The Next ‘Crocs,’ Direct From Tel Aviv
07/23/08
Staff Writer
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Sick of donning those goofy, “clown shoes with holes” known as Crocs — but can’t resist the obvious comfort factor? Well, there’s a new plastic sandal in town, and it’s direct from Israel. The Hoki sandal, popularized by Tel Aviv-based former executive producer Shlomit Slavin, has hit boutiques on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Park Slope, and can be purchased online at Ravinstyle.com.      The unisex sandals are made from recycled plastic and come in three styles and eight neon colors. Unlike Crocs, they’re equipped with an orthopedic sole and an inch-high wedged heel, offering extra support. The Hoki sandals have been featured in Elle, the April issue of the French Cosmopolitan and the daily fashion and style e-newsletter, DailyCandy. And Israeli celebrities, including singer Gal Uchovsky and comedian Uri Gotliv, have been spotted wearing Hoki sandals.     Part of Hoki’s draw is its deeply entrenched history. Half a century ago, the sandals were commonplace among housewives and old men working at the docks near Tel Aviv, those who wore the grubby-looking sandals while spending all day on their feet.   Slavin, 37, discovered an old pair of what would become the Hoki sandals while bicycling along Jaffa Road during the summer of 2006. “It was a very industrial road with very ugly stores,” she says. “It looked like Downtown Broadway near Chinatown 10 to 15 years ago.” As she was riding past the storefront, she spotted what she calls an “old man’s store” with dozens of dusty shoes strewn across a net. “For 50 years, he’s taking this net outside, never cleaning it,” she jokes. Something about the shop caught her eye (“I hate malls,” she says), and so she got off her bike to take a better look. Lo and behold, the shop owner unveiled a single pair of blue sandals in her size, which she says was a miracle since she’s a “38,” a very popular size. She bought the sandals for 20 shekels (about $6) and put them right on. “When I buy something, I always want to wear it immediately,” she explains.     Upon arriving back home, she turned the shoe over and noticed the name of the factory — Zivanit, a factory run by a kibbutz in the Golan Heights— written on the sole. Slavin called up Kibbutz Ein Zivan, where the man in charge told her that they hadn’t manufactured the sandals in at least 15 years. She pressed on — “I was obsessed with this,” she admits — until discovering that the kibbutz had sold its molds to another factory named Dafna.      So Slavin set up a meeting with the CEO of Dafna. She brought her flip-flop with her and told him about her plans to create a “new thing in fashion” in which she’d manufacture and market the retro sandals in vivid colors — shocking reds, metallic purples, bright pinks and shiny blues. In her mind, she would create a fashion fad by reviving the poor man’s footwear. “It’s a romantic story,” she says. “I took a sandal from the lower class and put it at the forefront of the fashion stage.”     But first she faced more hurdles. The Dafna factory had thrown away many of the molds it had bought and converted the rest to steel, and the CEO worried that the mold for the sandals no longer existed. Creating a new mold would cost thousands of dollars. And the CEO couldn’t understand why Slavin would be interested in the decidedly un-hip sandals. “He looked at me and must have asked himself, ‘Who is this kookoo coming over here?’” she says. She left his office slightly defeated.     But less than 24 hours later, Slavin received the call she had been hoping for. The Dafna factory had located the old mold and was willing to give it to her — rights included — for free. “They didn’t recognize the potential,” she says.     By February 2007, Slavin had arranged for the Dafna factory to produce 3,500 pairs of the plastic sandals in yellow, red, khaki and pearl white. She then assumed the role of publicity agent, singling out stores in Tel Aviv that she hoped would carry her sandals. Katomenta, the first store to carry the Hoki line in Israel, sold them for 190 shekels (about $55). “Everybody who thinks he’s someone buys there,” she says.     The company’s name, Hoki, is distinctly Japanese, not Hebrew. “I knew I wasn’t going to do business just in Israel, so I looked for some kind of name that everybody can say,” Slavin says. To help brainstorm names, Slavin made an appointment with the head of the Japanese embassy in Israel. The Japanese representative insisted that she come back with a pair of sandals in tow, adding that he had to see the product first to ensure she wasn’t insulting the Japanese language. Once she returned with the product, the Japanese representative suggested the name Hoki, which means a street broom (the Japanese have at least eight words for brooms, Slavin learned).     In 2007, Hoki sold more than 30,000 plastic sandals, bringing in revenues of $300,000. What’s the secret behind Hoki’s growing popularity? “They’re very comfortable,” Slavin says. “OK, it’s plastic. Sometimes you sweat in them. But the story behind them is very compelling. People like to buy something with a story.”     The business has largely been run like a “one-man band,” as Slavin describes it, with a sister managing the finances, a business partner in the south of France and individual distributors focused on placing the shoes in specialty stores in Europe, Canada, Asia and now New York.      Two months ago, Slavin scored big when a Brooklyn businessman who had previously invested in Crocs purchased a 45 percent stake in Slavin’s company. Slavin is currently developing a line of boots in addition to a jewelry line and new flip-flop designs. She’s also working on a line of purses, inspired by her grandmother’s collection.     “I hope it will be the next Crocs in the sales point of view,” she says. “But not in terms of fashion. Crocs are not fashionable.”      Hoki sandals are available at the company’s showroom at 246 Mott St., Tip Top Shoes on the Upper West Side, Alter in Williamsburg, and 4 Play BK in Park Slope.   E-mail: tamar@jewishweek.org.

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