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Whatever crap one might typically encounter at the beach—bottles, cigarettes, Courtney Love—Jay "Sparky" Longley, president and founder of Rainbow Sandals, swears you'll never find a pair of old Rainbow flip-flops. "They'd be stolen and worn!" he says.
In 1974, after seeing countless broken sandals littering beaches around the world, Sparky set out to create sandals that would last longer than six months. Using leather, Malaysian rubber and specially formulated glue, he assembled 10 pairs per day in his garage on Laguna Canyon Road. His friend, a parking attendant at Laguna Beach's annual Sawdust Festival, sold Sparky's product to patrons in the lot. When Rainbow sandals caught on like crack, Sparky could no longer peddle in the Festival's parking lot. He relocated to San Clemente, where his company employs 60 people and manufactures 1,200 pairs of sandals per day.
Despite the growth, the construction of Rainbow flip-flops goes on as it always has. Triple coats of glue hold together multiple layers of rubber and leather. A 2,000-pound test nylon webbing prevents the straps from stretching, and the toe piece is sewed in with life-support parachute stitching. The result: a pair of Rainbows that molds comfortably to your feet, without going flat or breaking.
A friend who just returned from prep school in Massachusetts says Rainbows were the rage. "I was there for two of the worst winters on record," he says. "And one of my clearest memories remains kids wearing school ties, blazers, khakis and Rainbows in the snow."
Orange Countian Jamie Rodriguez picked hers up at Nordstrom years ago. "When I went to school in New York, everyone was wearing Reefs," she says, "but by the time I left, Rainbows had taken over."
Reef is among a hundred companies that have offered to buy out Sparky's company. But Sparky isn't ready to sell. Making sandals is his life's calling. At 60, he still flies planes, snowboards and catches waves in Sumatra. When he's not traveling, he's walking around his factory, dressed in shorts and a tank top, willing to help with the most basic tasks, proud to proclaim that he and his crew are part of the "1 percent"—artisans who apply themselves totally to their craft.
"I'm just a guy who comes to work every day, doing nothing special," he said.
While Rainbow sandals originally flourished among local surfers, they are now sold throughout America and several other countries, including Japan and Australia. But while polo-shirted Cape Cod prepsters, Japanese geishas and aboriginal tribesmen Down Under might share a common taste in flip-flops, Rainbow sandals are most visible here at home. They're the sandals of choice for many lifeguards along the California coast. Those familiar with the brand constantly spot the tiny, multicolored Rainbow tags on sandaled feet at beaches, grocery stores, gas stations and just about anywhere else.
Given the company's minimal advertising (it runs ads only in The Surfers Journal, Longboard Magazine and a handful of European surf magazines), its worldwide popularity might seem inexplicable. But not to Sparky, who insists his customers are drawn to Rainbow Sandals' unique blend of style, simplicity, and durability: "People aren't stupid; people want the neat stuff."