The Civil Style of Mats Rombaut
For Mats Rombaut, the future of footwear isn’t some Jetsons-tinged dream of hovercraft soles and rocket- powered boots. It means crafting sustainable shoes that will completely redefine the luxury market. Rombaut began his career crafting accessories at some of fashion’s biggest high-end houses, but his take on the medium is anything but traditional. The 26-year-old Belgian-born, Paris-based designer sources his vegan materials from around the globe to craft accessories that would look as at home in Rick Owens’ closet as they would on the feet of Harrison Ford in Blade Runner. Like any good luxury label, Rombaut’s shoes are crafted by artisans in Italy, but the biodegradable material that makes them can come from as far away as fig trees in Uganda. Rombaut invents not only animal-friendly fabrics, but an entirely new industry in the process. And while most vegan designers can too often fall into the category of stale or tragically un-chic, Rombaut effortlessly bridges the divide, creating footwear that is at once avant garde and ecologically sound. Viewing his shoes and small collection of objets, it’s hard not to feel swept up in his green, holistic vision of the fashionable world to come.
What first piqued your interest in sustainability, and how did you get started in designing footwear?
I have been interested in fashion since I was about ten. I used to dress in full orange looks. At the age of 17, I wanted to work in fashion and become a designer. The aspect of sustainability came later as I became more aware of what is happening in the world. In university, I wrote my thesis about accessories in the luxury industry. I was at Lanvin at the time when I started my research.
I quickly realized how leather and animal agriculture have a disastrous impact on our planet. A recent United Nations report concluded that a global shift toward a vegan diet is extremely important in order to combat the worst effects of climate change. When I realized this, I decided to make biodegradable pieces, which are as low-impact as possible. At the time, I also became vegetarian and later vegan. This was five years ago.
The choice to start with footwear was a spontaneous one. I had the most experience with shoes after my training at Lanvin. Later at Damir Doma, I was in charge of all the accessories development and felt very attracted to shoes. I thought there was the most room for improvement in that category because I couldn’t find any fashionable plant-based shoes.
Your aesthetic seems to be very minimal, yet futuristic. What inspires your designs?
It always starts with a sense of possibility. I want to push my own boundaries. The design is minimal because I believe in contrast. I don’t like anything that is “in between;” it has to be either minimal or chaos. I think the concept of futurism is interesting. Everyone interprets it in his or her own way. Every decade people have a different general idea of what the future will look like. Usually it’s closely linked to space travel and robots. I like to think about what the “real” future will be for us as a human race. And it doesn’t always look pretty or optimistic. As a result, I try to make sure my shoes are still wearable. I could make works of art, but in the end they still have to sell. Small brands no longer have the luxury of making one-off pieces in small Italian ateliers. Everything has become about numbers, quantities, margins…I try to balance this and still have an artisanal, 100% natural capsule in my collection where I can experiment and be more free.
You seem to be one of the few people innovating within the realm of vegan accessories. Why do you think the rest of the industry is so hesitant to expand into or experiment with this alternate form of fabrication?
Innovation takes time, resources, and risk. I guess most marketing managers, designers, CEOs, and shareholders don’t like to take any risks. They think it won’t be profitable, that the market is too small, that they would run into too many quality problems, etc. However, the main reason is because they are personally not convinced this approach is the way forward. All vegan brands I’ve seen are people who genuinely believe in what they are doing; they are not in it to make a quick profit. Another explanation could be that small designers already have so many obstacles and difficulties to overcome that taking time to do more research seems impossible.
What do you believe is the future of sustainable design?
I believe it’s the only way forward. As we’ve seen in the past, design can shape the future. I think we will become more and more aware of our environment because politicians and media will bring it to our attention more and more. It shouldn’t be a trend, but part of our education. I hope consciousness will keep spreading. We see large corporations starting to take (baby) steps because it’s good for their image, so once they see it can be profitable and start massive marketing campaigns, I think we’ll see a large-scale change of behavior.
Are there any limitations in working with the materials you use?
I came across many limitations when I started because I exclusively worked with natural, plant-based materials and coatings. This means the choice is very limited: linen, hemp, cotton, flax, natural color pigments. In terms of the sole, there is only natural rubber. In order to make a modern shoe that is as performing and durable as other shoe brands, I had to make compromises. This is why most of my models have some synthetic components. It’s still vegan and has less impact on our environment than leather, but these new materials biodegrade much more slowly. The surprising advantage is that the handmade materials I use are very unique and look great!
How do you hope to see your brand expand in the coming years?
I would like to continue selling in the world’s best stores. I will also be expanding my bag line. With this growth, I would love to develop my own revolutionary materials that are breathable and biodegradable at the same time. I also want to grow as a designer. I’ve only been doing this on my own for two years, so I still have a lot to learn.
What’s a common misconception people have about vegan leather or the sustainable accessories industry at large?
When people hear the word vegan they get defensive or even aggressive. This is why I’m not focusing my business around that. I’m a designer first, and my work happens to be vegan because this is what I believe in. Common misconceptions are that vegans are boring, that we only eat salads, we lack protein, etc. When it comes to fashion we are hippies; vegan materials are not as “noble” as leather. The misconception that animal-derived products are superior—be it in food or fashion—is so deeply rooted in our culture that it will take time to kill these myths. If I can do something to help this cause I’m happy.
What is your WILD Wish?
That people think independently and don’t follow blindly what others tell them. I think marketing, social media, and other people’s opinions influence us too much. Look at the facts, and try to live your life in a respectful way toward others and our planet. I think this will get us much further.
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