Oi Polloi

Interview: Kevin from Malibu Sandals

Published: Thu May 12 2016

Not to be confused with the Nike trainers of the same name, ‘huaraches’ are a traditional type of woven sandal popular with Jack Kerouac, Franciscan monks and Mexican farmers.

With super-comfy, ‘anatomically correct’ soles and leather-esque, vegan-friendly woven uppers, Malibu Sandals are the true modern day huarache, and might just be the ultimate in laid-back, spliffed-up and spaced-out San Fran beatnik foot attire.

I pestered Malibu main-man Kevin O’Neill to find out more…

What have you been up to today?

I am staring at the mighty Pacific Ocean and watching the pelicans feed.

To a lot of people, huaraches are those trainers that Nike make. Can you tell us the history of the original Mexican huarache?

Sure. The Mexican huarache sandal has deep footwear design roots dating back centuries. The craftsmanship is amazing with the braided rawhide designs that were worn by everyone including Aztec warriors and farmers alike.

There are dozens of different hand woven styles that originate from many different regions throughout Mexico and where they still make them today at local Huaracheria shops. It's a genius concept that doesn't require any stitching, but rather intricate hand woven patterns.

When did you first encounter this most majestic of footwear?

I first laid eyes on the huarache four years ago while on a business trip in New York. I met a shopkeeper in a clothing store who was wearing a pair he just picked up in Latin America and I was infatuated by the primal styling and concept. The strapping system details and hand woven elements just blew my mind.  

What are your thoughts on the Nike Huarache?

In no way is Malibu's modern huarache inspired by the classic Nike trainer, which is clearly more of a shoe than sandal. However, it's amazing to think Tinker was influenced by the classic Mexican sandal 25 years ago and it's still relevant today.

Although the main bit of your sandals look pretty traditional, they’ve got some fairly high-tech soles. Can you explain what’s going on here?

Because traditional huaraches either use rawhide leather or recycled tire outsoles, they tend to be really stiff and take months to break in. So it dawned on me to incorporate EVA rubber with a contoured foot-bed. The result was this hybrid concept that feels like a sneaker sandal and provides casual performance benefits. 

The soft cushioned EVA footbed of the Malibu sole mimics the natural contours of the foot, so it’s really comfortable right out of the box. We’re not trying to remedy any for foot ailments specifically, other than to simply provide the most comfortable user experience. The robust sole is well cushioned and the design lines seemed to fit perfectly with the aesthetic of the huarache upper.  

Maybe a bit of a stupid question... but how do people make sandals? It looks like there’s a fair bit of precision finger-work going on to make these things.

These are actually quite difficult to make. The process is labor intensive as the upper patterns have really intricate details and are all individually hand-made and crafted. The straps are cut and woven together as a single piece which is then strategically positioned between the footbed and the midsole.

It’s amazing how the pattern system function together to fit your foot to give the perfect open-toed freedom while providing balanced medial and lateral support.  

Your sandals are vegan-friendly, yet they look like they’re made out of leather. What are they made out of?

I thought it was important to mimic the traditional huarache rawhide material and developed a synthetic PU that resembles real leather. Even the lining has a soft sueded touch which most people believe is leather. Not using any animal by-products felt like the responsible thing to do for Malibu. We abide by our motto 'be kind to animals, don't wear them’.

Are you vegan yourself? What do you eat? Have you got any good recipes you’d like pass on?

Personally, I am not yet vegan, but it’s a work in progress. I do indulge in the savory buckwheat cakes from Anchor Avenue in LA that I pick up at the local Malibu Farmer's Market every Sunday.  

What are your thoughts on the elephant in the room... socks and sandals?

Great question. I am quite taken by this look. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest where this style has been worn year-round since the 60's and 70's.  The sock/sandal trend has been living on the fringe for decades, like it or not. 

You live in California. How many months of the year do you wear sandals?

I've been wearing sandals every day for the past two years now. In fact, the only other type of footwear I've worn recently have been baseball cleats for a pitching workout. I have to get in throwing shape for upcoming trip to Arizona for Major League Baseball Spring Training with the Chicago Cubs. Stoked!

What shoes/trainers do you wear if it’s too cold for sandals?

Actually, I was in NYC during the recent snow storm and was wearing wool socks and Malibu's in 28 inches of snow. I had to be careful where I stepped, but, I somehow pulled it off without any problems. These certainly aren't the ideal choice for wearing during inclement weather of course!

I’ve never been to California. What’s it like? What would you recommend doing if I was going there for a holiday?

I love living in southern California and the amazing weather we get spoiled with year-round. Our state is in a severe drought though, so I've been hoping this El Nino weather system brings us much needed rain. 

If you're planning a holiday here, I would hop in a convertible and head up Pacific Coast Highway and see where it takes you. I suggest cruising north from Malibu up Highway 1 into Big Sur, a personal favorite destination of mine about 5 hours north.

I hope you don't get car sick because the roads are treacherous and winding up there, but well worth exploring if you can handle the tedious driving.

Do you go to Mexico much? How does that differ from California?

I've spent some time in Mexico City over the years and look forward to upcoming adventure to Narajit, a village in Western Mexico where each year they celebrate La Judea festival by dressing up in tribal costume and wear huarache sandals. It’s a ceremony where they wear masks and dance around.

I am fascinated by the primal connection these sandals have in the Mexican culture and can't wait to witness first-hand this spring.

Sounds good. Okay, last question, outside of the sandal industry, what else do you get up to?

Living in Malibu, we're surrounded by the majestic beauty of the coastal Santa Monica Mountain range and of course, the mighty Pacific. I like to explore off the beaten path trails and recently hiked to nearby Corral Cave, which is a pretty special place. 

I am quite certain that before Jim Morrison frequented this cave back in the late 60's, the indigenous Chumash Indians, a native North American tribe, once called it home.

See the sandals here.

Portrait by Josh Rothery, sandal shots by Adam Hindmarch.