Two brothers orphaned by the tsunami set up a flip-flop business to help children.
HOW do you build an orphanage out of flip-flops? That’s the task brothers Rob and Paul Forkan have set themselves by next year, in time to mark the 9th anniversary of the December 26 tsunami, in which they lost both their parents while travelling in Sri Lanka.
The brothers, who lost almost everything in the 2004 disaster, have set up Gandys, a new “brand for good” selling flip-flops which promises to give 10% of the profits from every pair sold to help other orphans around the world.
Starting out from a small flat in Brixton, south London, 18 months ago, the Forkans have built a brand stocked in 400 stores including Selfridges and Topman and won the support of high-profile fans including Virgin billionaire Richard Branson and pop star Jessie J.
This week they collected an award for accessories and footwear design at the WGSN Global Fashion Awards in London, lining up alongside big name award-winners including Acne, Erdem and Net-a-Porter.
Rob and Paul were 13 and 11 when their parents, Kevin and Sandra, pulled them out of school in Croydon, south London, to work on humanitarian projects in south Asia. In 2001, the family, including Rob and Paul’s younger brother and sister, packed a backpack and moved to Goa.
They were on holiday in Sri Lanka when the family’s hotel was hit by the tsunami wave on Boxing Day 2004. Rob and Paul saved themselves by clinging to a metal bar high up in the building but Kevin and Sandra lost their lives to the water after managing to get their younger children to safety.
Devastated by their loss and with no money or passports, the children managed to hitchhike 200 miles to the airport and get to Britain, where they were supported by friends and family.
Rob and Paul finished their education and went off travelling the world again, getting jobs here and there to pay their way. But they had bigger ambitions: “We wanted to build a brand based on own beliefs from our upbringing and alternative lifestyle,” says Rob.
Having spent years wandering the world in flip-flops, that simple form of footwear seemed a good place to start. When Rob woke up after a night of partying at a music festival saying his “mouth felt like one of Gandhi’s flip-flops”, the brand was christened. Rob and Paul had no idea how to launch a brand or set up a company, but they didn’t let that stop them.
“Our parents had a fearless approach. As children, nothing was ever a drama. We just rocked up in India with no plans. A lot of people wouldn’t be able to live with that situation but that has helped us with what we are doing now,” says Rob, 26, whose dyed black hair and skinny jeans are more student than chief executive.
The Forkans spent time on the Internet working out how to get their flip-flops made, eventually finding a supplier via Alibaba.com, the online wholesale search engine. With boxes of footwear piled up in the flat, the brothers set up a website, and tried selling flip-flops at the beach.
With sales going nowhere, the next step was to approach stores.
On their first outing, an independent shop in Spitalfields, east London, took an order and the Forkans realised they were on to something. Throughout 2011, they built up to about 40 small outlets.
Their next target was major retailers. They sent a pair of Gandys to Philip Green, the boss of Topshop owner Arcadia, hoping their shared Croydon roots might help. When they couldn’t get an appointment, the Forkans hung around in the lobby of Arcadia’s head office until someone agreed to see them.
They managed to persuade Branson to wear a pair of Gandys by promising to name their red variety of flip-flops after Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, which he owns.
“We are quite relentless in our approach. We have seen how quickly circumstances can change in life and don’t for a moment take for granted or go to sleep with what we are doing,” says Rob.
When it came to finding investment to help secure supplies for larger retailers last year, the brothers tracked down wealthy entrepreneurs featured in newspaper articles and TV shows. “We wrote to them and said, ‘Why should we let you get involved in what we are doing?’” said Rob.
The plan resulted in £250,000 (RM1.3mil) investment from Dominic List, a successful young IT entrepreneur who had been on the TV show Secret Millionaire and is now finance director of the company.
The rest of Gandys’ now 20-strong team, based in south-west London, are mostly young people with enthusiasm but little expertise, according to Rob.
Sales have increased from 70,000 in 2011 to 250,000 this year and the business is in profit. Sales are forecast to reach 400,000 to 500,000 next year.
The aim is to get enough funds to make the planned orphanage in Goa. Beyond that, projects will be voted for by customers and staff.
“The brand is creating a community and getting people involved. It’s how we are growing so quickly, using the power of people,” says Rob. “If we build it to the level we think we can, like Havaianas (the Brazilian flip-flop brand), the impact could be huge.” – Guardian News & Media