It is often said that when it comes to dressing to go out, Singaporeans place comfort above all else. Are we really so comfortable with a nation of flip-flop wearers?
One thing we can say with certainty about flip-flops in Singapore is that they are not a flop! Just one shoe style is enough to serve a whole nation’s footwear needs, whether it’s for a ballroom bash or the stage during a presentation on data science. Its ubiquity even prompted The Straits Times to call it a “National Shoe”. That’s rather impressive for a slip-on that’s barely there.
It’s hard to say when they became a serve-all-occasion near-obsession. The flip-flops, or slippers as we call them, have become the footwear of choice even when we are not going to 7-Eleven to buy bread or meet the MP in the void deck, or the pool to watch over the kids while they receive training to be the next Joseph Schooling. It is as if we were born with them on.
As far as everyone we spoke to was aware, including department store shoe buyers, we have been wearing flip-flops or some version—sandal, if you will—for as long as we were once a fishing village, even before Parameswara, the last Sultan of Singapura and, if you wish to go further afield, the founder of Melaka. Sure, most of the people of that time probably went about barefooted, but the difference then and now is a piece of rubber in the shape of your feet sole-side. We are no longer a largely coastal community, but we are still shod as if we spend a lot of time on board a sampan. It’s tempting to call this a love of the retro, but we wouldn’t go that far.
In a crowd, even if they don’t know each other, they’re united by their flip-flops
The weather is constantly blamed for our footwear of choice. Hot! Terok! Buay tahan! Proponents tell us that slippers are, therefore, ideal since they do not encase the feet, which means there isn’t a portable sauna attached to them. Without a hot and moist environment, we’re not going to be breeding fungi more than we’re breeding children. Since tinea pedis, for many people, is named after Hong Kong (which in the SAR is considered a “slang”) rather than connected to athletes, many are hopeful that we would not contract a variant that may need to be called Singapore’s Foot some day, which could propel our island towards an apocalyptic end.
People wore sarongs in the old days, too. A cloth wrapped round the lower half of the body is, as some kampong folk will vouch, heat-friendly as well, but those covers are not today exactly the go-to pants/skirt alternative no matter how much the sun is in love with our island. But, conversely, we have kept to the exposed feet of yore, even in the relative comfort of what Lee Kuan Yew called “a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history”—air-conditioning.
What we know as Tat Sing slippers (left) is now sold as ‘adimax’
While flip-flops have been very much a part of our footwear choices in the past, it was not until the slow invasion of Sao Paulo-based Havaianas here in 2003 that slippers were seen as fashionable. Sure, when they first started to catch on, the less-informed balked at purchasing slippers for more that S$20 a pair. After all, they look similar to those worn to kopi tiams that cost a lot less than a McDonald’s Value Meal (now half, priced at S$2.50). However, those familiar rubber slippers with their blue straps, white tops, and black underside—thought to be local, but is produced in the Malaysian Peninsular by Tat Sing Plastic Industry (and now mysteriously sold as ‘adimax’*)—are not what you’d be seen in anywhere near Orchard Road.
Called chinelos in Brazil, Havaianas was founded in 1962 and was named after the Portuguese feminine noun for Hawaiian. Although it became wildly popular in its native Brazil (and enjoyed some success in the US in the ’70s), it only became a global sensation post-2000. Not long after its Singapore debut, Havaianas took off, surprising many shoe-business owners and watchers. These were clearly not the flip-flops we used to wear; these were immediately seen as different and, crucially, cool.
In the annals of brand successes in Singapore, one stood out—NewUrbanMale, even if only for the introduction of Havaianas to the populace. NewUrbanMale was started by three enterprising friends, Chua Shenzi, James Kwek, and Calvin Soh. They had wanted to cash in on the craze for fitted tees and tank tops that gym-buffed guys were seriously into, in and out of the gym—particularly out. Instead, they elevated the status of the humble slipper to something wearers considered a fashion statement. Their success with Havaianas took the owners by surprise and quickly launched NewUrbanMale to multiple-store prominence.
Havaianas slippers, without a free-standing store, are mostly available in department stores
NewUrbanMale’s first store in 2003 was situated in Orchard Road, in The Heeren, when the mall had HMV as the anchor tenant (not Robinsons as it now is), a three-story music haven before digital everything hit the delete key on them. NUM, as they soon referred to themselves, made it perfectly acceptable to wear flip-flops in the relative swankiness of the most visited shopping stretch on our island at that time when the owners styled themselves as walking billboards for the Havaianas, as well as the ringer-style tank tops that they sold.
Led by the media-friendly spokesperson Mr Chua, NUM staff—mostly muscular, fair-skinned, youth-blessed men—were kitted as if they were off to a game of beach volleyball. Everyday. This sun-and-sea vibe especially appealed to gay men, for whom insouciant casualness topped by overt sportiness was the height of sexiness. The NUM store was known as the “community centre for cute boys”. Even straight guys wanted in on “how good” these muscled men looked.
The rising popularity of Havaianas, too, coincided with the burgeoning dance music festival ZoukOut, an annual rave that put SG on the dance circuit map since 2000. Held at Sentosa’s usually sterile Siloso Beach, ZoukOut was, in part, the perfect excuse to put on footwear that would not do battle with the sand on the seashore. The slippers were sported on almost every male party goer’s feet. That, and the queer crowd’s “party tanks” that NUM were also known for. From city pavement to sandy beach and back again, flip-flops’ growing ubiquity meant that they were on track to conspire with the weather to be our nation’s preferred footwear of any place, any time.
The unmistakable Havaiana slippers, now commonly seen at the front door
NUM soon became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. Towards the end of the 00s, people were num to the “clonish” offerings of the store. Tight-fitted clothes, by the middle of that century, had lost its initial look-at-my-gym-bod appeal. In 2007, NewUrbanMale lost the distributorship of Havaianas to the Philippines group Terry S.A. Five years later, NUM was no longer seen, except online and through the e-tailer The Jock Shop. The company is now headquartered in Taipei—“their first love”, according to people who know the owners, and a city with a more vibrant “party” scene.
But the popularity of Havaianas did not decline as the new distributor (operating under Moda Pacifica Pte Ltd in SG) continued to ensure that the demand for the Brazilian flip-flops did not wane. Still, it was hard to keep popularity at the top of the food chain, and Havaianas lost its good-enough-for-Orchard-Road shine. Smart-looking slippers were reaching all corners of our island. Who would have thought that in image-conscious, affluent Singapore, flip-flops would be this widely loved? By 2010, our appetite for them contributed to the reported 150 million pairs of Havaianas produced. According to the Financial Times, flip-flops have now become a £4-billion (about S$7 billion) global business.
Despite its increasing visibility in unexpected places, such as hotel restaurants, and those that are to be expected, such as lecture theatres of tertiary institutions, flip-flops were mostly adopted by men. Women, after all, have all manner of sandals and skimpy heels to choose from. While fashion had started to introduce to the world the shouldn’t-be-attractive Birkenstocks, including those with top straps of T-shape, rather than the common Y-shape, it would take the even uglier and flashier Fitflop to change women’s attitude towards slippers.