Los Angeles, California
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Leather sandals
President Kfir Matalon is bringing people together through stylish, artisan-made sandals that break political and fashion barriers.
An Israel native, Matalon had never given sandals a second thought; they were already ingrained as part of the Middle Eastern culture. "I traveled to the U.S., where I eventually met my wife, Angela," says Matalon. "She later became the spark that started the company. When I took her to visit Israel in 2008 she became fascinated with the sandals. Her friends and other people she met asked her where she got the sandals, and unfortunately they were only available in Israel at the time."
Matalon was working in the construction business after the financial crisis in 2008. Business was slow, so he would make extra money by importing small orders of sandals when he went back to visit family in Israel. "My wife thought it would be great to make these in the U.S.," says Matalon. "But I didn't know anything about how to start a company, let alone manufacture sandals. We began in 2010 by bringing them back from Israel and selling them from a small stand on Venice Beach. The first Sunday we opened the stand, we sold 17 pairs."
As orders started pouring in from consumers and small shops, Matalon knew he had to find a manufacturing partner. Matalon's father connected him with one in the West Bank city of Hebron in Palestine. "It was a third-generation, family-owned factory," says Matalon. "We connected and had a good relationship, putting aside any of the conflicts Israelis and Palestinians have had for centuries. This is why we came up with the name for the sandals, Jerusalem. The word 'jeru' means teaching, and 'salem' means peace. We began not only making sandals but also making friendships with an amazing Palestinian family that continues to work with us and be our friends to this day."
The sandals come in a variety of styles, but all are made with traditional craftsmanship. "We did a lot of research on how old styles used to look like and started using a combination of traditional and modern construction," says Matalon. "The sandals are made to last long and utilize only natural leathers and vegetable stains. This keeps the quality high and allows the leather to absorb moisture and conform to the shape of your feet."
While Jerusalem Sandals is based in L.A.'s Van Nuys neighborhood, the sandals are manufactured exclusively in Hebron with locally sourced materials. Matalon had to alter the type of leather for U.S. consumers. "The local market has a very different perspective on shoes than in the Middle East," says Matalon. "In Israel, leathers are tough but people know this and are immune to any minor visible defects due to the tough materials. In the U.S. consumers want perfection, but rather than moving towards processed leather that looks good and is easier to manufacture, we opted to use natural leathers from local suppliers and local tanneries to process them. This changed the manufacturing process slightly, but it makes them visibly better to meet the U.S. market demands."
Matalon says that each pair of sandals is touched by up to 12 workers, but some parts of the process are done with machinery, such as the cutting of the sole and outer sandal form. "In one shift, however, we can make 700 to 1,000 pairs daily," says Matalon. "And we still retain the original traditional look and quality."
Manufacturing overseas maintains the quality and traditional aspect of Jerusalem Sandal's products, which are becoming more popular as the fashion trend picks up. "Our sandals sell for under $80, making them very competitive in the market," says Matalon. "There is a free trade agreement between Israel and Palestine, without any U.S. duties to pay so we don't pass anything on to the customer."
Now sold by such retailers as Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters, and Zappos, Jerusalem Sandals has seen great success and garnered media attention that Matalon says will help the company push forward.
Challenges: "We need to find and hire more employees to spread the workload," says Matalon. "I want to start adding technology to connect to wholesalers, add e-commerce, and be able to log into the system. While we want to be as automated as possible, we still want to focus more on the artisan part of it, too."
Opportunities: Expanding the catalog and distribution. "The demand for our regular line of sandals is so strong, we have to wait to try to expand to different products," says Matalon. "Once we get a handle on this, we can expand to different countries and add to our collection. The sandals push themselves, and we're just trying to stay on top of it now, but the future looks bright."
Needs: "We need to improve our marketing and provide more education on the product and branding," says Matalon. "Until now, it was word of mouth and we're launching our new website shortly to tell our story better."