VEJA: when sneakers meet sustainability
In conversation with VEJA’s founder Sébastien Kopp
Sneakers have long made their way from functional gear to fashion accessory. Thanks to the rise of streetstyle they’ve even established themselves as formal attire to be worn at the office and sometimes even the opera (Though I’m somewhat convinced that a Member of the ‘Ugly Sneaker’-family will both receive raised eyebrows and approving nods there, depending what tribe the onlooker belongs to).
What had been missing is a sneaker that’s both fashionable and sustainable. The last decade saw the global sneaker brands dominating the market with good style but pretty much deaf to the notions of sustainability. German brand Adidas is doing a good job in cleaning up their act, but most big brands still lag behind. Not so French brand VEJA, that – in my opinion – is one of the most interesting brands to have popped up in the last years. Not only do they make proper sneakers, but they also focus on sustainability and recycled fabrics. Founded by Sébastien Kopp (SK) and François-Ghislain Morillion, they produce and source everything in Brazil. I spoke with Sébastien about Sneakers, sustainability and the story of their success.
FAP – What was your aim when you started VEJA thirteen years ago?
SK – François-Ghislain Morillion and I started VEJA when we were 25 years old. We had no experience at all in the fashion industry, everything was new to us. It was like an adventure, we just wanted to create a sneaker that would respect both the planet and the people. We decided to deconstruct a sneaker, asking ourselves what were all the raw materials in it. This was our innocent definition of sustainability : to know where everything is made, and to change it step by step. We wanted to create a canvas plimsoll, so the first question was: what is canvas? It is cotton, ok, but what is cotton ? How could it be better ? This is how we dove into the organic and fair trade cotton in Brazil, then we did the same for the sole of the sneaker and went into Amazonia in 2004 to meet the rubbertappers in the forest. This was the beginning of VEJA, to change every step of the production chain, from the raw materials to the stores.
FAP – How do you combine cool sneakers and sustainability?
SK – Since the beginning of VEJA, sustainability has been at the forefront of the brand. It is the push and drive that motivates us to find innovative alternatives. Design and sustainability go hand in hand and they give us the opportunity to create amazing designs. VEJA has one foot based on design, one foot based on transparency.
FAP – How do you deal with comfort and durability as your core issues?
SK – With Ghislain and employees of VEJA in Brazil, we constantly look for new raw materials, that could have a smaller impact on the planet, and a longer living cycle. We usually find two or three new raw materials each season, through trades, meetings and entrepreneurs who reach out to us directly. We still have a lot to do, for example our soles are not 100% made of natural raw materials, our laces are not organic, etc. Some big changes on the comfort have been made these past few months and we will continue to improve that. For instance, in October, we will launch a new model named Roraima, which is composed of a wool intern insole increasing the warmth of the shoe.
FAP – What have been the biggest challenges you had to deal with?
SK – In 2015 and 2016 we had to face a drought in the Nordest of Brazil where our cotton fields are located. The farmers didn’t harvest a kilo of cotton, and we had to find an alternative to deal with this shortage. We used recycled cotton to make our sneakers. As we are working through Fair-trade principles, we paid 50% of the price to the farmers because of the harvest, then we had to invest twice on this raw material during two years.
FAP – What has been the most meaningful achievement for VEJA so far?
SK – I think it is the VEJA team we are the most proud of. So many talents, so many different personalities, coming from all over in the world.
FAP – The sneakers market is highly saturated. What does it take to survive and be competitive at the same time?
SK – We believe in minimalism, and our artistic direction is in Paris. The first thing to understand is that you need to have a sharp design as much as a sustainable product.
FAP – Advertising is not a big priority for you. How do you think VEJA has been able to reach this success in an era full of influencers, bloggers etc?
SK – As you know, VEJA is not doing any advertising or any marketing campaign/sponsorship with bloggers or stars. Our sneakers cost between 5 and 7 time the price of our competitors, and we decided to cut the communication budget to sell our sneakers at the same price as our competitors.
FAP – How important is your role in changing consumer behavior nowadays? And how do you do it?
SK – I believe that the most important thing is that we don’t try to convince anybody. We just do and propose, then the public is free to choose. We don’t like to push things on people. We don’t say “change” to the others, we put all our energy in changing ourselves. However, we are happy to see that more and more people are aware of the planet situation and want to change things by bringing transparency, using ecological raw materials etc.
FAP – You have had impressive collaborations so far – Deyrolle, Flaneurz… How important are they for the success of VEJA?
SK – Those collaborations are the results of people we meet, people we admire, projects we love. That’s how we keep creating, exchanging and discovering new perspectives.
Text: Margaux Lombard, July 20th 2018