Saturday, April 28, 2007

Brandon Huber loves sandals. He owns eight pairs and has tried to wear them, among other places, to his wedding (his fiancee nixed that) and to work (his boss nixed that).

The wireless company executive from Toledo, Ohio, did, however, wear them just about everywhere else last winter.

“I wear sandals as much as possible, even in the snow,” he says.

Most men, of course, wear theirs in the summer, at places like the pool and the beach. But you probably can expect to see a lot more hairy toes at other venues this season, in both sporty and dressy models, as the man sandal — or mandal, as some insist on calling it — continues to grow in popularity.

Sales of men’s sandals jumped nearly 11 percent from February 2005 to January 2006 and another 13.4 percent from February last year through this January, according to data compiled by the NPD Group Inc., a market research company in Port Washington, N.Y. (There’s still a lot of room to grow, too. At about $1.5 billion in sales a year, the men’s sandal market is a fraction of the $6.2 billion women’s market.)

Seeing an opportunity, the latest companies to get into the game are those whose footwear is normally associated with winter: boot makers.

“The perception of a men in sandals is changing,” says Genevieve Ascencio, a spokeswoman for Frye, maker of macho Western wear. “It’s not your typical ‘guy in black socks on the beach’ look. It’s a lot cooler now, and people who have a lot of street cred are validating the trend.”

She cited Grammy-winner Jay-Z, who raised eyebrows among hip-hoppers last year when he was spotted wearing flip-flops while strolling the beach with Beyonce.

“If it’s good enough for Jay-Z, it’s good enough for every man,” Miss Ascencio says.

Frye tested the market with men’s sandals last season, Miss Ascencio says, and the boot maker will roll out its first line of sandals, with names like Lance Fisherman and Lance Thong, this spring.

Timberland got on board a few years ago and sells the Toraja Thong and the Holston Slide. Ugg Australia is in its second year in the men’s sandal business, with a line featuring names like Slingshot, Tasmania and Grover. Most are lined with sheepskin, just like Timberland’s boots.

The newcomers to the market aren’t rattling longtime men’s sandal makers like Birkenstock, Kenneth Cole and Teva, who were making sandals when it wasn’t considered cool.

“We welcome the competition,” jokes Jamie Eschette, spokeswoman for Teva, the California-based sports sandal company that has been selling men’s sandals since the early ‘80s. Teva’s shoes tend to be more athletic, with rubber soles and adjustable fabric strapping systems.

Adds Greg Tarbell, vice president for Kenneth Cole and Reaction Men’s Footwear: “Our sandals are certainly more aesthetically pleasing and driven toward how it works with the overall fashion look. Other brands are more technical or sport-oriented.”

Men’s sandals remain, in a weird way, controversial, eliciting strong feelings on one side or the other.

“Men generally have gnarly feet, and mandals are just a little too pretty-boy for me,” says Kimberly Kassnove, a 27-year-old educational consultant from Brooklyn, N.Y. “If you are going to invest in a pair of mandals, make sure you get a pedicure, and that your big toe is not yellow and crumbling.”

Her husband, Peter, has less of a problem with them.

Melanie Asp Alvarez, a 31-year-old freelance news producer and faculty associate at Arizona State University, is not much more forgiving.

“So long as a man has presentable feet, sandals are just fine. But if you men have feet like a hobbit, cover them up.”

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