“There should be a deep connection between who you are and where you’re from,” says John Carpenter, owner of Island Slipper, the oldest manufacturer of made-in-Hawai‛i footwear. “For more than 60 years Island Slipper has made sandals for all of Hawaiʻi, be it the fisherman along the coast, young guys out sailing, or island women who dress with flair. We’ve always tried to remain true to the lifestyle and people of this place.
Following a line from ancient Hawaiian ti leaf sandals, Japanese zoris, and the ubiquitous rubber “slippah,” Island Slipper continues a tradition of authenticity and innovation. Today Island Slipper produces more than 80 styles for men and women, all featuring comfort and durability in looks that range from flip-flops to fashion.
Island Slipper got its start in the early 1940s when Takizo and Misao Motonaga opened their factory in the Kaka‛ako district of Honolulu. Takizo had arrived in Hawai‛i from Japan in 1911 as a 14-year-old. He married Misao Nishimura of Ewa, Oahu and the Motonagas initially partnered with the Baba family to start their slipper business. During World War II there weren’t many supplies around so they used old tires for shoe soles. One of the early innovations by Takizo was to design left and right slippers, a change from the symmetrical rectangular shape of traditional Japanese zoris. For people used to left and right shoes it made perfect sense.
After a few years, the Babas left to found Y B Slipper, Inc., remaining friendly competitors. The Motonagas continued Island Slipper, producing a premium high-end product that stood out in a growing sea of cheaper rubber slippers.
In its earliest days, Island Slipper began with five employees. Workers were Japanese, Filipino and Hawaiian and included the disabled. Hawai‘i was to become a progressive melting pot for the world and the Motonagas were ahead of their time in the way they ran their company as an inclusive ‘ohana.
All three Motonaga children worked in the business. Many of the grandchildren worked there during summers and holidays. One of them, Kerry Kohashi, remembers the back wall of the factory filled with mountains of fabrics, leathers, and other materials. “I think about it now and realize it was a big investment sitting there,” he says, “but at the time all I thought about was what I could grab to make into a slingshot.”
Within ten years their products found their way to U.S. Mainland markets. One of their most popular styles had a wooden clog heel. Success continued through the 1970s as daughter Dorothy Kohashi continued to run the company with other family members following Takizo’s death in 1967. Son George looked after sales and shipping. Son Eddy served as head designer, introducing brightly colored materials and flamboyant sparkle to women’s styles, reflecting the fashions of the time. While remaining devoted to hand crafted sandals, Island Slipper added a new individuality to the product line, from the men’s Kamehameha slipper to women’s heeled sandals with tapa-print uppers.
Authenticity – the real stuff – has always been part of John Carpenter’s make-up. Growing up, his dad always told him, “You don’t wear a cowboy hat unless you’re a cowboy.” His family still runs cattle on a 26,000 acre ranch, moving the herds on horseback and roping by hand.
“This is the way it’s done,” Carpenter says, “and when I took over Island Slipper it’s the same. It has a history to it of tradition and quality. The opportunity to own this company was my dream and it was a road I chose – not always easy but it’s my road. To be true to myself, that road honors the past and where we’ve come from.” A sweep of Carpenter’s arm takes in the breezy factory bays as well as the palm trees and blue sky peeking in the loading dock doors. With a smile he adds, “We reflect Hawaiʻi and the lifestyle here. We couldn’t make what we make anywhere else.”X Close
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