Local brand, international appeal
Gurkee's offerings include sandals, belts
About 16 years ago, Ray Sickles’ wife came home one day wearing a pair of Gurkee’s rope sandals.
Soon, her co-workers were asking where she got them. And Sickles, a lifelong entrepreneur, had a business idea.
“We decided to start selling them and put up a little web page ... and found out it was an incredible market,” Sickles said. “We started selling Gurkee’s like crazy.”
Sickles asked then-owner Bryan Pease, of Tulsa, Okla., if he would be willing to sell the company — and he eventually did, in late 2009.
Since then, Sickles has moved production to Morgantown, expanded to more international markets and boosted brand awareness in the U.S. Gurkee’s has also added to its product line, which now includes belts, bracelets and dog leashes.
The rope used to create Gurkee’s products is made of thin, soft yarn shipped to Morgantown from North Carolina. The rope — made in a rainbow of solid and blended colors — is then cut and molded by hand to create the soles, sides and straps for each pair of sandals.
Gurkee’s sandals cost $39 for a solid-colored pair and $49 for a multi-colored pair — quite a deal, Sickles said.
“This product is way underpriced for the amount of labor and effort and skill that goes into making a pair of these sandals,” Sickles said. “The purchaser is really getting a true value.”
Gurkee’s products are primarily sold online and in “mom and pop shops,” Sickles said. But he’s negotiating with large chains that will make them available in shopping malls.
“Hopefully they’ll be out right here in the Morgantown Mall,” Sickles said.
Wholesale customer Linda Drees purchases Gurkee’s to sell in the Amarillo College Bookstore in Amarillo, Texas.
“They’ve been a popular item with our students,” Drees said. “They call them ‘Jesus shoes.’ [Gurkee’s] have a very good price point. ... We just can’t keep them in stock.”
Gurkee’s sandals were developed in 1984 by the two men who started the company — Tom Murray and Ike Grenz — reportedly at a hippie commune, Sickles said. He still describes Gurkee’s as “hippie sandals,” but they have become uniquely fashionable in recent years.
Gurkee’s sandals have been featured in various fashion shows and will appear in upcoming editions of Interview and Cosmopolitan magazines.
Greg Burkman, a fashion designer for Burkman Bros., said he was introduced to Gurkee’s by his mother.
“We ended up collaborating our menswear brand with them, which fit the aesthetic perfectly,” Burkman said in an email. “We love that they're made here in USA and are American-based. We also love the materials they use, which makes for a very comfortable shoe.”
Gurkee’s also offers excellent customer service. John Tenace, of Redondo Beach, Calif., ordered a pair of rope sandals for his girlfriend at Christmastime, but the style he wanted was out of stock.
He said Sickles responded by having a pair made and shipped the same day.
“He gave me 100 percent help. He did an excellent job,” Tenace said. “It’s just an excellent company. They do really good work for me.”