After three tours in Afghanistan as a Ranger, the birth of his first daughter, and a stint in Iraq, Matthew "Griff" Griffin was ready to take a break from the U.S. Army. He took a job with Remote Medical International and returned to Afghanistan in 2009, where he helped improve the combat medical training programs for Afghanistan's armed forces. Just across the Jalalabad road from where he was stationed sat brand-new factories engaged to outfit the Afghanis under the direction of John Boyer, a former Marine captain. Boyer allowed Griff to tour his factories and, when the former Ranger saw a combat boot sole with a flip-flop thong nailed onto it, Boyer said he didn’t mind if Griff tried to replicate the product.
"I said 'John, do you mind if I run with this?' " recalls Griff. "He said, 'Yeah, go ahead.' And that was the extent of the conversation."
With the help of designer Andy Sewrey, CFF began to dream up footwear in 2011, with the intention of producing the flip-flops in Boyer's factory in Afghanistan. Griff and his team scraped together whatever money they could – selling their motorcycles in order to buy raw materials from China. When the first batch of product was ready, the team flew to review the sandals on-site. They were escorted to the back of a warehouse by a guard toting an automatic rifle, who pointed to a pile of opium bags. Inside the bags: defective sandals.
"I felt like someone had shot my dog," Griff says. He and his cofounders briefly used a different factory in Afghanistan, but, after not being able to order enough shoes to make a partnership viable for its owners, had to return to Seattle. Back in America, they googled "how to make flip-flops" and set up a factory in Griff's 600-square-foot garage. It was all the space they needed, and they decided to produce Combat Flip Flops using a water-based adhesive.
"We started shipping the product and put them on our feet," says Griff, who has had to return exactly five of the more than 2,200 pairs he's sold.
Each flip-flop model attempts to capture the complexity of Afghan life – the combat boot-style traction on each leaves tessellated images of poppies in the sand. The supple leather of the AK-47 is yellow and brown, adorned with three cast bullet primers on the thong. The patent-leather Tuk Tuk symbolizes the pride Afghans take in their three-wheeled people carriers, and the Poseidon, representing the Naval Special Warfare Unit, is detailed with a wave, some sand, and a trident.
This footwear is the comfortable, soft product of uncomfortable lessons learned in a hard place. Nonetheless, Combat Flip Flops will launch an Indiegogo campaign this September, aimed at assembling another micro-manufacturing facility in a shipping container to be sent to Afghanistan for further production. These sandals, and the men who created them, just don't quit. [$49; combatflipflops.com]