Growing up, John Carpenter was often reminded one thing by his father, a California rancher who moved herds on horseback and roped cattle by hand: “You don’t wear a cowboy hat unless you’re a cowboy.”
Today, at Carpenter’s 25,000-square-foot Island Slipper factory in Pearl City, this notion of authenticity rings true. “There should be a deep connection between who you are and where you’re from,” says Carpenter, owner of Island Slipper, the last remaining manufacturer to make all of its footwear in Hawai‘i. “We reflect Hawai‘i and the lifestyle through our sandals and how we do business. We couldn’t make what we make anywhere else in the world.”
Things weren’t always this way. In 1985, the Motonaga family, who founded the company in 1946, sold the business to Carpenter, who had moved to Hawai‘i and found himself working in the local footwear industry. Carpenter had dreams of massively expanding the company, and began securing large accounts like Costco, Macy’s, and West Marine. To make expansion possible, Carpenter began outsourcing a portion of the production to China.
Then Carpenter got a call from a customer in Florida who had been purchasing Island Slipper’s products for decades. “I just noticed this new one says, ‘Made in China,’” Carpenter recalls the caller saying. “I always bought your shoes because you’re Island Slipper. I am talking to Island Slipper, aren’t I?”
Carpenter found himself having to explain the company’s process—that some parts of production were done in Hawai‘i, while others weren’t. “I was confusing myself about what our direction was!” Carpenter recalls. “That was when we had a come-to-Jesus moment. We sat down, looked at the company, and said we’re going to pull everything back to being made right here in the islands.”
Since then, Carpenter has remained committed to doing just that, and every pair is handmade on O‘ahu. Each day, the Island Slipper factory floor hums with activity, as experienced craftsmen cut, trim, wrap, sew, glue, and press each pair of the more than 100 styles of men’s and women’s footwear.
This dedication, however, did not come without costs. “Being made in Hawai‘i is one of our company’s main pillars,” Carpenter says. “However, it is also an Achilles’ heel, a limitation on the business.” He acknowledges the financial struggle that came after he cut ties with the company’s big-box retail outlets. “A lot of times, we have to say, ‘Hey, we won’t do that, because we just can’t support it.’”
But smaller runs and in-house production have enabled Island Slipper to quickly amend styles based on customer feedback, and to remain relevant in a retail landscape where tastes are constantly changing. So, too, has opening brick-and-mortar locations. In 2007, Carpenter debuted the company’s first store at Ward Warehouse, despite many in the industry telling him a standalone slipper store would fail. While it did end up closing, this experiment led to the introduction of Island Slipper retail stores at Ala Moana Center and Royal Hawaiian Center. “The retail stores serve as a testing ground to forecast the success of new styles, and we are able to directly influence the entire lifecycle of the product, from making the slipper to fitting and delivering it to our customers’ feet,” says Tersha, John’s daughter-in-law. “The retail stores create an endless loop.”
Smaller runs have also forced Carpenter to be more mindful about the brands with which Island Slipper partners. He looks to the next generation for guidance. As they begin to take the reins of the family business, Carpenter’s son, Matt, and his wife, Tersha, have pioneered unique distribution points in places like New Zealand, Australia, and Dubai, and spearheaded partnerships with brands like Rix, Salvage Public, Huckberry, and FLUX magazine, which debuted its exclusive Island Slipper slide in May. “What I’ve learned is that there’s a market around the world for this type of authenticity,” Carpenter says. “Every pair of sandals contains our ‘ohana, our family, as well as all the materials and care that make it special.”