Made In America: Rainbow Sandals Factory Tour

From surfer to sandal guru.

Surf enthusiast and Rainbow Sandals founder Jay Longley, or “Sparky,” as most employees call him, oversees every stage of production for his sandals. In fact, the styles are still manufactured the same way they have been since 1974, at the brand’s factory in San Clemente, Calif.

“I started outside the Sawdust Festival [in the early 1970s] but got kicked out for selling sandals in their parking lot, so I moved to San Clemente when it was still a ghost town,” said Longley during an exclusive tour of the company’s headquarters, which includes a store in front and the factory in back. “From there, I made my own glue and rubber, and I’m still making the same product today. We’ve been here 40 years.” 

Rainbow Sandals Factory Tour
Founder Jay “Sparky” Longley
CREDIT: James Lee Wall

He added, “We’re the old-school deal. We cut the parts out and sand the arches by hand. We think people like to have a sandal that [molds] to their own foot.”

Each day, the California factory produces 1,000 pairs, or 12 percent of total inventory. The bulk of the line is crafted at four factories in China; however, the technique that originated in Southern California is used overseas, too.

“[The advantage] is, I have control over the product, and we can get styles out the right way,” said Longley. “I have a good partner [in China], and they make the same materials and use the same last. We triple-glue every sandal to make sure it doesn’t fall apart. I didn’t want to go to China, but I found someone who could [craft] the same quality.”

Longley emphasized that Rainbow’s dedication to craft is what sets the company apart in the industry. And the boss and his team of 20 U.S. employees are not afraid to get their hands dirty. “We all know how to glue or sand the sandals,” he said.

Those skills come in handy when it’s time to make repairs. Rainbow sandals have a lifetime guarantee, and fixes are regularly done in-house — often by Longley himself.

“I come do a few pairs [daily],” he said. “I believe you have to be in the trenches to understand why your product is good or bad.”

As FN explored the premises with Longley, several employees greeted the founder with a familiar “hey, Sparky!” It’s a playful name that goes way back, according to Longley’s son and brand marketing director, Pat Huber.

“He got his nickname from when he was a baby because he had so much energy and was always escaping from the crib,” explained Huber. “The story goes that grandma tried keeping him in the crib by putting him on a leash, but he broke free from that, too.”

Rainbow Sandals Factory Tour
A factory employee trims last material.
CREDIT: James Lee Wall

Longley’s abundant energy is still in evidence. On top of growing his shoe company, the 70-year-old also makes it a priority to give back to the community.

At the factory, consumers are offered 10 percent off their next purchase for every donated pair of old sandals. The used styles that Longley and his team repair are often given to families in need at local churches and orphanages.

“A lot of people come here to help friends because they know we give items away. Somebody will wear that sandal, even though it’s pretty trashed,” he said while working on an old pair.

Last year, the brand provided product after a hurricane hit Baja, Mexico. On average, 30 to 40 pairs are donated each day.

Environmental issues are a consideration as well. In stores, Rainbow’s sandals are often displayed on a rack made from recycled wood pallets that were originally used for shipping. As he showed off the racks — fittingly featuring recycled sandals — Longley expressed profound excitement. “Is that bitchin’ or what?” he said. “That took some engineering to figure out.”

At its retail store, the brand also was displaying new styles, including a Tropics collection, featuring melon colors, and the new Twisted Sister line, with a spiral upper.

“We are constantly doing new color variations and innovating,” said Longley, who added that the flagship acts as a testing ground for product launches. “Women and men will tell you right away, so you know what sells and what doesn’t. You never know until you try something.”

While he has discovered many advantages to operating his San Clemente facility, Longley conceded that there is one major disadvantage.

“It costs quite a bit more money to [manufacture in America],” he said, “but we have to create the shoes here to have that control [over the design and end product].” 

Rainbow Sandals Factory Tour
A factory employee at work on the soles.
CREDIT: James Lee Wall

And after more than 40 years in business, the founder intends to continue his hands-on approach.

“I like to create something every day that helps somebody else,” he said. “I feel really good when someone says, ‘I’ve had my sandals for 10 years.’ I meet people all over the world who tell me that.”

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