Gandys Flip Flops: How the funky footwear brand was created

They were young brothers with a single GCSE between them and an unlikely vision that could help orphans like themselves. But it was only when Paul and Rob Forkan revealed the truth of their tragic past that the future began to look bright for Gandys Flip Flops

When you set up a coveted footwear brand with your younger brother faster than it takes most people to get a degree, and you're still only 26, you might expect to be hounded for business advice. Especially if the only qualification you have between you is one GCSE, grade C. But grief advice?

"I was at a talk the other day," recalls Rob Forkan, who runs Gandys Flip Flops with his brother Paul. "I had a mum who'd come just to ask me what to do about the loss of her son's dad. In front of everyone. I was like, 'I'm 26, and there's someone who's come all this way to ask me about something like that.' But you can't not engage because it's so raw for them."

Rob knows all about feeling raw. As do his five siblings, orphaned in the Boxing Day tsunami in the Indian Ocean 10 years ago next month. His tip for the poor mother was to stay positive and to keep her son busy and surrounded with friends. "If you do that, he'll come out of it being positive," he told her. "If you sit there mourning and moping, as hard as it may be not to, that's going to be passed on."

On 26 December, it will be a decade since Rob first put his own advice into action. On that day, when a vast tidal wave claimed 230,000 lives across South-east Asia, the 17-year-old was battling the devastation in southern Sri Lanka to save the three youngest Forkans. His parents had vanished, a man matching his father's description among the dead. But he knew he had to remain optimistic if he were to help what remained of his family to get home. It would be a further three months before the Sri Lankan authorities identified the bodies of his parents, Kevin and Sandra.

Even now, sitting in his new south London headquarters, surrounded by Gandys products – flip-flops in every conceivable hue, including Liberty's famous prints – he fights for words to describe the horror. "It's draining. And sounds robotic when I talk about it now. It was one of the worst days of our lives."

Rob had been sharing a bungalow at Neptune Resort, in Weligama, a village famous for its surf beaches, 90 miles from Sri Lanka's capital Colombo, with Paul, 15; his parents were in another with Mattie, 12, and Rosie, eight. Jo, his older sister, then 19, had flown back to the UK the night before; Marie, 22, was already there.

Rob woke, around 8am, to a flooded floor. He peeked outside and heard it: the rumble of doom. He woke Paul seconds before the wave crashed in, smashing everything in the room. As the water rose fast, the boys struggled to get out, clambering on to the roof. Then, amid the debris left in the soupy surf, Rob spotted Mattie clinging to the branches of a tree, pushed to safety by his parents before they were washed away. It would be hours before he learnt that Rosie, too, had survived, found by a group of surfers underneath a tree. Somehow, all four children were safe, albeit battered.

Those few minutes give an insight into the mentality of Rob and Paul, and perhaps explain how, in less than three years, they have made such a stir with a company dreamt up after a big night out. Rob woke with a "mouth like Gandhi's flip-flops" and the idea for (the less potentially offensively named) Gandys was born.

The boys' parents had been imaginative entrepreneurs whose idea of educating their k children involved swapping the classrooms of Croydon for a four-year travelathon around India. In Gandys, the brothers have created a business in the spirit of their parents' own fashion endeavours. And how. In the past year alone, Rob and Paul joined David Cameron in Sri Lanka and donned thongs to meet the Queen and Princes William and Harry at Buckingham Palace.

But the biggest thrill will come this Boxing Day when, if everything goes to plan, work will begin on the foundations for the first Gandys-funded children's home. Money will come from the Gandys Foundation, which receives 10 per cent of Gandys' profits. "We want to start building on the anniversary, somewhere in India, somewhere that's most in need. The vision is for us to have children's homes all over the place. How long that takes, I don't know, but we're very much in it for the long term," says Rob.

They are already helping to back a girls' institution in Sri Lanka, which meant a trip back to Colombo last year. "We are vetting various people in terms of a partner," explains Rob, about the Indian project. "If we do all the hard work growing [Gandys], we can fund people who are good [at running children's homes]."

Rob and Paul's years on the road – or, rather, the beach – in India means they've seen childhood deprivation first hand. Rob recalls their parents' surprising decision to sell up in Croydon, 13 months after a two-week holiday in Goa in December 1999. "They said, 'Who fancies moving to India?' It was pretty extraordinary. Before we knew it, we were on a one-way ticket to Mumbai. And that was that. We travelled around, volunteered, worked in slums, children's homes. One day we'd be down the market, negotiating, communicating with locals; another we'd be playing cricket."

As for conventional schooling: "Mum and Dad just didn't care!" he laughs. "Do you know what, though? I wouldn't say any of my friends got a better education than me. I'd say I learnt a whole load more. Paul, too; he's not academic. It's quite funny, he has mates who are like, 'How come you were bottom of the class and you're doing what you're doing?'"

Being so streetwise probably saved their lives in the chaotic aftermath of the tsunami. Rob knew, for instance, not to let a man wielding a grubby needle at the Weligama mosque anywhere near their wounds. He also, somehow, managed to hold himself together amid scenes that were too much for many adults to bear. It took them three days to cover the 90 miles to Colombo in the back of a truck, which ran on fuel the boys had siphoned off from a JCB digger. Only then did Rob manage to ring Marie, who couldn't believe they were alive. Shoeless, they flew to be near her in Britain, looking "like a load of slum kids because we were so skinny and hadn't eaten properly for a week… We got taken away by armed police. And nobody saw us: there was a complete media blackout." This was imposed to protect the children, whom Marie eventually adopted, with the exception of Rob, who turned 18 in 2005.

"We stayed away from everything [to do with the tsunami]. We were offered all sorts: ceremonies at St Paul's with the Queen. We didn't bother doing any of it," Rob says. He remembers shutting off what had happened, not even talking about it with friends, and getting on with their jobs in sales and recruitment.

The brothers continued to be discreet about their backstory when they started Gandys from their shared bedroom in a Brixton flat in 2011. There was no mention of it on their original packaging, nor the postcards advertising their Facebook page, which they'd hand out on Clapham Common and Brighton beach, "then run home to see if we had a sale. We hadn't."

Six months in, they realised that something had to change if they were to turn Gandys into a social enterprise. k

"We didn't want to tell our story; nobody knew it for years. Even to mates I've played football with and been out with quite regularly. When we told it, people got fixated. Now kids go, 'Wow, your story is incredible!' Well, it kind of is, and it's also not," Rob says. "Then you can get people who go, 'It's just [because of] their story.' Ugh. We actually work pretty hard behind all that."

So hard that Rob reckons they've "rattled the cage" at Havaianas, the Brazilian flip-flop behemoth that sells 150 million pairs a year. "We got some nice letters from them when we started. Recently, they asked if their creative director could come and work with us. We said, 'No!'"

Gandys will sell around 150,000 pairs this year, up from 50,000 last year, and 10,000 from their bedroom that first summer. "Next year, I hope to at least double, maybe treble our sales." World domination involves "chasing the sun", starting with Australia this autumn, when Gandys went into the department-store chain David Jones. Then there's Japan, the Middle East, and "America is on stand by". That's on top of deals with UK stores from Selfridges and Liberty to House of Fraser and Accessorize.

The aim is to extend from flip-flops, which can only take you so far, especially in a climate like the UK's. Rob laughs, remembering how a south London bouncer blocked him and Paul from entering a pub because of inappropriate footwear on the very day they had worn thongs to meet the Queen. He points to a scar on one of his big toes. "That happened recently. It was gruesome. We need some other shoes."

"People like how we're building it to be more like a community than a typical fashion brand and can see we're using fashion as a force for good, so want to get involved," he adds. "But they can't be part of it during winter as well." So, different types of footwear: "They might not just be rubber but casual shoes as well."

And you can apparently do more with flip-flops than you might think. Rob grabs a handful to show me: "You can put glitter on 'em. Make them look like deck shoes. Brogues. Nobody's done that before."

Rob's original flip-flop design was hand-woven from jute in India. But the quality wasn't adequate, so they switched to rubber, plaiting it for the strap, and today they are manufactured in Fuzhou, China. They check the working conditions carefully, I'm told. "It's not always as bad as people imagine. It's the same as when I went to India as a kid: people said, 'Are you going to live in a mud hut?' It's a bit uneducated."

As for finance, they have had help, but no favours. "We do get asked, 'Who's your uncle?' Or, 'Who do you know?' The answer is, no one. We didn't know One Direction to get them to wear our product. We didn't know Richard Branson to get Gandys [as the exclusive flip-flop] on Necker Island. We didn't know Boris Johnson [who opened their new building]. We didn't know the buyers in any of the department stores. We had to go and knock on their doors. A lot is just down to us cracking on with it."

That included finding the right investor; someone on their wavelength. That person was Dominic List, founder of IT company Comtact, whom they had seen on Channel 4's The Secret Millionaire. They met in a mocked-up beach bar. They hit it off and List injected some cash.

Not every family member is involved, but Mattie designed the logo, and Rosie, now 18, is keen to work for them. "We've told her to go and travel. There's a lot of pressure; we don't want her to jump into it too young."

Come 26 December, Rob wants to avoid media coverage of the anniversary. Rosie will be in Australia by then. "We'll go up the east coast with our sister. That's the simple solution."

'Tsunami Kids: Our Journey from Survival to Success' (£16.99, Michael O'Mara), by Paul and Rob Forkan, is out now

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