The Brazilian footwear brand Havaianas – established in 1962 and sold in the U.S. since 2007 – is synonymous with colorful, rubber-soled flip-flops that sell for $24 and up. (A current model, studded with Swarovski crystals and suitable for wedding parties, will set you back $78 a pair.) I knew more or less how to pronounce the brand name – hah-vah-YA-nas – but I’m chagrined to say that until very recently I had confidently subscribed to a completely baseless story about its origins.
Havaianas “Brazil” from the current collection
The original Havaianas looked very different from the current styles. They were modeled on traditional Japanese zori, a type of flip-flop whose sole is made of soft rice straw.
Early Havaianas in the zori style, via AllSole.
According to the AllSole shoe blog, the zori was introduced to the U.S. by American soldiers who’d been stationed in Japan after World War II. Someone – the official corporate history doesn’t specify – noticed people wearing zori on Hawaiian beaches, and decided to manufacture them cheaply in Brazil. The style – with rice-grain-patterned soles in an homage to the originals – caught on among poor and rural workers, who bought the (then) affordably priced flip-flops from salesmen who traveled the huge country in brightly painted Volkswagen vans.
Havaianas van and salesmen, 1964. Via Havaianas blog.
If I’d known more Portuguese than bossa nova and obrigado, I would have figured out the obvious: Havaianas is simply Portuguese for Hawaiians.*
One of a set of 15 posters created by Havaianas to commemorate the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. See them all.
And my own concocted origin story? Oh, it was clever. I knew that the scientific name of the rubber tree is Hevea brasiliensis, and I convinced myself that Havaianas was somehow related to Havea, because, of course, brasil.
So clever. So wrong.
There’s more to the Havaianas story, and it’s pretty good. (My source here is a long and fascinating case study published in Business Today in 2012.)
The company that makes Havaianas was founded in 1883 by two immigrant Argentines: Juan Echegaray, who came from Spain’s Basque region, and Robert Fraser, a Scotsman whose family was in the textile business. They named it Alpargatas, which is the Spanish equivalent of French (and subsequently English) “espadrilles.”
Traditional rope-soled canvas espadrille. Source.
Like flip-flops, espadrilles were originally worn by workers and poor people; their name derives ultimately from Greek sparton, “a rope made of Spanish broom (spartos),” from a root that means “to twist or turn.” As you might guess, spartos and Sparta, the ancient Greek city synonymous with austerity, are related. So are the Spanish and Catalán words for espadrille, espardena and espardenye, respectively. (To further confuse matters, espardena is also the name of an edible sea cucumber.)
Alpargata has its own twisty etymology. In Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain, 711-1492), the word was adapted from Arabic al-pargat, “a shoe made of hemp.” But the Arabic word was itself borrowed from Basque abarka (“sandal”), Arabicized to provide an appropriate connotation. (For more words borrowed from Arabic into Spanish, see this list. You’ll have to look up the definitions elsewhere.)
Back to Havaianas! In 1907, Alpargatas set up a division in São Paulo, Brazil; in the 1980s it was taken over by Brazilian investors. It was a difficult period for the Brazilian economy; by the time conditions improved, in the early 1990s, customers had deserted the Havaianas brand, which had been marketed as a commodity and was perceived as lower class. After a 35 percent drop in sales in 1993, Havaianas management “radically” changed their marketing strategy. According to Business Today:
The company revamped the brand by introducing new colours, new packaging and displays and investing heavily in promotional campaigns. Over time, customers came to associate Havaianas with a relaxed and irreverent attitude. This perception was driven by a series of funny advertisements that depicted artistes wearing Havaianas outdoors - at the beach, while shopping, etc. Simultaneously, a media campaign was launched with celebrities endorsing the product. These advertisements caught the attention of consumers and helped reinforce the new brand associations.
From there, it was on to collaborations with Disney, Major League Baseball, and Marvel Comics. Havaianas’ owners became very, very rich; when she died in 2013 at the age of 100, owner Dirce Navarro de Camargo was Brazil’s richest woman.
In the latest series of flip-flops, the company’s owners were fined more than $3 billion in 2017 for bribing nearly 1,900 politicians. They were forced to sell the company for $1 billion to pay the fines, and the chairman of the board stepped down. Shares of the company’s stock, which had plunged, recovered quickly to an all-time high.
* Hawaiians have a different name for this footwear: slippahs, Hawaiian Pidgin for “slippers.” In India the shoes are called Hawai chappal; chappal means “slipper,” and Hawai means, well, “Hawaii.”