Dear Shaded Viewers,
While doing some research on an article for Modern Weekly I contacted Mats Rombaut to talk about his views on sustainability and how he came around to creating his brand.
DP: Can you tell me how you develop plant-based materials and how and when you got into doing so?
MR: I started about 7 years ago. I wanted to make all-natural and biodegradable shoes that were still looking good.
This came automatically out of the desire to make sustainable shoes cool. I did a lot of research both online and offline and came across a tree bark material from Uganda. It’s called bark cloth and is used for ceremonial clothing. The resistance to abrasion and pilling wasn’t that great so I coated it with a natural latex, mixed with natural pigments. It was a very long process which took a lot of my time. Now specialised suppliers develop the materials, and sometimes I get to be the first brand to use them.
DP: How do the sustainably engineered materials react to footwear as they need to be very durable?
MR: There are two main categories: the natural fibres such as cotton, hemp, flax which are woven into canvases. They are sometimes coated for a longer durability. The benefit is they are natural and most of the time have a fast biodegradability.
On the other hand there are the man-made synthetics such as polyurethane-based pleather aka ‘fake leather’. These look very real nowadays and you have them in a variety of qualities and colors. They’re as durable as real leather or even more durable.
Some companies are also working with recycled fibers, which is great. They are very well informed about the need of the fashion industry and make sure the materials they develop are tested and adapted for specific product categories. It’s true that there are more options for apparel than for shoes, but overall the offer has been growing in the past years!
DP: Do they breathe?
MR: Natural fibers do, but then you have to pay attention to the kind of glue that is used because that might close off the breathable surface. Some PU-based linings and upper materials are also breathable, but they seem harder to find. Again here there’s a lot of progress that has been made.
DP: Can you explain the process when you work out of materials like stone, tree bark, natural rubber, cotton cellulose and coconut fibre?
MR: Each material has its own properties and can’t be used just anywhere. A shoe is quite complex and is in constant movement. Some parts flex more than others. Therefore the stone material – which is a thin layer of stone fused on a cotton backing – can only be used on parts that don’t bend too much. It can also be used on heels.
A few seasons ago I bought cotton cellulose for the insoles, it feels a bit paper-like. Also coconut fiber mixed with rubber is good for insoles.
In most of my outsoles , a big percentage of the rubber is natural. If it’s 100% natural it becomes a bit more tricky and less stable.
I love to do Summer collections because then I can use more breathable natural materials. They don’t need to be as water-resistant as the Winter ones.
DP: Your background is working in menswear accessories for brands like Lanvin and Damir Doma, for sure they did not share the same vision about working with non toxic and no animal derived substances.
MR: Definitely not, it was quite the opposite. At Lanvin they used only leather, a lot of exotic skins and even astrakhan fur: the unborn lamb ripped out of a mother’s belly. Also at Damir Doma – as in many houses at the time – using animal skins and fur was considered luxurious. I worked in the accessories department and was also responsible for all the leather and fur garments. I was already vegetarian and it really felt wrong, I didn’t want to make nice products that created a desire to kill even more animals! After 3 years I felt confident enough to step out of this system and start my own brand.
DP: Can you tell me how you went from there to developing your first solo project was it 5-6 years ago? 7 years ago 😉
MR: I had so much energy and drive and I really wanted to make a difference. I felt that after 3 years I had learned enough to know more about what to do and what not do as a fashion brand. I really couldn’t justify it to myself anymore –wasting time on something I didn’t believe in. I had saved up a tiny bit of money over these 3 years, quit my job in July, made a deal with an Italian factory and in January I presented my first collection out of the small apartment of a friend in Paris. I only had 6 months to get it all together so it was really intense; I was working day and night.
DP: How do your customers re-act to your philosophy on materials as well as your designs?
MR: I think it started out with a lot of people knowing about the concept and philosophy because you could really see it in the product and we also talked about it. Then there came a period where I think most of the customers didn’t know. The shoes became more wearable and part of a general trend. I started using synthetic materials which gave the brand a new life, a more modern aesthetic. Recently I’ve been more direct with the communication and I want everyone to know they’re vegan. I even did a slide in the shape and color of a salad, because I wanted to do something more fun. Also the salad slipper is a great way to communicate on social media, where people are looking for fun and no one seems to be reading. I’m getting various reactions: some people are horrified by the designs, others love it. I’m pretty happy with that.
DP: Do you plan on developing other accessories like bags?
MR: I would love to, but first I want to build the shoes further. I’m doing caps, socks and t-shirts at the moment, but bags are a bigger thing. If I do something I want to do it properly. I’m just waiting for the right moment.
DP: You grew up in Belgium, what was your relationship with nature and animals?
MR: I grew up in the countryside next to Ghent. It was a very long street with five farms on it and only a few houses. The farmers had cows, sheep, horses.. The whole street smelled like a farm. Honestly I wasn’t a big fan of nature, I preferred sitting behind the computer or the piano. I hated bugs and had arachnophobia (not great as there were plenty of spiders everywhere all the time). We had a dog who I loved and sometimes chickens or other pets. But we saw animals as food and I never really questioned that. There was a big difference between a dog and a cow, or a cat and a pig, because that’s what you’re taught. Vegans were seen as extremists and weird. My relationship with animals only changed when I started watching documentaries online. Also when realising that pigs, cows, etc. are much more intelligent than we thought and they feel pain, emotions.
DP: What are your thoughts on the state of fashion right now and the urgency to have an impact on where things will go for the future.
MR: I’m quite sad it took so long for people to pay attention and now they finally are. When the ocean & beaches are full of plastic. I don’t understand why humanity can’t collectively foresee these things and already do something about it, instead of waiting until it’s too late. There is an incredible urgency, and I feel the fashion industry is way too late and too slow. Luckily I think there is a demand of people that are not following fashion so much, but do want to contribute to a more healthy environment. Who really care about the future of their children or the future of humanity as a whole.
I learned that fashion remains a way to escape reality and that the customer wants to have fun. So I try to serve a dose of reality disguised as fashion, something of a Trojan horse.
DP: Thank you for taking the time to answer.