How did cheap footwear for Brazil's poor become a must-have accessory for the world's most fashionable?
Amelia Maribondo-Aspden isn't happy about the ice in her champagne. She calls the waiter, who points out that the fashionable new brand she ordered was intended to be served that way. The Brazilian-born businesswoman screws up her nose. "Is boolsheet," she says. "Who would put ice on wine?"
The waiter at the Gold Coast restaurant offers further explanation, but Maribondo-Aspden isn't buying it. She orders a replacement drink and we return to our examination of her adventurous life. But not before she offers a last word on the ice-in-champagne trend. "I think," she confides huskily, "this must be something for high-heel women."
Indeed. And as everybody who knows her is aware, Amelia Maribondo-Aspden is not one of them. She's the party-girl/entrepreneur who in the late 1990s single-handedly introduced Havaianas (pronounced ah-vai-YAH-nas) thongs to Australia and helped make them a global fashion item. In the process she went from being broke to turning over millions of dollars, with a staff of 40 and offices in three states. Not long ago, she bought the MasterChef warehouse cooking premises in inner-Sydney's Alexandria as her new HQ, prompting its famous tenants to decamp to Melbourne.
But although she now lives in Sydney's exclusive Vaucluse and has succeeded "beyond my dreams", Maribondo-Aspden spurns formalities. Her staff joke about the vigour and inventiveness of her swearing. "I love Australia," she tells me, "but can you trust a bank here to lend you money for business? No f...ing way! Now, 'cause I've got money, they all lick my balls whatever time I want. But in the beginning they wouldn't give me a f...ing cent."
Like the Havaianas brand itself - still the "poor people's" shoe for millions of Brazilians - Maribondo-Aspden's life seems a curious mix of privilege and knockabout practicality. Born to wealthy parents in 1964 (the same year Brazil fell to a military dictatorship that would last two decades), she became a "really spoilt little curl" with her own nanny at their mansion in Brasília. Back then, two years after Havaianas were first created as cheap footwear for peasant workers, corruption in Brazil was particularly rife.
"My [late] father was an accountant in the army's construction section, so he was very well placed to take advantage of the corruption," she says without a sign of unease. "He was also one of the few to get caught. He wasn't prosecuted, but in the end they called him in and said, 'Hey, Geraldo! Goodbye.' Then we lost everything and moved to São Paulo."
A few years later, her parents separated, each taking three children. Being the youngest she stayed with her mother, but remained her father's pet. Despite his losses, he managed to send her to one of Brazil's best Catholic schools: "He wanted me to be a laay-dee, and have a good marriage, but unfortunately I didn't behave as he wanted me to."
Instead, at 14, she moved with her mother to Rio de Janeiro, where her older sister had opened a clothing boutique. "So I am coming from the boring school of nuns to Rio, where my sister's boutique is full-on with gay boys and crazy people! And I am home. For the first time, I feel I am in the right place."
At 18, she married an older, rich but unhappy businessman who did his best to "tame" her. "He didn't like my gay friends at all," she says. "I have no prejudices - in Brazil, as we used to say, every sort of love is accepted! - but my husband was very prejudiced, macho, controlling. I was his little trophy, but I was also full of life. And he, as well, wanted me to be this laay-dee."
Four years after they parted, the businessman took his own life. By then, she was in Bali buying sarongs and fabrics for the Rio boutique she managed on behalf of a group of local "surfer boys" who'd discovered Indonesia. She later moved to Sydney where, in 1997, a friend visiting from Rio brought with her a range of bikinis, which they sold in local stores.
"Then my girlfriend said, 'Why don't we bring out some Havaianas as well?' I said they were just traditional thongs, and anyone could buy such things in China for 50 cents. But my friend said, 'No, no, no! Havaianas changed to monocolour in 1995!' And I said, 'Why is that better?'"
A billion-dollar question
This, as it turned out, was part of a billion-dollar question. The answer, with all its contradictions and fashion absurdities, transformed the fortunes of the brand, as well as Maribondo-Aspden's life. She began by buying samples of the new-look Brazilian flip-flops and giving them away outside Sydney supermarkets; within two years she'd married an Aussie carpenter, Peter Aspden, started her Aqueo Import and Distribution company (supplying General Pants, Surf Dive 'n' Ski, and Beach Culture stores) and was importing Havaianas by the container-load to meet the seemingly insatiable demand here, where 2.5 million pairs are now sold annually.
By the early 2000s, the thongs-as-street-fashion craze had spread to Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, France and New York. Supermodels Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, as well as Brazil's Gisele Bündchen, wore Havaianas by choice, other models paraded in them at Jean Paul Gaultier's fashion show in Paris, and The New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran articles on the extraordinary revival of the humble thong, likening it to the "universal acceptance" achieved by Levi's jeans 50 years earlier.
The origins of the humble thong
Of course, the basic three-point thong or sandal is almost as old as recorded history. Ancient Egyptians had a papyrus-and-palm leaves version as early as 4000BC; Greeks, Romans and Mesopotamians devised variations; India later came up with a strapless style in which a "toe knob" fitted between the first and second toes. The origin of modern flip-flops - a name derived from the sound they make - is generally linked to Japanese zori sandals, a flat platform with a three-point strap traditionally made of rice straw, but now widely produced in plastic.
In this form, it looks a lot like any other thong. Fortunately, for contemporary producers of the ubiquitous footwear, the Japanese never patented their much-copied sandals. American servicemen returning from World War II brought zoris home; by the 1960s, plastic versions in bright colours were part of Californian beach culture.
In the Antipodes, pub debate over whether Australians or New Zealanders "invented" thongs is older than the six-o'clock swill. Alas, it's now generally conceded that a Kiwi called Morris Yock won the race in 1957 when he and his son Anthony began making trademarked, zori-style "Jandals" (an amalgam of Japanese and sandal) at their Auckland home. The Melbourne-based Dunlop company didn't begin selling imported thongs here until 1959.
When Maribondo-Aspden started her import company in 1998, the world-wide thong revival had yet to happen. "I triggered it!" she exclaims over lunch. "I can say to you without any doubt, I triggered it. Not just me, though, but me and [she names several former executives with Havaianas' Brazilian parent company, Alpargatas SA]. They saw what was happening in Australia with us and our retailers, and they said, 'This is fashionable. This is something we ought to be doing all over the place!'"
A far cry from Brazil's south
In Brazil's hot and dry northeast, a hired minivan is taking us from the airport at the bleached coastal city of João Pessoa to Havaianas' vast factory at Campina Grande, 90 minutes' drive to the west. Rarely mentioned in tourist brochures, these are the homelands of Brazil's poorer castes, often descendants of African slaves brought here to work the sugar-cane fields that made the country's early colonial cities so wealthy.
Spurred by government incentives for decentralisation, Havaianas (the Portuguese name for Hawaiians) moved its manufacturing base from São Paulo in the south to the job-starved northeast in 1984. Now 7000 employees work around the clock churning out the hundreds of millions of pairs of thongs the company sells each year. Our van bumps and rattles through villages where donkeys still pull carts and people take naps in the shade of their tiny stone and concrete homes.
It's a far cry from the congestion and commercial frenzies of São Paulo, the largest city in South America (home to 20 million), where, a few days earlier, the woman in charge of Havaianas worldwide - Carla Schmitzberger - sat at the head of a table of executives in Alpargatas' corporate HQ talking of how the Amazing Flip-flop Revival began with Brazilian surfers "inverting their soles".
This happened in the early 1990s, when the surfers - bored by the only thong then produced by the company, with a white upper and matching straps and soles in five basic colours - began removing the soles and turning them around so the uppers were the same colour as the straps. This apparently made the surfers feel "different".
Noticing the trend at a time when sales were falling alarmingly (from 85 million pairs in 1988, to a low of 66 million in 1992), the company figured it could be the key to reversing its own fortunes.
"So in 1994 they launched a fully monochromed product," says Schmitzberger. "By observing consumer behaviour, then selling it back to the consumer, we made the thong more than just a commodity, and it became much more aspirational."
After that (like Henry Ford discovering colours other than black), inspiration reigned - with thinner straps, wider straps, different patterns, decorative pins - and aspirations soared. Wealthier Brazilians, once embarrassed to wear their thongs outside the home because they were deemed a poor person's shoe, were led by various celebrities and opinion formers to stride boldly forth in their newly tricked-up rubber footwear.
Hearing stories of people trying to enter restaurants in their thongs, and being turned away, Havaianas commissioned a TV commercial showing a handsome thong-wearing actor getting the same treatment. Dismayed, girls in the restaurant complain, "Well, if he can't stay, we're leaving, too!" Notes Schmitzberger: "After that campaign, it started to become more acceptable to wear thongs in restaurants."
Amazingly (at least to me), the monocolour/aspirational theme worked. Five years after it began, sales were up 7 per cent. Last year they topped 210 million (with exports accounting for 16 per cent), and demand is such that another factory is being built near São Paulo. Even better, although the basic thong still sells for about $5 in Brazil, consumers happily pay more for all the fancier types, and up to $140 for a version featuring straps encrusted with Swarovski crystals.
In 2000, inspired by Amelia Maribondo-Aspden's booming sales in Australia (still among the company's highest per-capita market penetrations), Havaianas stepped up its campaign for export markets. And when Europeans embraced the product, Brazilians - proud of their "ugly duckling turning into a swan" - bought even more thongs themselves, until, as Schmitzberger puts it, "you come into this circle where one likes it because the other likes it, and so on and so forth".
Nice business. Yet, despite all these contortions, Havaianas' most valuable market remains the no-frills workers upon which it was founded. The battlers of the north-east (Região Nordeste) still buy 80 to 90 million pairs of thongs a year, making them easily the best customers. "Children, men, women - this is what the poor people of the north-east wear," says Schmitzberger. "They wear thongs day in and day out, and with that sort of use they last six or seven months before they wear out."
A thin black dog lies dreaming in the middle of the service road as the first coaches arrive bearing workers for the 6am shift. In the dawn light, everything about Campina Grande's industrial outskirts appears grey: the sky, the streets, the giant Havaianas factory itself. The largest in northern Brazil, it grumbles and hisses as the workers straggle through the gates in their grey-and-white uniforms. Two thousand of them are bussed in and another 2000 out, on 36 coaches, at every shift change.
Ninety per cent are men, most are young, and because of safety regulations none wears thongs. En route to the company cafeteria for breakfast before starting work, many pause to check the promotions notice board: a changing tableau of headshots and captions showing who among them is going up in the world - typically, from production work to administration, then into specialised positions such as engineering or industrial chemistry.
'You know, we made those!'
Brazil's contemporary fixation with self-improvement and status isn't confined to affluent classes in the south. Helped by the company's subsidised study scheme, which also applies to their direct families, the workers have their own dreams and aspirations. (Although they still have a way to go: the minimum wage in Brazil is $300 a month. At the Havaianas plant, the pay for basic process work is about $450 a month, rising to $1000 after the first round of study/promotion. In São Paulo, a good executive income is $100,000 a year; in Campina Grande, a worker earning $6000 a year is considered to be doing well.)
Yet the upbeat mood here goes beyond considerations of income. Workers and office staff tell of how proud they are to see TV and movie stars wearing footwear from their factory. "We have helped to develop this city," says Virginia Araujo, a teacher turned secretary who has been at the factory 11 years. "And when we see famous people wearing Havaianas, we can say to our friends, 'You know, we made those!'"
On the wall behind her are a series of company posters of Brazilian celebrities, all wearing or fondling company products. One handsome young actor sports a shirt with the message: "Kiss me - I'm loaded!"
Our guided tour of the factory begins in off-cuts, where all the bits left over when thong soles are stamped out on presses spill from colour-coded bins, awaiting recycling in heat chambers. We visit the sound-proofed laboratory, where chemical engineer Fatima Farias demonstrates how the thongs are pounded, stretched and even "sweat tested" (on a machine that simulates the friction of a sweaty foot) for flaws.
Farias, 46, began as a factory intern 27 years ago, studied hard, and has since devised a new thong colour and developed rubber injection processes unique to the company. She says that unlike cheaper PVC-based thongs, those made here involve a "secret recipe" combining, among other things, multiple types of man-made rubber (derived from petroleum waste) and natural rubber from plantations in Brazil and Mexico. "I think of them as my children," she beams. "If someone comes to my home and roughly kicks off their flip-flops, I always say, 'Hey, be careful of my babies!'"
At the pounding heart of the process line are the presses that cut the soles, and the robot-like workers whose flying fingers attach the straps and package the thongs, all at warp speed. Nearby is the colour printing section, where people are randomly tested by medical teams for ill effects from exposure to chemical fumes. (Only yesterday, we're told, blood tests were taken from workers who suddenly developed sore throats and coughs.)
Twice a day, production workers in small groups enter an enclosure and spend five minutes doing synchronised, arms-up stretches. First to the left, then - a whistle shrills - to the right, over and over, until the next stretching group replaces them.
Study, and lots of it, is seen as the best way of escaping this daily grind. Cesar Amorin, a single 34-year-old who lives with his parents, has been studying flat-out since he began as a process worker eight years ago. Now, as a production supervisor, he's studying to be an engineer: "After that, I will study to be more than an engineer!" Amorin says that until quite recently only a few workers bothered with study. "But now more and more want to improve and get more money. The promotions notice board you saw is inspiring everybody to compete and improve themselves."
Unlike in the smart and culturally connected south, there is little here to distract a weary worker at shift's end. Family, religion, work and study - and perhaps a little soccer among friends - are the typical components of life in the Nordeste. As another shift change occurs, fork-lift driver Andre Sileasantos, 28, grabs a coffee before heading home to take his wife to the local university, and his daughter to school. After that he will study himself, then get some sleep before his next shift. Is he happy? "Oh yes! Every day I give thanks to God for my life."
All around us, workers stream from the factory gates through a line of security guards. Every so often, a guard steps forward and pats someone down as a deterrent against pilfering. A donkey struggles by towing two fat pigs in a cart. Watching over all this from a giant Havaianas billboard is the serene visage of yet another southern celebrity who can't live without her monochrome thongs.
Is it really fashionable to be fashionable?
Back in São Paulo, Rui Porto - one of the executives who helped pull off the trick of making cheap shoes irresistible to the wealthy - is wrestling with a modern conundrum: is it really fashionable to be fashionable? Porto, formerly vice-president of Alpargatas SA and now a company consultant, has just finished explaining how "unconventional" people (surfers, artists, celebs and others given to inverting their soles) were used to lead conventional people (the middle classes) into accepting the fashionability of Havaianas' re-vamped thongs. "The middle class all over the world are, by definition, followers," Porto concludes. But wasn't it also likely that unconventional people wouldn't want to wear them once conventional people were? Porto furrows his brow. "Some unconventional people are now preferring to revert to the old simple styles," he concedes. "But others love to wear a product that is very fashionable."
(Less-ambitious Brazilians, especially in the nation's teeming favelas, proudly remind visitors that their unadorned Havaianas gave rise to the term pe de chinelo, or "slipper foot" - slang for downtrodden - and were once part of a basket of staples, along with milk, bread and beans, used by the government to calculate the basic cost of living.)
From a marketing perspective, Porto would obviously prefer that the fashion of unfashionability doesn't gather too much momentum. The vast US market, which he deems the world's most difficult, has largely resisted the Havaianas export push - partly because of its diversity, and the fact that Middle America isn't impressed by fashion. "Even now," says Porto, "despite the huge difference in populations, the US market remains about the same size as the Australian market."
Is it a case of Amelia Maribondo-Aspden doing particularly well, or her counterparts in the US dragging the chain? He laughs. "Let's say Amelia is doing really well!"
Porto seems off guard when asked what one of the world's largest thong producers is doing about its product inevitably ending up as landfill, or in the oceans. "We're doing a study of it now," he says. "But nothing has been resolved yet."
Carla Schmitzberger noted earlier that the company donated 7 per cent of sales from two types of thong, with designs depicting endangered species, to Conservation International, a US-based non-profit environmental agency. The money went towards research into the health of Brazilian forests and the world's oceans. One of the creatures depicted on the thongs is a whale, but Schmitzberger couldn't name the other: "I think it's a type of monkey, or something ..."
Right time, right place
Marketing experts identify cultural branding - emphasising Brazil's "vibrancy, youth, fun, sensuality and humour" - as the real key to Havaianas' global revival. As for her own good fortune, Amelia Maribondo-Aspden reckons it was largely a matter of luck. "There was a lot of work involved, but mainly it was right time, right place. The product name was exciting, but if I had brought it here two years earlier, or later, I probably wouldn't have succeed."
Now also distributing thongs in her old stamping ground, Indonesia (where one of her brothers heads the expansion), she remains a lover of most things Brazilian - especially "that music from 500 f...ing drums that resonates in your chest!" - but not its institutionalised corruption. "I feel safe in Australia," she says, "because everything is black and white. I have an accountant, and I pay my 30 per cent f...ing tax, and everything works. But in Brazil you never know where you stand. You might be cooking your books, like everyone else, but tomorrow a supervisor from the government will come and say, 'Hey, I know you are cheating. Give me money!'"
At which point, whatever shoes you're wearing, you're left without a leg to stand on.
Frank Robson travelled to Brazil courtesy of Aqueo.