Anna Gonzalez at the new Havaianas store in Bonifacio High Street.Photograph by Renzo Navarro for Havaianas Philippines
Culture Spotlight

How Anne Gonzalez changed the way Filipinos thought of slippers

Who knew that a premium flip-flop label would do so well in a country not accustomed to shelling out more than P100 for a pair? Well, the Havaianas Philippines founder did—16 years ago.
Gelo Dionora | Jul 04 2019

Hours before the opening of Havaianas Philippines’ flagship store, there is sudden downpour at Bonifacio High Street. It doesn’t dampen the festive spirit at the launch, however, and a throng of eager customers and curious passerby flock the store’s facade. Inside, last-minute preparations are being made. The tropical space is all set, complete with floaties, coconuts, a virtual beach, and a quaint seaside shack. Nostalgic vacation photos line up the store’s walls where summer-themed ads also roll on an LED screen.

 

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In the middle of this hubbub, Anne Gonzalez carries out her duties with ease. The founder of Havaianas Philippines wastes no time; with an hour to go before doors open, she greets guests, discusses with her team, and inspects the interiors. She breezes through a photo shoot (and three outfit changes) before proceeding with our interview.

Anne Gonzalez introduced the premium flip-flop brand to the country in 2003.

Midway through our conversation, Gonzalez excuses herself briefly to double-check the air conditioning. Her team addresses the concern, and we resume. At the end of the interview, she revisits that pause. “That’s really how my mind works,” the entrepreneur admits. “At one moment, you’re talking to an interviewer, discussing business. The next second, I become very operational. It’s like, ‘Hey, we have customers coming in a few minutes. Are our air conditioners running?’ Whether it’s a personality trait or the spirit of entrepreneurship, that’s the stuff that drives me.”

Gonzalez shares that presence of mind and an always-on attitude toward all aspects of her businesses are her foremost guiding principles. “Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart,” she reiterates. “You have to get your hands dirty. On one hand, you’re never too small to dream big or accomplish great things. On the other hand, once you’re up there, you can’t feel too big for the small responsibilities. There has to be a fine balance.”

On top of its founder’s strong entrepreneurial drive, the Havaianas Philippines enjoyed a heated reception from the market. In 2003, its debut year, Havaianas imported and sold around 3,000 to 5,000 pairs. Since then, more stores have opened (aptly named “All Flip Flops”) and sales figures have skyrocketed, with recent yearly averages dancing around 1.8 to 2 million pairs. Gonzalez says that the Philippines easily lands within the top five markets for Havaianas globally.

A wall of colorful soles serve as a backdrop behind the counter of the new store.

“When we launched the brand 16 years ago, we never said we ‘created’ flip-flops. What we did was to elevate the use of a functional, everyday item,” she stresses. “We were lucky enough that it was already part of Filipino culture: wearing slippers or flip-flops, being very easy or casual. It’s something that we grew up around and used every day. We as a people are also colorful, vibrant, and positive—and we believe our footwear is reflective of that, too. I feel like the brand has endured because we’ve listened to our customers, we evolved with them, we’ve changed up the designs and made it interesting, but we still stuck to our DNA.”

That summer feeling

Moreover, Gonzalez believes that Havaianas’ distinct summer branding strikes a chord with Filipinos. “Growing up in the Philippines, whenever we think about the last day of school, about childhood memories, or something fun and nostalgic, those thoughts would almost always tie back to summer,” she notes. “It’s something that connects with us—the idea of that season as an awesome and positive feeling. And that’s what we deliver with our brand. For us, summer is a state of mind. It’s not just a season.”

As with any business, Havaianas has had its rainy seasons—challenges that Gonzalez considers as opportunities to make the brand better. “Around three or four years ago, we saw a shift in the consumers’ share of wallet, and that somehow affected our growth,” she recalls. “People were travelling everywhere, and the food industry was booming. Everyone was doing things for the ‘gram, for instance. We’ve had people tell us that for our most expensive pair, they could get discounted seats and fly abroad! We suddenly found ourselves competing in that space.”

Gonzalez and her team had had to transform from being good brand builders to intelligent retailers over the years.

In response, the brand has taken measures to adjust with the market’s changing behavior. “We are already good brand builders. We know how to get the message of the brand across, and we know our customer well. However, we now needed to be intelligent retailers,” she emphasizes. “We had to make the in-store experience as positive and engaging as possible. On digital, we’ve improved on our online services, allowing buyers to access various pairs, place orders, and have them delivered at their convenience. On all fronts, we needed to make the brand experience as enjoyable as possible, so that customers would come back and tell people about it. This new flagship store is the perfect place to accomplish these things.”

The High Street space gathers classic Havaianas lines, such as the monochromatic Top and Slim flip-flops. Cartoon characters and pop culture references come alive in their footwear as well. For the ladies, dressier designs are also available, from blinged-out sandals to wedge slippers. The store also carries new Havaianas bags, pouches, towels, and various accessories. The founder adds that the public can expect more exclusive lines to arrive in the Philippines soon.

“You know, life can get so complicated and the world today is so uncertain,” Gonzalez says. “If we can give people a little bit of happiness on their feet, why not?”

 

Photographs by Renzo Navarro for Havaianas Philippines