Two years ago, Eli Marmar and Martin Kim asked themselves what they were doing with their lives.
Outdoor lovers and surfers, the pair have been friends since meeting in the product-design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. And both found themselves in the same industry: Marmar designing wet suits at O’Neill and Kim working on boots at DC Shoes and Burton. But the duo felt that an opportunity existed to do something different.
“We really wanted to [improve] the footwear business. [So we asked ourselves:] Where did we feel like there was something missing? And where could we really help the progression of a category?” Marmar said.
They also aspired to bring a philanthropic element to their work.
The result was Freewaters, a $26-to-$100 footwear brand that launched in March 2011 with a mission to bring high-quality sandals to the marketplace. And the label said each purchase “allows us to provide clean drinking water for one individual for one entire year.”
So far, it’s a recipe for success. The brand’s prebookings for spring ’12 doubled its launch orders. Now, less than a year since its debut, Freewaters has more than 100 accounts in North America, including Nordstrom and REI. And it will follow up a fall ’11 soft launch in Canada with a full product offering for spring. Freewaters also is available in Europe through a joint distributorship, and has added Japanese accounts for spring ’12.
Customers respond to the message, said Stephanie Matterns, manager at the eco- and socially conscious Unity Boutique in Denver, which has carried the line since it launched. “Freewaters has been very successful at our store,” she said. “Almost everyone that tries on a pair and hears what Freewaters does is immediately sold.”
Kim noted that despite Freewaters’ initial success, the brand, which is backed by investors including Kim’s father-in-law, is pushing to establish itself as a year-round player.
“We need to penetrate deeply to survive this [business] climate,” he said. “If phase one is building business, now we’re really getting into phase two, which means balancing our business.”
As a result, two men’s and two women’s slippers launched last October, drawing on the duo’s surf-lifestyle background. The styles retail for $45 and $80. For fall ’12, another men’s and an additional women’s slipper will debut.
“Slippers are the winter equivalent of flip-flops. They’re super-casual, easygoing and easy-to-wear footwear,” Marmar said. “It may be a saturated market, but it’s underdeveloped in terms of styling and innovation, and as a popular holiday gift item, it has potential for growth.”
Joseph Notaro, footwear buyer for Seattle-based e-tailer Evo.com, which initially picked up the flip-flops and added slippers for holiday, said the market has room for another addition.
“As far as action-sports slippers go, no one is really playing in that market right now. There is a void in the marketplace for men’s,” he said.
In fact, celebrity health guru Dr. Oz recently named Freewaters slippers as one of his “Favorite Things” in the titular O! magazine spread, which Kim said gave the brand a boost.
But as the company grows, its philanthropic underpinnings remain at the heart of the business.
“We thought about hunger, clean air, education, but we kept coming back to water,” Marmar said. “We’re surfers, and sandals are almost without exception worn around a water environment, so that really resonated.”
Marmar and Kim began their first well dig in December 2010, even before product had shipped. Using a low-tech well-drilling technique developed in Bolivia, they have since helped drill six wells in a rural region of Kenya, with another three in the planning stages. It costs as much as $3,000 to send a team and drill to each site, but that price, Marmar said, will continue to decrease as they take on more projects.
Now the two founders are also looking into other places where they can have an impact. Kim said both North and South America are possibilities.
“Even in the U.S., we have serious water issues,” Marmar said. “We feel it’s important to do projects to help people here and to educate people locally. It’s not just for developing countries.”
Expanding their reach may require additional investments into technology or new methods, he added. But whether that’s rain-capture, filtration or other types of wells, the partners are open to new ideas. And despite their status as a small start-up, Marmar and Kim said they feel good about Freewaters’ evolution so far.
“It’s more holistic [now],” Marmar said. “We know as we develop cool product, there’s a positive result.”