Made In Hawaii: Island Slipper
At one time, there were seven slipper factories on Oahu. Now, there's just one -- Island Slipper.
HONOLULU - At one time, there were seven slipper factories on Oahu. Now, there's just one -- Island Slipper. Products made by Island Slipper have the "Made In Hawaii" stamp on the label.
"It's our heritage. For us, it's one of our pillars," said owner John Carpenter. "For us, we don't think the company would have the value that it has today if it wasn't made in Hawaii."
Carpenter has run the company since 1986, but it was a Japanese immigrant who started it all in 1921.
"Came to Hawaii in 1944. His name was Takizo Motonaga. And so, two generations later, the sons took it over and when they were ready to retire, they approached me," said Carpenter.
Carpenter had sold shoes at Liberty House, but he and his wife had never owned a business and it wasn't easy.
"It was just rough. You know, you're taking over a manufacturing business in Hawaii, where everything comes from someplace else, and everything you're gonna sell pretty much is gonna leave," said Carpenter. "It's like if you had a choice to open a manufacturing business in the United States, you wouldn't do it in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."
But they made it, and today, in the middle of Pearl City, the factory is thriving.
There are plenty of machines here, but so much of the work is still done by hand. Carpenter dug up a video of the factory from the 1950s. Much of it hasn't really changed.
"He's actually cutting away part of that leather so he can actually curve the shape of that upper part of the toe," said Carpenter.
Carpenter says it's something they have to do by hand and you can't automate it. It's not that they haven't tried. Carpenter experimented with a run in China, but the quality wasn't there.
"We went through that process of trying to go offshore. We realized what we were doing. We were kind of giving up on the whole idea of 'Made in Hawaii,'" said Carpenter.
To him, that was giving up on the brand and on his commitment to Motonagas, who still are invited to all company events to this day.
And so, they reinvested in the idea of quality over quantity doing custom orders of just 20 slippers for small shops and opening their own retail locations with focus on reaching customers directly.
Between the retail shops and the factory, Island Slipper employs about 100 people in Hawaii.
"This product is really made here. And when you buy a local product, you're supporting a lot of your neighbors and people that work every day in this company," said Carpenter.
People like Rudy Bantolina, who worked here for a decade, shaping and cutting the slippers. Carpenter says he's the best in the business!
Bantolina says if there are 2-3 employees working on slippers, they make about 700-900 a day! Bantolina says he loves this job and so does Kay Silva.
"Like if we're off, I stay home, it's boring. I do a lot of things at home with my orchids or whatever, but I love to come to work," said Silva.
She loves it so much, she's been working here for 40 years switching from station to station, her joy comes from working with her hands.
Carpenter says being the last surviving slipper factory in Hawaii is both pressure and a privilege. It might be easier or cheaper to run this company somewhere else, but you can't take the island out of Island Slipper.
Island Slipper is a relatively small company, but it does make a lot of slippers -- several hundred thousand pairs a year! And they're sold around the world.
Outside of Hawaii, the biggest market for their products is Japan and there are some high end retailers like Barneys there, that carry their product.