No Flip-Flopping: Gotta Buy Okabashi

For what avail the plough or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail?

--Ralph Waldo Emerson


"Shell shocked." That's how shoemaker Bahman Irvani, now 59, says he felt in 1979 when he and his family fled Iran after the Revolution. His family had been manufacturing shoes in that country for over 50 years. "We left Iran because the government took over not only our businesses but our personal assets as well," he said recently in an interview with CNN. It took a couple of years to regroup, but eventually he realized that "life has to go on."

After a Cambridge education in economics, Irvani chose to leave London, England and make Buford, Georgia, his new home. In Buford he would raise a family, build a manufacturing facility, and eventually grow a business so successful that it would sell over 30 million pairs of shoes.

As a child in 1950s Iran, Irvani learned every aspect of his family's shoe business. He began selling shoes around age eight. Decades later, in the early 1980s, Irvani brought this lifetime of shoe manufacturing knowledge with him to this country. I wondered why Georgia, in particular, had attracted him.

"The south has good access to Europe and good labor, which makes recruitment easier," Irvani explained in our phone interview. "We started when U.S. manufacturing was weakening but not dead. We were persistent. Our core competency is manufacturing."

By 1984 Bahman Irvani had established a one-hundred percent American-made casual shoe. He called his new brand "Okabashi" in honor of the Japanese practice of reflexology. As the company's website states, its shoes have: "tiny massaging beads are strategically placed across the foot-bed of each shoe to stimulate different areas of the sole."

The website also explains what makes Okabashi "more than a shoe":

  • Good for You: Endorsed by the ACA (American Chiropractic Association)

  • Good for the USA: Made in Buford, GA. Okabashi employs approximately 200 workers.

  • Good for the Planet: An on-site recycling program. The company encourages customers to send back their used shoes. Okabashi then recycles them, turning them into new pairs in what's called "closed loop" recycling. There's no waste.

  • Good for your pocket: 2 year guarantee.

Asked why he continues to manufacture here despite the economic pressures to do otherwise, Irvani said it's all about quality. "You need to be able to see, smell, touch the shoes. You need to test them." He says this is much easier to do on site than in a foreign country 3,000 miles away. Amen to that.

Irvani hopes American consumers will "listen to our story, evaluate the cost and the quality of our product, and make their own decision."

Yesterday that's exactly what I did. Okabashi shoes are sold online and at many retailers, including Walgreen's and CVS. So I stopped by my local Walgreen's. There were quite a few competitors in the casual summer shoes / flip-flops section, but all had been Made in China. I found a pair of black Okabashi flip-flops (actually, they're sturdier than typical flip-flops) for $10.99 + tax. I'm wearing them as I write this, and plan to wear them on the Fourth of July to watch our town's annual parade.

As I walked to my car with my modest purchase, I thought about Bahman Irvani's story. I pictured the Irvani family--and countless other Iranians--packing up whatever they could fit in their suitcases to leave their homeland, their livelihoods, their roots behind, eventually finding their way here, to safe harbor. I thought about my Czechoslovakian and German neighbors, who'd done the same thing in the 1940s. We have to keep America safe and strong and free; a beacon of hope. But how best to do so?

Bahman Irvani believes in free trade. "I don’t think I would necessarily advocate buy American and nothing else," he said. He worries that a nationalistic movement could lead to a breakdown in trade, which would, of course, be harmful to our country.

On the other hand, he said, "given how other countries have put up roadblocks, we shoot ourselves in the foot" if our government doesn't at least consider doing something to level the global trading playing field.

That said, Irvani strongly believes that if we American consumers would switch 20% of our purchases from foreign to USA-made, it would make a huge difference in our country's economic health. It would create jobs and capital, and help reduce or even eliminate our various abominable deficits. There's so much to be gained by making a fairly simple change.

While I respect Bahman Irvani's views, for me it's USA-made all the way as much as possible. Thanks, Irvani family, for your comfortable, affordable shoes made here at home, and for jobs, jobs, jobs.

Coming up: a bit o' flag-waving as my Fourth of July-related purchases continue.