Industry veterans Eli Marmar and Martin Kim met in 1997 while attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and kept in touch throughout their careers at O’Neill and Burton, respectively. Marmar, who worked as a wetsuit designer, and Kim, who has an extensive knowledge of snowboard boots, were both trying to make their love of design and action sports translate into a project that would have a positive impact on the environment. When the two stumbled upon the idea for Freewaters last October, everything fell into place – including the company’s key concept of providing clean drinking water for one person for an entire year with the purchase of one pair of sandals, says Marmar.

They recently brought on Jeff Osthus, who served for the past four years as VP of Sales at Element Skateboards. Together, the team has been working to create product for what they see as an underdeveloped category in the market by using their collective design and marketing experience. TransWorld Business caught up with Marmar to find out what we can expect from Freewaters in the near future, marketing strategies and how the line is being received by retailers thus far.

Martin Kim, Eli Marmar and Jeff Osthus

Martin Kim, Eli Marmar and Jeff Osthus

What inspired you to launch the brand?

Eli Marmar: Martin and I talked a lot, and we wanted to bring together a brand around product and the experience we’ve had over the last 15 years. We thought, “What product category are we passionate about and what is underdeveloped in terms of what’s been pushed?” You think of apparel in terms of what’s been pushed in fashion. Sandals really stood out. Even though it’s a saturated market, we felt like no one was bringing fresh life into the category. For Martin—being a snowboard boot designer—it was an interesting challenge because he had super technical experience in footwear. It worked out well.

For snow boots and wetsuits, you can talk all you want about the features and the styling, but at the end of the day it’s about fit. Everyone will tell you that O’Neill and Burton have the best fit in the industry—basically every design feature, the material you use, where you put the seam—all that comes back to where you put that on the body.

When did Freewaters first come into being and how did you bring Jeff on board?

We jumped into it full time in October last year. We went to China twice to develop product for spring ’10/11. Once we did that we shifted attention to sales and distribution. It took us a couple months to find Jeff, but he really stood out far and above everyone else. He’s older than us and is an excellent mentor for us, He’s super  in touch with what’s on trend.

Over the last two months, we’ve handed things over to Jeff and he’s put together a whole sales rep force. We obviously knew we needed people in important territories. Basically we are nationwide, with product hitting retail for Spring 2011.

What response have you been getting from retailers so far?

The response has been super positive. What I’ve heard back from reps is we are coming with a 1-2-3 punch because we have nice, innovative, good quality product and on top of that, we have the whole water, social movement built into the brand. Everyone wants to be a part of more than just doing business; they want to give back and be social and have that balance. Retailers also recognize how powerful that is for consumers.

Instead of just building one or two styles with green materials, we incorporated green materials in all our products. It seems a little hypocritical to only have a few, and it’s been received well. Our strategy is much more about being innovative and a water/social movement. As being green and eco-friendly, we feel like it’s been commercialized, we really  aren’t claiming to be a green, eco-line, we just do that and do it quietly. Our motto is the “green ninja ” – we are doing it and are quiet and stealth like. Instead of relating to consumers through that, we relate to them through the product instead.

Freewaters

Does using green materials make production challenging?

From a cost stand point it does, and also we are making sure we don’t compromise durability and performance because often green materials don’t hold up as well. Not every raw material in every style is eco-friendly, but at least one thing in every product is, and we tried to balance it as much as we can. We  do what’s appropriate – so where it was appropriate as far as costs and performance, we implemented green materials. The biodegradable EVA foam that we use in the mid soles of our highe-end styles is exciting just because you know it’s going to break down and go away. In a perfect world, we would like to do everything as green, but we aren’t quite there yet. It’s changing really fast though.

Where is Freewaters manufactured?

Right now, all our production is out of China. China gets a bad rap, but absolutely without any question China is the hub of the footwear innovation world. What’s so cool is you can go down the street and see super technical Nike or adidas parts, and can find ways to incorporate that into what you’re doing. We took innovative running shoe and snowboard boot technologies and built them into our sandals.

How did the concept of providing clean water first materialize?

It happened really organically, which was cool. We knew from beginning [that] in some way, whether through using eco-materials in product, or some sort of eco/social movement built in, [we wanted to incorporate something]. We named it Freewaters before we had any notion of what it would be. As we started designing, we didn’t want to pigeon hole the brand as a surf brand. Most sandal brands market themselves as surf brands with images of bikinis and palm trees. We wanted a more sophisticated [image]. We couldn’t deny sandals are about being near the water, and then we asked, “How do you feel when you wear sandals?” The answer is free, and we combined that with being near water, and thought, “Why don’t we do something to improve the water environment?” We wanted it to have a global reach and be something that everyone could relate to and understand. It effects us here in California with the major drinking water issues we are about to face in the coming years, and also in developing countries. It’s a fundamental need. So it was perfect in that way. Over time, what became really important was figuring out a way to communicate it to the consumer in a personal, understandable way. We were really inspired by brands like TOMS, where one purchase translates into a tangible result. It took a while to figure out, but one pair of sandals provides drinking water for one person for one year.

How does it break down?

We carefully researched the cost to dig a well and how much water a typical well provides over a given number of years. Based on that, we broke down the cost of providing clean drinking water for one person for one entire year, and built that cost into our product cost.  This percentage of each purchase will go directly towards in-country water projects.  We have created our own non-profit called ProjectFreewaters.org in collaboration with friends and colleagues who are experts in hydrology and social work.  We are currently planning our first well project for a community in Kenya.  Martin and I are super excited and humbled to be a part of the small team to build this well in December of this year.

Do you plan to branch out to other product categories or just stick to sandals?

Absolutely, but there are no plans to do that right now. We aren’t closing that door. For Martin and I, and Jeff, too, our goal is to be really focused, be consistent, and produce quality, innovative product. After a few years, we can re-evaluate and see if we have established ourselves.

Part of the reason the sandal category is under developed is because a lot of the product is done by brands where it’s not their focus, and sandals kind of get lost in the mix. It’s hard to have real focus and innovation across wide product categories. We look to Burton who has done this, so we know it can be done. We are trying to take it one step at a time and do this right. If we do expand into other categories, we will use the same concept of finding underdeveloped categories and bringing something fresh and innovative to them.