Disegno No.9

Sole Alternatives


14 October 2015

I’m lucky to catch Belgian footwear designer Mats Rombaut at his Belleville studio.

It’s a sunny mid-August day and the city is eerily quiet. Parisians are notoriously unavailable during this month and Rombaut is spending less than 48 hours in the city.

He is making a short pit stop in between trips to Belgium to visit his storage space, and Denmark, where he presented at the Copenhagen Fashion Week earlier in the month, and a holiday to the Philippines. He won’t see his large, light-filled live/work space for about 30 days and he’s looking forward to it. “I’m so happy it all went fine,” he says. “My production for the autumn/winter 2015 collection was on time – they are shipping it out now. I can go on holiday with a relaxed mind.”

It’s a welcome break. Ever since Rombaut unveiled his first collection of unisex footwear under his eponymous label for autumn/winter 2013, things have progressed steadily. The brand develops sustainable shoes made from plant-based materials, responding to the ecological problems posed by glues andtanning chemicals used in traditional leather shoes. Rombaut aims for progressiveness in design in areas beyond brand ethics too. The trainers are typified by a chunky look – either angular or organic – which is a direct result of the earthy components used in their construction. As an alternative to leathers, Rombaut uses natural rubber from the Amazon, potato starch, fig, cork and tree bark from Uganda – raw materials that are unarguably more difficult to work with than animal hide.

Rombaut conducts his research online (“you can find anything and everything on the internet”), sourcing suppliers for the sustainably harvested materials he works with. Artisans in Italy perform some of the more hands- on material treatments, such as dying, before the shoes are constructed at a factory in Portugal. It’s a production chain that’s not without its problems, not least because of widespread unfamiliarity with the materials. “It’s much more restricting, especially because all the factories are used to working with leather only,” says Rombaut. “They don’t have a lot of patience with me. With shoes, you can’t just choose whatever material you want; it takes a while to research, develop and find the right combinations that work in terms of engineering a model that wears well. If you only use leather, it’s very easy because the factory already knows how to work with it and leather is a good material: it’s very versatile.”

Matters are further complicated by the slow pace with which the luxury market – particularly in Europe – has embraced ecological and sustainable fashion. “It’s mainly in the mind of the consumer. They mostly want leather,” says Rombaut, who founded his business in a bid to change this mentality. His collaboration with fellow Belgian designer Bruno Pieters – for whose ethically minded Honest By brand Rombaut developed a collection of Ugandan-tree-bark derby shoes – is testament to a desire to develop a viable alternative to fast fashion, moving the industry away from the types of plunderous products made from either animal skins or toxic materials.

Rombaut is not alone in this respect, with more and more designers in fashion and other industries turning to unconventional materials and production methods. London-based designer, researcher and lecturer Julia Lohmann works with algae and kelp to create objects and art installations in an effort to confront viewers with ways in which natural materials might be consumed in a more responsible manner. Similarly, Italian design studio Formafantasma used the natural world as inspiration for its 2011 Botanica vessels – objects designed as if today’s oil-based industries were not a reality and produced using only natural polymers extracted from plants or animal derivatives.

What separates Rombaut from these designers is that his practice is rooted in commercial industry. Rather than existing as concepts or pointed experimentation, his products sit within the framework of luxury fashion and, so far, consumers and retailers have shown confidence in the brand. Sales rose 40 per cent last season and Rombaut’s designs have been bought by Parisian concept store L’Eclaireur, Harvey Nichols Hong Kong, and cult Antwerp boutique Coccodrillo, amongst others. In London, Rombaut will soon be available for the first time at east London retailer
LN-CC with his autumn/winter 2015 collection, a considerable feat considering the exclusive nature of the store and the selective buying style of its founder John Skelton.

The calibre of Rombaut’s retailers places his brand firmly in the higher contemporary-luxury segment. Nevertheless, he wants to appeal to as broad a customer range as possible, something made difficult by the presence of major brands such as Adidas and Nike. “Without those, my growth might be bigger. Everyone in fashion wears their sneakers. It’s a trend,” he says. “They sell Raf Simons collaborations at the same price 
as my shoes, but my shoes are made in Portugal, while theirs are made in China. Their margins are much higher and for a customer the choice is easily made.” Rombaut’s trainers initially fell in the €600-€800 price bracket (about £430-£570), but it became clear that this was uncompetitive, particularly when you consider that eco-friendly shoes have a shorter shelf life than more affordable leather ones.

On online retailer Farfetch, the majority of Rombaut’s shoes now sell for between €300 and €600. “I used to make derbies more, but I noticed that I sold more sneakers so I started to make only those,” he says. “I didn’t make any crazy shoes this season, but some new models – like sandals – that are more basic, more wearable. That’s the part of the business I want to grow.”

Even so, Rombaut has stayed true to his initial concept. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do this super-niche thing,” he says. “In my first two collections I used a lot of tree bark, treated with rubber, and emphasised the vegan qualities of the materials I use. I still use them, but talk about it less, as it seems to turn some people off.” He starts to laugh. “The smell of tree bark is pretty strong. People are reluctant to buy it!”

Such considerations led to a partial rethink of his approach. Rombaut still works with plant-based materials, but now uses his signature tree bark more sparingly. “Some of my first shoes in tree bark ripped after a while,” he says. “But this is what happens when you are doing something experimental. Now I’m much more careful than before. You can wear them with no problems.” He now often incorporates cork into the natural rubber soles of the shoes – his own material development – and, in place of the more common polypropylene carbonate (PPC), he uses polyurethane (PU), a polymer that is less toxic, biodegrades faster and leaves fewer harmful traces in the environment.

Unlike the majority of his peers, Rombaut didn’t formally train in design. He studied Business Administration and Management, first in Ghent and later in Barcelona, and his background is in development and production – areas he worked in at Paris-based fashion brands Lanvin and Damir Doma. “I learned so much by working with the factories,” he says. “You end up knowing more about what is realistic than the designer does. That was a great experience, but at some point I felt like I just couldn’t learn much more. And I was working with leather so much that I just wanted to do
my own thing. Most vegan shoes on the market are pretty ugly. That’s why I started making my own.”