Interview with the Founder of Sanuk Sandals

July 13, 2011, Judd

It was a crazy idea to mix chocolate and peanut butter. Same for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The world is round? The earth revolves around the sun?

Those ideas were also considered kooky for their time. Here’s another crazy idea: take inner tubing and carpet that looks like standard backyard grass and make a sandal out of it. Then watch that idea hatch into a highly successful footwear company called Sanuk.

If coastal living is in your soul and you surf, look down. Your feet may be sporting some Sanuks. The creative mad genius behind Sanuk is Jeff Kelley.

“Not many people know this,” said Kelley from Sanuk’s office that overlooks Cardiff Reef. “Sanuk” is the Thai word for pursuit of happiness.

Kelley has been in the surf industry since 1985, when the Huntington Beach-raised father of two started Trac-Top, a surfboard traction pad business that he eventually sold.

After Trac-Top, Kelley was instrumental in evolving Reef into a mega-surf apparel company. After seven years as Reef’s national sales manager, Kelley took a little hiatus and, for lack of a better word, Sanuk-ed.

“I traveled around for a year and surfed,” said Kelley who formed┬áhis sandal company six years ago and also uses his office as a crash pad to host the likes of pro surfer and touring musician Donovan Frankenreiter (and his band) as well as Bethany Hamilton, the phenom teenage Hawaiian surfer who lost an arm to a shark two years ago.

Kelley is 46 though he looks younger. “Surfing keeps you young and active,” said Kelley, who is working on another business model called “the electric grapevine,” (www.theelectricgrapevine. com) a sort of peer-to-peer Internetbased clothing store.

Kelley has come up with several creative and imaginative ads (Kelley calls both qualities “imaginuity.”). One ad that Kelley crafted features Frankenreiter holding up a sandal made up of material that looks like Astroturf.

The slogan that Kelley came up with: “White Trash Heaven is Within Your Grasp.”

“I saw the opportunity to create a sandal company that did off-the-beatenpath designs,” said Kelley, “but one that is still fashionable.”

Not selling out is a concern to Kelley. Though he has seen his creation infiltrate Barney’s in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, he would never allow an assembly-line of generic lookin footwear rolled out to big chain sportwear shops.

Kelley has a son, Canyon, as well as a daughter, Kayla. He started surfing in the eighth grade.

“God, that’s a long time ago,” Kelley said with a laugh.

Kelley would like to see the sandal companies, including his own, be more environmentally consdous.

“No footwear company has a perfect track record with the environment,” said Kelley, “but we try to minimize the effects.”

For his part, Kelley belongs to Surfrider and said he is talking with members about releasing a line of sandals that will directly benefit the organization.

“If you’re a surfer,” said Kelley, “you have to be environmentally conscious.”

That’s one idea of Kelley’s that doesn’t sound so crazy.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.