Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.
For a brand that deliberately eschews all advertising and marketing (more on that later), French sustainable sneaker label Veja has certainly never been more du moment than it is in 2017, when 'green' is (for better or for worse) the new black. The brand, which launched in 2004, has proudly used exclusively fair trade, organic, raw materials since day one, and over the course of 13 years, has proved with its range of minimalist, wear-with-everything sneakers that style and sustainability are anything but mutually exclusive.
Co-founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion didn't grow up with a passion for fashion. Both have academic backgrounds in political science and economics and spent years traveling the world working with large corporations prior to launching their label. (Sneakerheads, they are not.) "We always liked to dress ourselves [well] and we liked fashion, but not in a 'fashion sense,'" says Kopp. "We liked military clothing and outdoor, mountain clothing. We liked things that were as useful as they were cool. That's always been our way of thinking." Read on for our interview, where Kopp shares the story behind Veja and how the brand found success by turning modern sneaker manufacturing on its head.
You and [co-founder] François have been friends for quite a long time. How did you two meet and what were your backgrounds like?
We met in high school and have been best friends since then. Like brothers. We both studied political science and economics at university and then worked as bankers before we decided to leave our jobs to create an NGO. We were 23 years [old] at the time, and we wanted to study the sustainable development projects of corporations around the world. We learned [firsthand] about education, environment, economic justice, and we were disappointed by what we saw; there was a difference between the speeches of the companies [and their manufacturing practices]. However, [our previous work experience] made us realize that 'Yes, this is what we want to do.' We knew we wanted to work directly with farmers, directly with the people that are out every day in the field.
Tell us about how you began putting your ideas into action. And how did you guys settle on sneakers?
We thought of many possible products, but the one that we were both really fond of was — and were a symbol of capitalism, fashion and coming from the sports field to the street — was the sneaker. A sneaker crystallizes a lot of costs of production and a lot of costs of advertising into its cost of production. We thought, if we don't do advertising... we can produce a sneaker that could respect the people behind it and the environment — and sell it at the same price [as the bigger brands]. That's really the DNA of Veja.
The sneaker industry is a pretty crowded scene, to say the least. What makes your approach different from everyone else?
We decided to reinvent a product that was very common, but to deconstruct it and reconstruct it again, but making a positive environmental and social impact at every step of the way. Do we start with the sneaker factory? No — you start with the raw materials. We go further, way up where it all starts. When we wanted to do a canvas sneaker, we asked, 'What is canvas?' Canvas is made from cotton, and where does cotton come from? It's a plant that occupies 2 percent of the cultivated land on Earth, but uses 28 percent of the pesticides used on Earth — so it's worth using organic cotton. We found a co-op that does the threads and another co-op that does the weaving. Then, we send the canvas to a shoe factory in southern Brazil where the rights of the workers are much higher than what exists in Asia.
Once you got started, how did you start to get the word out about Veja?
It was a no-marketing thing. But when we were talking about the project, a lot of people — bloggers, journalists — took to this idea and talked about it. That's kind of how we found the marketing of Veja: by not doing marketing. When we innovate on a social and ecological basis, people are excited to talk about the brand. That's our way to communicate; not to do events or make stories, but to create new ecological raw materials and design new models, but not as many as the big brands. I mean, we get bored, like everybody else! We launch no more than one or two new models per year because we want it to be perfect. We spend a lot of time on the product and design, but also a lot of time on the economic chain behind the product.
You've used some unconventional materials like tilapia and silk, but also employ classic skins like amazing leather and suede, in addition to vegan shoes. Tell us about your design philosophy and how you approach creating new styles — where does it all begin?
We don't have a pattern, we really don't. I just design the shoes I want to wear. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. We don't have pride or ego. We let the market decide that. But the consistency in the design is that we make simple, minimalist design. That's what we love. It's something that can be worn from people in fashion, but could also be worn by someone who might not care about fashion. For me, a good design is a design that lasts. That you don't get bored of. And that's, for me, really the best statement for design. Something that lasts, that you still love years later. I saw a quote by Agnès B where she said, 'I don't like fashion, I like people in clothes,' and that's something we share.
Tell us about the process of creating your first design.
We started with no money, and we wanted to just try. We didn't know if it was possible [to succeed]. We had to convince the producers and factories because they thought we were crazy, young, and didn't know what we were doing. But we convinced them, and we made samples of our first sneaker, the Veja Volley, and returned to Paris to show them at a trade show. The first day, we got a lot of big, well-known shops and concept stores. In our first season, we sold to Le Bon Marché, sold to three of the best sneaker stores in Paris, and sold in Belgium and a lot of Japanese stores that were interested in us. We had maybe 50 clients from around the world.
How does it feel to have celebrities and the fashion industry respond to the brand?
It was very natural. We didn't go after it or chase them. They came to us and have been very supportive without any money or contracts or anything. People like Marion Cotillard and Emma Watson have been amazing to us and support the project.
As the brand has grown over the past decade, what would you say you're most proud of?
I think the achievement we're the most proud of is that we're all completely different, and today, we're 50 people. That amazes me every day. Our team is incredible, and we're also proud that we've worked with the same partners since day one.
We want to grow organically, naturally. We want to grow with quality and improvement, rather than grow crazy. We've turned down many offers, many people asking to be a partner or invest in the brand because our independence is very important for us. That's why we created Centre Commercial, a concept store in Paris, six years ago to gather all the best brands that are transparent in terms of production.