By Jim Simpson

Okabashi employees in the company’s factory in Buford, GA. (Photo courtesy of Okabashi)

Much has changed in Buford over the past 100 years, especially in the shoe business. The Tannery Row campus that today features the eponymous artist colony and ale house, along with office space, was originally home to the Bona Allen Shoe Factory. Built in 1919, the business became immediately successful by using scrap leather pieces from other divisions of the tanner to make and sell their footwear. By 1921 there were 521,000 pairs of shoes produced and sold from the building.

After a contentious labor strike, Bona Allen closed the operation, but six months later the U.S. Army re-opened the plant to repair troops’ shoes and boots. By 1943, 1.5 million pairs of shoes had been rebuilt there, and 700 civilian employees churned out 6,000 pairs of shoes per day during World War II. The business closed shortly after the war.

Sara Irvani and her father Bahman Irvani, founder of Okabashi Brand shoes. (Photo courtesy of Okabashi)

After a nearly 40-year break, shoes were once again being cobbled together in Buford thanks to an Iranian immigrant named Bahman Irvani. Since 1984, he and his family have owned and operated a shoe business named Okabashi based in Buford, specializing in eco-friendly flip-flops and sandals inspired by Japanese concepts of reflexology and design.

Bahman, the son of a successful shoemaker running 60 multi-national factories across the Middle East at the time, had just begun working full-time for his father. Shortly thereafter, the 1979 Iranian Revolution occurred and the new regime nationalized the family’s footwear company, wiping them out. The family arrived in the United States in 1981 to begin their American dream.

“We lost 99 % of what we had,” Bahman said. “We cried for about a year and then decided either we spend the rest of our lives looking back or looking forward. We decided let’s move forward.”

In 2017, Bahman’s daughter Sara became CEO of Okabashi, which is a Japanese word that, according to Sara, has no specific meaning but is associated with wellness.

“The theme for Earth Day this year is: End Plastic Pollution,” Sara posted on the company’s website in 2018. “The thought of well-loved flip flops and sandals ending up in a landfill or in a floating plastic island in the ocean breaks our hearts. Every Okabashi shoe is recyclable and eco-friendly. We are proud to do our part in reducing plastic pollution with our closed-loop recycling process.”

Located in a 100,000-square-foot facility surrounded by trees north of Thompson Mill Rd. just off Buford Hwy., Okabashi has sold over 35,000 pairs of shoes, all made in the United States. With more than 99% of American-worn footwear made abroad, Sara is proud to continue her father’s dream of making the 1% in this country.

Regarding the company’s low carbon footprint, Sara said, “Our sandals on average contain 20-percent  recyclable materials. We regrind the materials in our factory without any water or chemicals, remold and reuse the materials to create new shoes.

“We have a circular program. We recycle pure scraps at our manufacturing facility and when a customer sends back to us their worn shoes, they receive a 15-percent discount off their next pair.”

Okabashi partners with local vendors where possible, and works closely with the Two Ten Foundation and Souls for Soles, and has donated over 100,000 pairs of shoes to natural disaster victims, veterans, and more.

Since the company’s inception, sustainability has been a key component and one that Sara vigorously adheres to.”Sustainability to us, what it’s meant, has evolved. It’s been about being Made in the USA with a carbon footprint and as a family run business, it’s also been about the values of not creating waste even before sustainability was a topic.”

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