The fashion versus sustainability imbroglio is one that has been tainting the industry for years. We don’t need the vast amount of clothes that are being churned out season after season, we all understand that (but does anyone really still want to be caught in a Rottweiler print out in these streets?) We can look to slow fashion for answers and invest in trend-averse, high-quality goods that can be worn season after season. Just thinking about the “Martin Margiela: The Hermès Years” expo and Margiela’s pioneering evergreen designs makes the best case for the slow fashion movement. On the sustainable production front, pioneering brands like Bruno Pieters’ Honest By. and Rombaut are leading the way in creating great fashion for the lowest possible ecological and social impact. Alas, still too many companies prefer fast fashion’s bottom line over a complete and transparent overhaul. That’s a fact the founders of fair trade footwear brand Veja(pronounced like “déjà” in “déjà vu”) established over 12 years ago. Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion had the vision and courage to create what few to none were providing: affordable shoes based on the principles of fair trade and ecological sustainability (even offering vegan options). Veja, which is Portuguese for ‘look’, has since grown into a globally loved staple of the conscious. Their honest, show-don’t-tell approach to fashion is one that has been raising the bar ever since they first stepped out in 2005. KNOTORYUS spoke to the brand’s co-founder and creative director Sébastien Kopp during the launch of Veja’s SS17 collection introducing the new model dubbed “WATA” – the Japanese word for ‘cotton’ – and learned the Veja journey so far hasn’t always been a breeze, but can be described as a ‘beautiful fight’.
KNOTORYUS: I saw you mentioned sadness as well as hope and beauty in a description for the new collection. What was on your mind for SS17?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: The new “WATA” model was mainly inspired by the beginning of Veja. It’s a back-to-basics, minimalistic kind of shoe – which is always the most difficult to design. We started working from three materials: organic fair trade cotton and canvas plus wild rubber from Amazonia for the sole. Those are also the only three elements we worked with at the beginning of Veja. Nowadays our shoes are more intricate, containing more layers of technological development. But for this one, we wanted to go back to the roots. Veja started out as an adventure, today it’s a full-grown business. We’ve done everything to make it the coolest company in the world to work for, but we are also a bit nostalgic of the beginning. Back then, we didn’t have any money to start out with. It was like a fight, but a beautiful fight. We were taking the bus around Brazil and sleeping in worker accommodations that cost between 1 and 2 euros a night. We were in our own little world, but that gave us a lot of strength too. This collection is to say that we know where we’re coming from, we remember our beginnings and still feel as strongly about it all.
Veja founders Sébastien Kopp (L) and François-Ghislain Morillion (R) in Amazonia
Why do you think that sense of nostalgia for the beginning has surfaced now?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: I just think it’s always good to know your roots. That’s also why we decided to debut the new collection with Jean-Marc Ghys from Privejoke in Brussels, who was one of our first clients. He also became a friend when we went on a trip to Brazil with all of our first clients in 2012, a diverse group of people from big and small stores all over the world.
You were one of the firsts to launch a fair trade, even vegan, fashion line way back in 2005.
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: We launched almost 12 years ago today, yes.
Congratulations! Did you have any heroes back then that inspired you to take the big leap to start your own ethical brand? Or was it something you and co-founder François-Ghislain had been talking about for a long time?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: It wasn’t something we had discussed for a long time. We were mainly inspired by people like Michael Moore and his documentary called “The Big One”. Naomi Klein and her book “No Logo” and Dov Charney from American Apparel were key inspirations too. In ’95, Charney said he was keeping his production facilities in the U.S. when the entire fashion industry was moving to China. Agnès b. also inspired us.
You’ve collaborated with agnès b. as well, right?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: Indeed, but she was a main inspiration too. We also admire Jean Touitou of A.P.C., for his minimal designs. A.P.C. is like a modern philosophy, which we are drawn to. Brands like that absorb a lot of their creator’s personalities and spirit. I think it’s very important for people starting small projects today to pour a lot of themselves into the brand.
How do you look back at when you first started? Are there certain things that you can’t believe you were doing back then?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: Well, it’s not as if we were sixteen years old when we started. (laughs) No, we love everything we have done from the beginning until today. What we are most proud of is the team we have assembled. They work hard, with a lot of intelligence, every day. We like that they just are who they are, instead of pretending. We actually try to adjust our company to the personalities we have in the team, and not the other way around.
That’s a really special thing. Why do you think it has taken so long for the fashion industry to pay attention to an ethical way of working and is still quite limited in its offer of fair fashion today?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: Fair trade and fashion are like two worlds, made up of two different sets of knowledge and know-how. To bring both together is complicated. A lot of people follow the path of least resistance; we chose the hard way. But I think that’s the most interesting one.
We talked to Bruno Pieters last year and he remarked: “Complete transparency in fashion is possible but it’s also up to the consumers to recognise their power and demand it”. What are your thoughts on that?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: I believe everybody is responsible. It’s about offer and demand. Transparency is the link between all of our projects, it’s the link between fair trade and organic, between not advertising and investing all of our resources into production. It’s the link between a sneaker that costs seven times more to produce but is offered at the same price as big competitors on the market because we don’t buy ad space. Transparency is very important, not just in fashion but also in politics. In every part of society, transparency is coming. It goes hand in hand with the rise of social networks and the internet, through the power you have with that phone in your hand, to film stuff you can post in mere minutes. All the companies that don’t understand that transparency is important today, are not going to stay afloat in the next twenty years. We think it’s cool to fight for a more balanced economy and society. Even if Veja is not changing the world or saving it, we do our part. And that’s the most important thing.
You’ve collaborated with many different brands throughout the years, this year you’ve already worked with Balibaris, Mathilde Cabanas… Is there anyone you’d still love to work with? I saw you posted something about Rick Owens too.
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: There is a collab that we’ve started working on a few weeks ago, but we never talk about things we haven’t done yet. Never. That’s also typical of being focused on sustainability and transparency. We don’t talk about the future, we discuss what we’ve already done. A lot of people talk too much about what they’re going to do, but we refuse to make promises, you know? We want reality.
Have you always been that way?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: Yes! (decidedly)
I was still going to ask what you’re looking forward to achieving in 2017, but I guess we’ll see when it’s done! What isn’t possible yet in your production methods today that you’re anxious for to happen?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: We want to be able to recycle old sneakers. It’d be great to figure out the end of life of our product. It’s complicated, we’re working on it but we haven’t found a way yet.
So which technical innovation has made you most excited recently?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: The B-mesh, which is a fabric that is completely made out of plastic bottles. This evolution was very important for Veja, it was a huge innovation that we launched in 2015. And now it’s used on 30% of our collection.
I found it interesting to discover that it’s actually more sustainable to tap wild rubber from Amazonian trees, which sounds like a bad thing, but using them for rubber actually means they don’t get cut down.
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: Exactly, the rubber is like the blood of the tree. When a rubber tree dies, it’s a big drama, but tapping it every once in a while doesn’t damage the tree to that extent. You can cut into it twice a week, at most. By tapping the wild rubber, there is a way to benefit from the forest without cutting it down. It’s more sustainable than getting rid of the trees and putting livestock on that land.
Are there more misconceptions about sustainable production that you can think of like that?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: There is still a lot of greenwashing being done today. There’s a big discrepancy between reality and corporate communication. A lot of brands are doing a couple of sustainable things, that only take up 0,00001% of their collection. It’s actually ‘nothing’, but done with a lot of communication. That’s not good. I think that if you’re working in a way that’s less than 50% sustainable, you just have to keep it moving and do the work. (laughs)
Throughout your life, when do you think you first became aware of your own personal impact on the environment?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: When I was sixteen and studying economics. We were learning about globalisation and how a product can circle the world three or four times in order to be produced. I realised that by consuming these kinds of goods, I was complicit. We were all complicit.
What’s the best thing about producing from Brazil?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: The Brazilian people are amazing and so is the culture. Once you speak Portuguese, you are Brazilian. It’s a bit like in the U.S., if you can utter some words in English you can feel American. The best thing we get from working in Brazil and by speaking its language is that we can exchange ideas with, for instance, a guy living in the Amazonian Forest who tells you his story and talks about his day or his his past. That’s the most satisfying thing we experience from Veja, knowing a lot of different modern realities. We can be talking to a Belgian journalist one day and traipsing through the forest with a seringeiro, a rubber tapper, the next day. He could be 75 years old, telling tales about the forest. The day after you’re spending time in a shoe factory in Southern Brazil, then you’re in organic cotton fields and the next day in high-end stores for fashion talks. That’s what we love most about Veja.
Do you still have the very first Veja sneakers ever made?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: No, we’re not fetishists at all. (laughs) We’re not collectors.
And lastly, how do you feel when you spot a pair of Veja trainers on the street, ‘in the wild’?
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: I know the entire journey behind that shoe. It always feels a bit like a miracle.
Thank you so much for your time!
SÉBASTIEN KOPP: You’re welcome.