Flip flops may be a summer mainstay, but today’s options are far from basic.
Material innovations, comfort features and sustainable practices are changing the way the world’s simplest sandal is made and worn. According to brands, the days of the dollar bin flip flop are waning as consumers have come to expect style, longevity and support.
“Gone are the days of disposable footwear,” explained designer Trisha Hegg of Hari Mari. A veteran of the footwear industry, Hegg added that the fast fashion era may be fading as consumers are looking to make more conscious choices.
Comfort and support
The Dallas-based brand’s founders, Lila and Jeremy Stewart, zeroed in on the idea of comfortable flip flops after living abroad in Indonesia and spending most of their days in casual footwear. After battling blisters in cheap sandals, the couple decided to reinvent the style using a proprietary memory foam toe-post, which they recently patented.
“The toe post area is either webbing or leather, but we line the inside with memory foam so if you squeeze it with your fingers it has a full bounce back,” Hegg explained. “When you put them on, there’s zero break in.”
Hari Mari (comprised of the Indonesian word for “of the sun” and the latin word for “of the sea”) was born from this primary innovation, and all styles incorporate the toe-post feature.
The brand has grown to include a range of styles, like the waterproof Dunes flip flop, which is made from lightweight foam that floats in water. The style also features a siped upper, with small grooves that channel water away from the footbed to prevent slipping.
Comfort is also a primary consideration for Vionic, which rose to prominence in the sandal category because of its orthotic footbed.
“The biggest thing we have over anyone else is having our footbed built in,” said Marisa Byrne, the brand’s VP of product design and development. “That’s probably our biggest differentiating factor, is having that ergonomic design built into the molded rubber.”
Byrne said the brand’s heritage style, the Tide flip flop, is still its No. 1 offering. “It provides support in a shoe style that’s known for having zero support,” she explained.
The brand is also courting younger consumers with its Beach Noosa sandal, a low-profile EVA unit reminiscent of a traditional rubber flip flop. The secret is the biomechanically contoured footbed, which Byrne characterizes as “lighter on support” than the thicker-soled Tide.
Even surf brands have come around to building more substantive support into their flip flop footbeds.
While Reef still embodies the easy-wearing SoCal vibe that initially popularized the label’s sandals with surfers 30 years ago, the brand is also bringing in new materials to ensure its flip flops stand up to all day wear.
“We have a material called Cushion Bounce that provides excellent rebound,” explained Amanda Dratler, Reef’s women’s category manager. “I like to say that the first step you take in it will be exactly like the last. It’s long-lasting, durable, and will support you all day.”
The brand has also introduced a more contoured profile to its footbed, with a high arch and steep heel cupping, Dratler said. “It has tight side walls that are sharper and fresher than what you’d typically see in a molded product,” she added.
“Comfort is a huge feature benefit to men, too” agreed Taylor Leopold, Reef’s men’s category manager. “We’re seeing consumers saying, ‘Give us the softest, most cushioned product you can.’”
Leopold explained that even younger consumers have started gravitating toward supportive styles as the wellness trend has taken hold.
The desire for comfort doesn’t mean that style has taken a backseat, however, or that basics have won out over fun colors and prints.
“This spring, the thing we’ve noticed in our sandals in general is that people are looking for a departure from a typical black or brown,” said Byrne, explaining that metallics have become a “new neutral.”
“We have a rose gold and a silver that just blew out this season, and we are adding in champagne tones as well,” she said, adding that consumers have come to see these options as completely versatile, not unlike their standard black or brown sandals.
“We’re bringing in new animal prints, and we’ve designed an option in patent with a bit of sheen to it,” she added. “We want to make our prints salable and wearable. They should be something that you’re able to put on every day, and match with different outfits.”
“There’s a lot to say for black and brown, which are traditional, but we’re not afraid to pop outsole colors,” Hegg agreed. She said that Hari Mari has become a source of color for retailers looking to bring something exciting to their assortment. “They want our fun, bright colors because they can get the black and brown elsewhere.”
The outsole contours of Hari Mari’s leather and nubuck sandals are punctuated by hints of berry, aqua and coral. Hegg said that even on the men’s side, a hint of color is a differentiator and a selling point for the brand.
Another element Hegg believes distinguishes the brand from its competition is the exploration of sustainable programs and processes.
While many footwear and apparel brands are experimenting with innovative, environmentally-friendly materials, makers of the most rudimentary sandal style have a slightly different challenge. A trusty pair of flip flops becomes a customer’s go-to in the warmer months, and even durable materials take a beating. Brands must think about what happens to a product after it’s inevitably worn to shreds.
“It’s socially responsible at this point to make sure that you’re thinking about the end use of your product,” said Hegg. “It’s not just making it smart anymore, it’s thinking about ‘where does it end up?’”
Hegg said that while the flops aren’t constructed with recycled materials at this point, the brand is committed to “sourcing rubbers that can go into a recycling program when you’re done with the shoe.”
Hari Mari has implemented its own upcycling program called Zero Landfill, which incentivizes customers to send in their used flip flops by offering a 15 percent discount. Any brand is accepted, and so far the initiative has upcycled more than 6,000 pairs.
Highlighting a product’s impermanence is a bold move for a brand that sells flip flops at premium prices, but Hegg feels the issues that have plagued the industry need to be acknowledged.
“I’ve seen some horrific pictures of sand islands that pop up in the middle of nowhere, that are loaded with flip flops and plastic bottles,” she said, adding that many of those discarded shoes are made with toxic PVC and other harmful ingredients. “I’d hate to be the person making the flip flops that are washing up on deserted islands in the middle of the sea.”
Reef, too, is loathe to contribute to the pollution of the world’s oceans and beaches, and uses fully biodegradable rubbers in its flip flop designs. An organic additive called Eco-One is infused into the rubber compound, enhancing the degradation process when a product is disposed of in a biologically active landfill.
“We have a lot of webbing toe posts, liners and straps,” Dratler added. “All of those are made from post-consumer plastic bottles.”
Both brands agreed that their environmental efforts are still in their infancy. “These are the first steps of many to get more environmentally friendly,” Leopold said.
Still, Hegg believes the consumer appetite is there, and that brands will be called upon to ramp up their sustainability efforts.
“It’s like when someone goes to the grocery store and buys organic because they want something better to nourish themselves,” she explained. “They then start to look at their other buying habits outside of food. There are now choices in how you take care of your home, and what you’re wearing.”
“It’s become such a relevant social conversation,” she said, and the discussion shows no signs of slowing down.