Recently the footwear find themselves linked with a more sombre aspect of Brazil that has been grabbing headlines – corruption.
Last week, to pay off a mega $3.2 billion fine over 25 years for various graft cases, the Brazilian brothers Joesley et Wesley Batista started selling off assets they controlled through their J&F group, whose main business is being the world’s biggest meat processor.
J&F had a 54-percent stake in Alpargatas, the parent company of Havaianas. That was purchased by three holding firms: Itausa, Cambuhy Investimentos and Brasil Warrant.
The Havaianas success story started in 1962, riding the sudden international popularity of flip-flops in the post-WWII boom.
Inspired by traditional Japanese rice-straw sandals, the origin of the rubber-soled flip-flops is variously claimed by Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.
But it was Havaianas that emerged as the most recognizable brand of the toe-strap footwear. The brand name comes from the Portuguese spelling of another tropical playground: Hawaii.
‘Cool’ for all classes
It was a big marketing push in the 1990s that burnished the Havaianas name, along with a colorful range of designs.
The Brazilian firm now sells more than 150 different models, from the basic beach pair for $5, to ones with tropical motifs and a tiny Brazilian flag for $9, right up to custom Swarovski gem-encrusted luxury options for more than $60.
In a Copacabana shop, Solange Brascher, a 55-year-old employee in a telecoms company, bought an average-priced pair for her daughter.
“Before, there was an idea of them being for poor people,” she said. “But now all social classes wear them because they’re cool.”
Havaianas sells more than 200 million pairs each year, 16 percent of them exported.
For sheer Brazilian-ness, they rank up there with soccer and samba.
“They’re the first thing I bought when I arrived, to give to friends,” a young Portuguese tourist, Beatriz Rodrigues, said. “I’ve already bought 10 pairs and I’m going to buy another 10 because they’re much more expensive in Europe.”
Today, Alpargatas, whose headquarters is in Sao Paulo, has more than 700 sales outlets in more than 100 countries.
“Havaianas represent the Brazilian soul, and is an object of desire, synonymous with a Brazil that works,” opined Claudio Goldberg, economic professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Certainly they have attracted star power. Havaianas have adorned the feet of Madonna, David Beckham, and Kim Kardashian, who flaunted ones designed by the jeweler H. Stern with gold settings worth $18,000.
When Havaianas rolled out their first pairs they were a basic white rubber sole with blue toe straps. Then in 1969 an employee accidentally painted the straps green. To Alpargatas’ surprise, the variation took off, and from then on Havaianas started playing with colors and then designs.
The company asserts that two-thirds of the people in Brazil – total population 200 million – buy on average one pair of Havaianas a year. And that if all the pairs it had sold in its history were laid end-to-end they would circle the Earth 62 times.
But how will the whiff of corruption wafting from its former owners affect the brand?
“It’s already a good thing that such a brand is remaining Brazilian,” Goldberg said. The company “won’t lose its identity.”
As for the new owners, they’ve said they want to expand further into the US market. And the current management of the famous footwear won’t get the boot.