For Ken Girouard, life is a bowl of cherries. Plastic ones, that is. At 32, the California entrepreneur is peddling the hottest bit of antihip ever to come from the kitsch-en: fruit-laden rubber thongs. A loopy blend of vintage tack (including plastic grapes, daisies and bikini-clad figures) and unabashed bad taste, the sandals are flip-flopping their way into footwear fad-dom faster than your Great Aunt Esther can say, “Who stole the centerpiece?”
Surprisingly, the lighthearted look began, in a sense, with a corporate merger—one that four years ago cost Connecticut-born Girouard his job producing commercials for New York City’s Ogilvy & Mather agency and sent him packing for the sunny solace of Venice Beach, Calif. There, he struggled to make ends meet, working as both a landscaper and bartender. So in 1987, while pondering a gift for a friend’s birthday, he thought novel—and cheap. “I had a big plastic banana and a lemon, and I just sewed them onto some thongs,” says Girouard, who lives alone. “I did it as a joke on those cheap ones you buy at a thrift store.” Word spread, requests streamed in (about three a week, at first) and within months the accidental entrepreneur had taken over a garden shack in a friend’s backyard, brought in a desk, plugged in a telephone and founded his own company, Two Left Feet (named in memory of his childhood clumsiness).
Today, at a production rate of about 12 dozen pairs a week—the embellished $2.50 thongs retail for about $40—Fruit Flops are garnering giggles in six countries, from the United States to Saudi Arabia. Soon, Girouard will even be able to sec his fancy footwork onscreen: The Dennis Hopper-Don Johnson movie Hot Spot, scheduled for release later this year, will feature a custom-made high-heeled version.
Still, don’t expect Girouard to go bananas over his newfound success. For starters, the popularity of silk and paper flowers and fruit makes the authentic (and waterproof) plastic decorations hard to find. Then there’s the question of labor. “I tried getting Girl Scouts to make the sandals,” he says. “What a horrible experience. They just wanted to go out and play.” The cost of his materials also keeps his profits relatively low: Last year, he grossed $30,000. Though he still tends bar to keep his flip business from flopping, Girouard, ever the adman, is not discouraged. “I created a need.” he boasts. “I mean, who needs these shoes? There was no need. Now there is.”