People pointing fingers toward the roots of our economic woes often put jobs and manufacturing shipped overseas at the top of the list, while our hunger and acceptance of cheap imports continues unabated.
But at Island Slipper, among a handful of Hawaii companies that are keeping fashion manufacturing at home, owner John Carpenter is demonstrating how it’s possible to compete on his own terms by creating handmade products associated with quality and luxury.
In the mid-1980s there were still a half dozen slipper manufacturers in Hawaii. Members of the Motonaga clan, at the time owners of Island Slipper and 40-year veterans of the business, were ready to call it quits. Although there was third-generation interest in carrying on the business founded by Takizo and Misao Motonaga, the couple’s sons quashed that. They’d seen the flood of cheap imports coming in from China, saw the toll it was taking on the business and had no reason to believe anyone could reverse that trend.
At the same time, Carpenter, working for a competing slipper manufacturer, was looking for an opportunity to test his ideas.
"I knew everybody in the industry, and Island Slipper, to me, was the one that presented the best opportunity. They had an upscale brand with sales and distribution on the mainland," he said.
He also saw a capable factory churning out products he deemed antiquated, with styles dating to the quaint, flower-child 1960s and ’70s rather than suited to a 1980s high-performance ethos that relied on technology and knowledge of foot anatomy to create products geared toward a new generation of athletes and weekend warriors.
Carpenter now says he was starry-eyed over the prospect of bringing the company to what he saw as its full potential, and the possibility of failure wasn’t a consideration.
"If you’re an entrepreneur you have that drive because you know your true potential is in yourself. It doesn’t matter what you can do or what you can’t do. It’s not being able to do what has to be done that makes you feel like a caged animal," he said. "I don’t care what business you’re in, there’s always going to be competition. It’s up to the business owner to find the niche or direction that makes you successful."
THE MOTONAGAS must have felt that sense of ambition in him, because one day they simply offered to sell Carpenter their business. Although he says he couldn’t afford it at that time, they came up with terms that would make it possible, because if he wasn’t interested, they were prepared to shutter it.
Since then the company has flourished, with 50 employees producing 80 to 90 styles in a 12,000-square-foot factory in Pearl City, which it moved into in 2000 after outgrowing its 4,500-square-foot Dillingham Boulevard location.
Island Slipper branched into the retail business in 2006 with the first Island Slipper Store at Ward Warehouse, initially carrying other brands but soon finding they could easily fill the store with their own stock. A concept store was a necessity, considering no other retail store could stock Island Slipper’s entire line.
When other stores lost sales during the recession that began in late 2007, Carpenter said Island Slipper’s sales grew 10 percent between 2008 and 2009, and continue to climb.
When Carpenter reopened the store in a larger space there in early April, the founders’ daughter, Dorothy Kohashi, and their late son Eddy Motonaga’s wife, Geri, were guests of honor and were pleased Carpenter is continuing to build on their family’s legacy.
Kohashi said at the time, "No one else could have done this. We’re so proud and happy he did it."
Takizo and Misao Motonaga started Island Slipper in 1946, when, after World War II, materials were hard to find. They used old tires to fashion the soles.
Anyone who grew up in the 1950s to 1970s is probably familiar with Island Slipper’s signature floral straps and stylish kitten-heel sandals designed by Eddy Motonaga. The market wasn’t divided into niches the way it is today, so shoppers could find them at every major retailer, including Liberty House, Sears, JCPenney and Arakawa’s.
These days, Island Slippers is recognized for its fashionable styles, incorporating a range of premium materials including embossed leather, madras and denim fabric, and exotic skins such as ostrich, crocodile and snake, in addition to staples of Hawaiian-print fabric. Women’s styles range from about $48 to $70, and men’s styles go for about $48 to $105. Carpenter also has created custom slippers for about $250.
Much of the innovation has come from collaborations with Japanese companies and designers that began 15 years ago when sumo wrestlers were photographed wearing Island Slippers, a result of having started the turnaround by focusing on men’s footwear.
Carpenter’s initial aim was to make a men’s slipper that could be worn all day. The foundation of the new design was an outsole molded in rubber with arch support, contoured heel cup and other details that would keep feet properly aligned.
"Footwear was beginning to get more technical. It was that foundation that established us as a comfort product, and that reputation has continued to be with us," Carpenter said.
J. Crew has picked up Island Slipper styles as a specialty item for four of its East Coast stores, with bigger plans next year. And as a result of Carpenter’s Japanese collaborations, Island Slipper’s men’s styles could soon be making the rounds of Europe’s fashion runways.
Like many small businesses attempting to keep costs down, Carpenter has had to consider moving production overseas.
"We did that at one point, but it began to confuse our brand image," he said. "Ultimately, being made in Hawaii makes us more of a unique brand."
To do otherwise "would be like we lost our soul."
Then there’s the aspect of creativity and play that comes with keeping operations at home. "I love the making of shoes. When I have an idea I can sample it and cut it immediately and see it on people’s feet," Carpenter said.
Ironically, before arriving in Hawaii in his teens, Carpenter grew up in cowboy boots as part of a ranching family.
"Cowboy boots are very restrictive because of the shape of the toe," he said. "Even changing to athletic shoes was freedom, and the slipper was total freedom. I would say I adapted very quickly."