Paul and Rob Forkan, the brothers behind Gandys Flip-Flops, explain how, having survived the 2004 tsunami which killed their parents in Sri Lanka, they’ve created an ultra-hip commercial venture-cum altruistic mission.
On Boxing Day 2004, Paul and Rob Forkan – then aged 15 and 17 respectively – were with their itinerant family in Sri Lanka when the Indian Ocean tsunami battered their hotel bungalow. Paul, Rob and their younger siblings survived, but their parents were killed. The incident has inspired them to devote their time and energy, as well as much of the profits of their flip-flop company, to a charity they set up, Orphans for Orphans, which runs
a children’s home in Sri Lanka.
Paul Forkan I reckon we knew we’d go into business together by the time I was about 18. I’ve always run stuff past Rob, more than my other siblings, because he thinks on the same wavelength.
Rob Forkan In 2001, our parents sold the family home in Croydon, pulled us out of school, said to us, ‘Right, you’ve got one bag each’, and we went off to India [and its surrounds] for over four years. We spent the whole time playing cricket on the beach, volunteering, visiting slums and orphanages, going to markets and temples…
Paul Forkan It was especially good for me as I was dyslexic, and never did well sitting in classrooms – I used to just distract the other kids.
Rob Forkan Our first flip-flop prototype [in 2012] was hand-woven from jute with a rope strap. We wanted to do something different. We soon realised, though, that they weren’t really commercial. They were cool, but retailers thought they were impractical…
Paul Forkan …The size was written on them with a biro!
Rob Forkan So we took the rope strap from the prototype and started creating rubber moulds instead. Then we tried to come up with prints that reflected our travels and experiences.
Paul Forkan We started out in a small flat in Brixton that we shared. I’d spent a couple of years working as a business development manager in Melbourne, and had some savings to put into the company.
Rob Forkan I’d been working as well doing sales, marketing and various other things.
Paul Forkan [To publicise our product], we pushed and pushed with press, friends and family on Facebook. The product is unique – our prints cover the sides of the flip-flop as well as the upper surface. We have the brand passport stamp in the middle, and each pair comes with a postcard in the box to tie it all back into travelling.
Rob Forkan The prints on them can come from anywhere – photographs we’ve taken, maps of places we’ve been, nature. People buy a pair in Miami Pink or Bondi Blue because they’re going to those places. Then they put pictures up of them next to pink or blue things on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Paul Forkan One of the reasons I loved living in Australia was that nobody knew what happened to us – even my boss, who I was close to. People used to think it was a bit weird that we didn’t use our back story for publicity, but we didn’t feel a need to tell people. Then a newspaper dug into it, and after that people kept asking us about our parents, and before long we were called ‘the tsunami kids’, ‘orphan soul brothers’. So we thought, ‘Oh well, now that it’s out there we might as well just be positive about it and use it as a force for the good, to inspire young people.’ And that’s why our charitable initiative is called Orphans for Orphans.
Rob Forkan People of all ages want to help the Gandys Foundation, which gives aid – homes, education, food, healthcare – to orphans and underprivileged children around the world. We get Rotary clubs doing things, sixth form colleges, six-year-olds doing lemonade sales. People pay us to give talks and that money goes to the foundation.
Paul Forkan No one’s paid a salary for working on the foundation – 100 per cent of the money raised goes straight into the projects.
Rob Forkan When it comes to the company, I do more design and marketing, and logistics, Paul does more of the sales. The momentum we’ve built creates a lot of opportunities. I was giving a talk, and David Cameron’s speechwriter was in the crowd; he told the PM about us and Cameron happened to be going to Sri Lanka, and ended up visiting our children’s home there.
Paul Forkan We’ve tried to create a community, and consumers have got behind that. We would like [to secure more investment], but would have to find someone who matches what we believe in socially.
Rob Forkan We delivered a consignment of sandals to [Sir] Richard Branson’s home recently, and accidentally put a couple of extra zeros on the order. So he got a lorry-load of flip-flops – they signed for it, so his house was rammed with boxes of flip-flops for this family event he was holding. Of all the people to mess up a delivery with!
Gandys Flip Flops vital stats
Famous customers Jessica Alba, One Direction, Sir Richard Branson
Name origin After a heavy night at a festival, Rob Forkan woke up with “a mouth like Gandhi’s flip-flop”
UK retailers Selfridges, Topman and Schuh, among others
Growth Approximately 30 per cent year on year, with 10,000 pairs sold in the company’s first year and 150,000 pairs last year, up from 50,000 the year before.
To find out more about Gandys and the work of the foundation, visit gandysflipflops.com