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Fleks Footwear Makes a Splash

New sandal brand is made of 82 percent recycled foam.

Leah Larson
Leah Larson

Leah lARSON HAS been in the shoe game long enough to sense when a new concept has big potential. The 30-year industry veteran and former Ugg creative director believes she’s on the cusp of that again with the founding of Fleks Footwear in partnership with Blumaka, the company that transforms foam footwear scraps from other brands into a durable, high-performance foam. All it took was for Larson to see that repurposed foam—and a lot of bugging of Blumaka Founder Stuart Jenkins, a former Deckers Brands coworker and dear friend.

“About three years ago, Stuart, the master innovator, shared with me his cutting-edge new manufacturing concept that would dramatically reduce waste, and I was immediately excited,” Larson says, noting that Blumaka’s initial focus was on OEM products and insoles. “But I saw a greater potential; I couldn’t imagine a better material for beach sandals than one that actually protects the oceans by diverting plastic from the waste stream.”

Larson had to be patient, though. Jenkins wasn’t ready to make shoes just yet. He was still finessing his manufacturing process as well as building out a 37,000-square-foot factory in El Salvador. “Once I had the idea in mind, I couldn’t let it go,” she says. “So, I did what any good friend would do: I kept bugging and bugging and bugging him. And finally, about a year-and-a-half ago, he was ready. Right then, Fleks was born, and I joined Blumaka as Chief Merchant and Creative Director.”

The debut East Beach slide (SRP: $65) is inspired by the surf culture of Southern California. The sandal’s deck and strap are made from over 80 percent proprietary FLEKSfoam, and the outsole is made with 15 percent recycled EVA. It takes just tablespoons of water per pair to manufacture. Indeed, Fleks’ sustainable design story is the difference maker for Larson. “Does the world really need another shoe company? Not necessarily,” she offers. “Does the world need more companies focused on innovation and responsibility that are willing to show their industries what is possible? Absolutely.”

Uniqueness is baked into the Santa Barbara, CA-based brand’s DNA—from the sleek shape to recycled materials to enhanced durability. “Our slides have been put through rigorous testing to ensure their cushioning holds up for over 1,000 miles, which is at least three times the industry standard,” Larson says, adding that the brand is finalizing details for a take-back program that will regrind old Fleks for use in other products. “All of that goes far beyond the greenwashed sustainability promises prevalent in so much marketing today, and all of it comes attached to a stylish product.” On that latter note, Larson says the sandal is a wardrobe staple that transitions effortlessly from day on the beach to night out. “It’s the perfect go-everywhere, do-anything slide,” she says.

Fleks’ blend of style, sustainability, and performance represents a culmination of Larson’s decades of industry experience. She has learned plenty along this journey. At Ugg, for example, she helped build a sense of celebration around the heritage of the product and the pure feel of wearing the shoes. “There’s an emotional element to all of that—the way the product feels and makes you feel every time you slide your foot into it,” she explains, adding, “We’re cultivating that same sense of joy and devotion with Fleks. Our slides are wildly comfortable, and they make the wearer feel comfortable in their skin, too.”

The values of fine craftsmanship and best-in-class materials—aspects Larson applied during her run with Ross & Snow—have also been baked into Fleks’ recipe. “We aren’t cutting any corners; we’re building entire new standards,” she says. “And we’re incorporating a sense of community and responsibility. Our sustainability initiatives are about the power of people working together to make a big impact, whether that’s us committing to more sustainable manufacturing and a longer-lasting product, or consumers valuing such aspects in the brands they support. We’re all in this together, and together we can build a better process, a better product, and a better world.”

Larson’s goal for this year is to get the word out about Fleks. Looking three years out, the aim is to be a recognizable brand nationwide and inspiration for other companies to raise their sustainability standards. It’s all an ongoing shoes love affair for Larson. As a kid, she recalls lusting after the latest must-have pairs. “Shoes represent something far more than just what we happen to have on our feet,” she says. “They are both a necessity and a powerful mode of self-expression.” Larson adds, “That’s what keeps me coming back to this industry: that marriage of utility and creativity.”

The April/May 2024 Issue

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