OluKai Moves From Surf to Sidewalk

Irvine, Calif.-based OluKai is hot for Hawaii.

Launched in 2005 as a beachy flip-flop brand that successfully incorporated core comfort, OluKai garnered shelf space in surf shops as well as high-end specialty stores. The privately held company has since been on the fast track, evolving the line to include open- and closed-toe styles for men, women and children, all the while taking design cues from the 50th state.

“The island provides us with a multi-area environment,” product director Blaine Conrad said of Hawaii’s diverse terrains. “It has everything. The islands have so much to draw from. We use that backdrop for athletic, performance, boots and sandals.”

Even the name is Hawaiian: “Olu” means comfort, and “kai” means ocean.

From a comfort standpoint, every style is built around OluKai’s “wet sand principle,” which aims to create contoured footbeds that mimick the feel of wet sand on bare feet. Other features include arch supports, cradling heel cups and generous toe boxes on closed-toe styles.

“Consumers said they couldn’t always wear sandals,” said Kerry Konrady, marketing manager at OluKai, “but they loved the [brand’s] comfort, quality and look and wanted us to provide the same DNA in closed-toe footwear.” And, he added, “The closed-shoe market has bigger [sales] potential for the brand.”

The firm has invested in building its women’s closed-footwear offering by recently hiring a category-specific designer and product line manager.

For their part, lifestyle shops praised the strength of OluKai’s closed-footwear offering. Mark Keup, owner of Nor’Easter Surf Shop in Scituate, Mass., said that after his customers wear sandals all summer, they appreciate the roomy toe boxes and signature comfort footbeds in the new collections.

At Sand Dollar Lifestyles in Orange Beach, Ala., GM Ed Zahn agreed: “After they’ve worn the flip-flops at $65 to $100, shoppers are easily convinced to try on some shoes.” In fact, he added, his store is so committed to OluKai, this year it debuted a 400-sq.-ft. branded concept shop in the 22,000-sq.-ft. location. (The retailer has 12 such shops designed with their own street entrances.)

The expanded collection has also done well at Phillips Shoes, a comfort independent in Charleston, S.C. GM Ray Kitchen said the men’s styles, in particular, have transformed OluKai into a solid casual brand, while the core flip-flops continue to complement his more traditional offering. “They’re comfort-driven and have more to [them] than most other flip-flops,” said Kitchen.

OluKai footwear also has found a niche in the high-end market selling to such tony retailers as Neiman Marcus and Mario’s in Portland, Ore. Those stores have bought the core sandals, as well as its limited-edition series that launched in spring ’12.

The first luxury range was the three-pattern men’s collection Ali’i, featuring one flip-flop and two closed styles priced at $745.

“[Limited-edition looks offer] a platform for the best of OluKai,” said Conrad. “Each season, we will introduce new collections in a limited way using unique materials and constructions.”

Next up for fall ’12 is the high-end Mauna series, consisting of men’s rugged boots lined with merino wool, retailing for $225 to $300.

Also for fall, the brand has introduced Paniolo, an upscale line of ranch-style boots for women, which pulls its design cues from the upcountry of Hawaii. “We’ve taken inspiration from the rich ranch and cowboy areas,” said Conrad. The collection incorporates saddle leathers with stitching details and will sell for $180 to $300.

For spring’13, OluKai is set to unveil Island Performance, a set of mesh outdoor styles for men, retailing at $100 to $120.

And for women this spring, OluKai is collaborating with Hawaiian artist Emma Howard for the Nohea series of canvas slip-ons priced at $90. That collection will use her pattern artwork on each style’s lining.

OluKai reinforces its island connections through its ongoing Ohana Giveback Program, where each year the company partners with socially rooted Hawaiian organizations. In addition to providing them with monetary support, OluKai employees volunteer their time to these groups.

For example, since 2008, OluKai has worked with the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association & Junior Lifeguard Program, donating a portion of proceeds from the sale of OluKai footwear to the program, said Konrady. It also supplies 450 professional lifeguards with product, and in return receives feedback about the shoes to be used in future line development.

OluKai’s love affair with Hawaiian culture extends to its marketing as well. This summer, it’s sponsoring “The Love & Roots Tour,” co-headlined by island pop star Anuhea. The event is taking the local singer-songwriter — and the brand — on a 30-stop tour across the mainland.