Rob and Paul Forkan started flip-flop brand Gandys after losing their parents in the 2004 tsunami. Now, the brothers are focusing on building a fully fledged lifestyle brand.
- The brothers founded the brand to help underprivileged children
- It has expanded from flip flops to men’s and women’s fashion
- Rolling out own stores lets Gandys build for the future
- Collaborations are a highlight for the Forkans
Meeting Rob and Paul Forkan, the brothers behind flip-flop and lifestyle brand Gandys, is one of the more relaxed interviews Drapers has done. There is a chilled-out atmosphere at the brand’s slightly scruffy headquarters in south London, where a battered antique map covers the walls and travel books from India, Thailand, Bali and Laos line the bookshelves. Rob (above right), the elder and taller of the two, leans against the kitchen counters with a coffee in hand throughout our conversation, warning that he might fall asleep if he dares sit down.
There is a good reason why the Forkans are exhausted. Gandys is preparing to open three London stores in the next couple of months, in Camden, Covent Garden and Clapham. It also has a store in Tunbridge Wells and is in the process of moving its shop in east London’s Spitalfields to the nearby former home of Chanel’s beauty offer, which has a high street entrance.
It is a rapid rollout for the brand, which tipped its toe into bricks-and-mortar last summer with a pop-up store in Fowey, Cornwall, before opening the permanent stores in October.
“We would have liked to open Covent Garden earlier but some things speed up and others happen slower, so it just ends up happening all at once,” says Rob, explaining the cluster of openings in short succession. “Getting these stores right and building them up will be the big focus for the next year. With stores, we can tell customers about the projects we’re working on, engage with them and tell them the whole brand story. Ours is a unique one and it’s hard to tell that story when you just have a stand as a concession.”
In 2001, when Rob and Paul were 13 and 11 respectively, the Forkan family sold their home to explore and volunteer around the world. They were celebrating Christmas in Sri Lanka in 2004, when the Boxing Day tsunami hit. The brothers survived, as did their two younger siblings, Rosie and Mattie, but parents Kevin and Sandra were among the 230,000 killed across 14 countries.
To show support for fellow victims of the disaster, in 2012 Rob and Paul came up with the idea for a flip-flop brand that would donate 10% of its profits to projects that help underprivileged children. Their Orphans for Orphans initiative has backed projects around the world. It opened its first children’s campus in Sri Lanka in 2014, where 200 children receive academic support and other help. A second is under construction in Malawi.
“We wanted to build a children’s home by the 10th anniversary of the tsunami and flip-flops were our mechanism for doing that,” explains Rob. “After the experience we had travelling as kids, we wanted to do something that would encompass travelling and giving back. We thought if we created our own brand, we could do our own thing.”
A shift towards sustainable consumption is driving interest in businesses, like Gandys, who do good, argues Orsola de Castro, founder and creative director of Fashion Revolution, which campaigns for reform in the fashion industry.
“The world is more connected now,” says de Castro. “We have the technology to see and hear from people living and working in different environments and it is easier to empathise with others when we can clearly see injustices. We know the fashion industry can be polluting as well as exploitative, and the brand loyalty of the future requires brands to do good, not just look good.”
Gandys now employs 30 people in its head office and its stores, although that number is expected to jump as the new stores open. In typically relaxed style, the brothers say turnover is expected to reach £4m to £5m for this year.
The brand’s name comes from the expression “as dry as Gandhi’s flip-flop” and there was, Paul explains, never any question that flip-flops would be the brand’s first product.
“We used to live in flip-flops as children when we were travelling, so having our own brand appealed. I was living in Australia when Rob, who was working in online advertising, flew over for my 21st birthday and told me about the idea. I said, ’that sounds good to me,’ so I came back and we started the brand.”
At first, Rob and Paul were somewhat unlikely entrepreneurs. Both remember telling friends about the idea and being told it would never work or that they were “nuts”, but the brothers were sure they were on to a good idea.
“When we first started, I went off to Spitalfields with an armful of samples,” Paul recalls. “The first store I went into, the guy behind the counter put in an order. I walked out and was absolutely over the moon. I walked into another store and they wanted an order, and so did the one after that. I called Rob and said, ‘quick, we’ve got to get moving on this.’ That gave us the confidence we needed.”
Growing up in a large family – there are also two older Forkan sisters, Jo and Marie – taught Rob and Paul the importance of pitching in and doing things for themselves.
“We were taking pictures of product on our iPhones in the bath to get a white backdrop when we first launched the website and running to the post office to deliver products to our first customers,” adds Rob. “It wasn’t quite the slick technology you see from retailers like Asos.”
Neither of the brothers are wearing flip-flops on the day of Drapers’ visit, although they are armed with good excuses: it is raining and Paul is nursing a “dodgy” foot after a recent accident. Rob has been forced to don trainers because of the constant running between building sites as they get the new stores off the ground.
Having more products means that eventually we can create a bigger business on the wholesale side
However, Gandys has expanded into both menswear and womenswear, and the brothers are wearing the brand.
“We started moving into swimwear and accessories last summer in our concessions in John Lewis,” explains Paul. “We were their best-performing brand on swim shorts. That gave us confidence that we could do other products.”
The brand’s casual apparel is influenced by the Forkans’ childhood travels. Menswear consists of classic shirts, sweatshirts and T-shirts with Aztec and palm tree prints. Womenswear is equally unfussy, also focusing on shirts, T-shirts and sweatshirts, as well as denim dresses and shorts. Men’s retail prices range from £30 for a T-shirt to £190 for a wool-blend Harrington jacket, women’s from £30 for a printed vest to £125 for a windbreaker.
Wholesale has taken a back seat as the brand puts its energy into own retail stores and new product lines, although it is still stocked by Asos and John Lewis.
“We’ve been stripping back channels to build other ones in the future,” explains Rob. “It’s taking one step back to take two forward. There’s only so far you can go as a wholesale flip-flop brand in the UK, so we decided to put more time into the stores.
“Having more products means that eventually we can create a bigger business on the wholesale side, but that may not come for the next couple of years. It’s easier to go to retailers and say, look we’re a full-on lifestyle brand – we have six or seven of our own stores and we can generate X amount for you.”
Both brothers quip that the other “does nothing” when asked how they divide the growing workload between them, but it is obvious they are close. They live together in London and, although busy schedules make it increasingly difficult to get them both in the same room, working together has its advantages. Younger sister Rosie also works in the business, in marketing and PR, while Mattie is now a designer based in Los Angeles and created prints for the brand’s range of circular towels.
“We’ve always had times when one of us would be up and the other would be down and that’s helped us when things have got tough,” says Paul.
Rob agrees: “There’s been a lot of incredible moments, like meeting Prince Harry or Sir Richard Branson stocking our flip-flops on [his private island] Necker Island. But there’s always something going on – there’s always a headache and behind everything there is a lot of hard work.”
Paul cites the brand’s numerous collaborations as another highlight. Gandys has worked with London department store Liberty and the Rolling Stones, as well as contemporary menswear label Serge DeNimes.
“Gandys has had an amazing path and has a great message,” explains Serge DeNimes founder Oliver Proudlock. “The boys are so nice and genuine, and when you see where they’ve come from, you understand why they’re so passionate about what they do.”
By continuing to strengthen the clothing collections and focusing on stores, Rob and Paul are determined Gandys will continue to put its best foot forward.
“We never think we’re doing all right with this,” Rob concludes. “We’ve seen how easily life can go wrong and how quickly things can change, so we’re always pushing forward and working hard.”