Tragedy and a festival hangover took brothers from tiny flat to kings of fashion

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Rob and Paul Forkan’s live fell apart on Boxing Day 2004 when both their parents were killed in the devastating tsunami.

The brothers, along with their younger siblings, Rosie and Matt, had spent the previous four years travelling the world with their mum and dad, Kevin and Sandra.

The devoted parents had worked hard on their social enterprise business but this meant they had little time to spend with their young family.

So, they decided to sell up and take their six children on the trip of a lifetime.

Initially, the Forkans were only planning to be away for six months but as they travelled around India, this stretched into years.

Paul and Rob, pictured with their mum, Sandra, and their siblings, Rosie and Matt, while they were on their travels

Paul said: “We went to villages where they had never seen white people, we did a lot of volunteering, we went to the slums and played a lot of cricket.

“We would meet up with other travellers. It was a really great life journey.

“We got to eat in different restaurants and go to different beaches and nature reserves.”

But at the heart of everything the family was doing, Kevin and Sandra never lost sight of what was important.

The whole family would often spend time volunteering to help those less fortunate while they were on their amazing trip.

The family had spent four years travelling round India

Then, after four years, it was time for the family return to England and for Kevin and Sandra to set up a new business.

The Forkans spent an idyllic Christmas in Sri Lanka, surfing, chatting and laughing.

But the following morning their world would be ripped apart by the deadliest tsunami in recorded human history.

It devastated Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia and left 230,000 people dead.

Paul remembers the morning the tsunami struck with terrifying clarity.

He said: “The first thing I remember about that day is my brother, Rob, waking me up and I was telling him to leave me alone – I’m not a morning person.

Rex
Big brother Rob saved his younger brother’s life on that Boxing Day almost 15 years ago

“The water was coming in and he was going mental. We went to look out of the window and saw the waves.

“We stood on chairs and put our things on chairs to keep them dry.

“Then there was a much bigger wave and we just stood there, not realising what was going on or what was happening.

“Then the wave went out again, you could see there was no sea and it just felt really weird.

“You couldn’t hear birds sing and everything had gone silent. It was so quiet.

“And then the big one came storming in. It tore everything out of its way. It was like an oil tanker.

“My brother saved my life. He grabbed my arm and pulled me up and out of the way. I don’t know where he found the strength.

“It was ripping roof tiles off and there was a cable next to me, it was buzzing and if he had let go, I would have been electrocuted.”

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Rob and Paul have used their business to set up children’s centres around the world

Kevin and Sandra had been staying in the cottage in front of Rob and Paul’s with their two younger siblings.

Their final act was one of selfless sacrifice as they lifted Rosie and Matt to safety before they were killed.

After the siblings found each other, they made their way back to England and their sister’s home.

Paul admits he and Rob spent the first 12 months after their parents’ death in shock.

He finished school and was working when he realised he wanted to travel again and ended up in Australia.

Paul secured a job as a business development manager when he was still only 20 after his earlier tragedy and drive to succeed pushed him.

He explained: “I had a good job in Australia, I was working as a business development manager in Adelaide, New South Wales and Victoria.

“I didn’t get any GCSEs so I’ve always worked really hard. Both Rob and I have, we’re both pretty driven.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Paul says their biggest achievement is opening the children’s centres

“We didn’t really have a traditional formal education and there were times we felt like failures, so we’ve both always been really pumped up and determined to succeed through hard work.

“Put simply, we had to make whatever we did work. Most people can go back to their family but we didn’t have that safety blanket.

“We also had no safety net because of what happened to our parents. If we lost our jobs, we would have been left with nothing.”

As a surprise, big brother Rob visited Paul in Australia for his 21st birthday – and this is where Gandys was born.

Paul said: “Rob went to a festival and when he came back he had a really bad hangover and said his ‘mouth was as dry as Gandhi’s flip flop’.

“My little brother used to get called Gandhi when we were in India because he had glasses.

The brothers have opened their flagship store in Covent Garden

“We thought it would be funny and also something that was really personal to us.

“We used to live in flip flops when we were travelling and they’re a universal product that everyone can afford to help solve a universal problem.”

But this was always destined to be a fashion force with a difference.

All of Gandys products are made from sustainable or recyclable materials.

And the Forkan brothers donate 10 percent of all profits to building and running children’s centres around the world.

After ploughing money into a struggling centre in Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo, Rob and Paul opened their first dedicated centre in Sri Lanka on the 10th anniversary of the devastating tsunami.

Others have followed in Malawi and Nepal and a fourth is set to open in Brazil later this year.

Despite having a great job that he loved, Paul knew there was no way he would say no to his brother’s plan.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Paul jumped at the chance of joining his brother, Paul, in the venture

He said: “There was no way I could say no when he told me he wanted to build the brand.

“We always wanted to do something but we didn’t know what it would be.”

Paul returned to the UK straightaway and moved in with Paul and his flatmate into a tiny flat in Brixton, where he had to sleep on the sofa.

Rob kept his job while the brothers pulled together flip flop samples that Paul would work tirelessly to be stocked in shops and boutiques.

He said: “We were probably very naive but you have to believe you can make it.

“We were passionate about building our schools and that’s what was driving us – we didn’t mind putting in the hours to make it happen.

“Every day my brother would go to work and I’d be out with posters and fliers and samples, telling people about what we were selling, our story and what we were trying to do.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
The name of their business is, in part, inspired by their little brother, Matt

“There were weeks when we had no sales at all but on one day I went into three boutiques and they all said yes, that was when Rob gave up his job and we both focused on the business full-time.

“I used to walk into shops and they would chase me out.

“Our products were eco-friendly and this was a different time, people weren’t as aware of climate change as they are now.

It used to be seen as a bit ‘too hippy’ but now it’s a buzzword.

With no fashion experience and limited funds, Paul and Rob relied on a budget printer and have joked that the ink was more expensive than the machine.

Paul said: “But we had passion and a visions and people could see that.

“When I came home and told Rob about the three orders, he quit his job, which was a big and – at the time – terrifying – step.”

Selfridges were the first outlet to stock Gandys flip flops, mainly thanks to the brothers’ dogged determination.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
The Forkan family enjoying their travels

Paul said: “We kept knocking on their door and they kept sending us away but we wouldn’t give up.

“We asked what changes they needed us to make and then went away and did it.

“It really helped us because they would tell us what we needed to do.”

But their big break was their first collaboration with iconic brand, Liberty.

Paul said: “Ed Burstell, the chief executive gave us access to their archives and put our flip flops in the window.

“He liked what we were doing. We were young and he wanted to do what he could to help us.

“Liberty puts its fabric in the lining of jackets and not flip flops but if gave us real credibility in the fashion world.

“It was also really special to us because our mum loved the fabric.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Paul with some of the children the siblings hope to help

“She would make our shorts from Liberty fabric so we knew it was something she would like.”

Next came the moment the two brothers, who had battled so much to launch their brand and start investing in the cause they believed it, won a hugely respected V&A award.

The ceremony was on a rainy November night but always mavericks, Rob and Paul turned up in their trademark flip flops.

Paul said: “We won the V&A global fashion award and there were a lot of important people from the fashion world there, Victoria Beckham and other designers.

“We turned up in our flip flops and everyone looked at us like we were crazy.

“It was a freezing November night, raining and cold and everyone else was there in ballgowns and black tie.

“It felt great to walk up on the stage and collect the award.”

There is nowhere the brothers won’t wear their flip flops, including a visit to Number 10 Downing Street.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Paul and Rob even wore flip flops when they went to Number 10 to meet David Cameron

Paul said: “The police officer recognised us as the Gandy brothers and joked that the last person to turn up at Number 10 in flip flops was probably Gandhi himself.”

Huge retailers like House of Fraser were soon clamouring to sell the brothers’ flip flops, along with a host of other shops.

Then there was their second huge collaboration, this time with the Rolling Stones.

Paul said: “They were our dad’s favourite band. That was amazing. They are just so big.

“People travelled from Japan, Italy, all over the world to go to that exhibition in 2017.”

The next collaboration was with McClaren’s Formula One team.

Gandys branding was on the front of the cars after bosses realised the new HALO safety feature looked like a flip flop and they loved what the brothers were trying to achieve.

After the success of the flip slop collection, John Lewis asked Gandys to design some swim shorts.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
Paul chats to one of the children using the children’s centres they have set up

Paul said: “They flew off the shelves and sold better than the big brands.

“It was then that we realised we should look at other products and it just grew from there.

“We started off with organic towels, sunglasses, summer beach bags and it’s still growing.”

Then two years ago, Rob and Paul opened their flagship store in Covent Garden after holding a few pop up shops around London and the rest of the country.

Paul said: “We’d had a pop up shop in Cornwall and people liked talking to us and hearing about what we were doing.

“They started coming to our offices to chat, or buy a copy of the book so we thought it would be nice to have somewhere for people to go.

“We hold regular events there.”

And things certainly aren’t slowing down for the brothers, who just seven years ago were working from a tiny flat in Brixton.

Brothers Orphaned By Tsunami Set Up Flip-Flop Business To Help Children
The flip flops are made from sustainable and recycled materials

The business is booming and Rob and Paul have now taken on senior people from other organisations to help them grow the brand.

Paul said: “We aren’t going to be able to save the whole world but we wanted to do what we could.”

And with more support in running Gandys, Rob and Paul are now hunting for new children’s projects to set up.

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Mongolia and Vietnam are possibles but they want to hear from any charities looking for help and support.

Paul said: “Our parents instilled this in us. Mum and dad taught us that there’s more to life than working.

“Losing them in the tsunami also taught us that there’s more to life than material things – it’s about doing things and living in the moment.

“You have to live in the moment and enjoy life. You are on the planet for such a short space of time and as long as we leave the planet in a better place than when we turned up, we’ll be happy.”



 


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