is located at the second floor of Glorietta 3, Makati City (tel.818-2508). The store does not accept reservations. To find out more about the label and other styles, visit www.havaianas.com.

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