You instantly know a ROMBAUT shoe when you spot one in the wild, and that’s the truest testament to its creator’s gift. For Paris-based Belgian designer Mats Rombaut, the fact that his footwear is produced using sustainable, all-natural materials is an absolute given, it’s self-evident. But we live in an age of frustrating flux and environmental indecision despite the warning signs literally drowning us with evidence that our elected leaders’ action on climate, if any, is a cutesy Band-Aid on a gushing stab wound. We can all do better and we sort of know it. Yet despite common sense, low-impact fashion is not the standard today. And in the cases where sustainability has been factored in, it’s mostly green-washed hokum or an ill-designed product. We’re just not looking to be out here in these streets in a well-intentioned but ciabatta-looking shoe. Another reason why a project such as ROMBAUT is essential. It’s talented designers like Mats Rombaut who make reaching for trusty excuses to not change your ways impossible. Fashion is in dire need of that final green push; an upheaval is inevitable. So, we talked to Mats Rombaut about what’s next for his namesake brand, Power Ranger fashions, the inspiring mister Louis C.K. and the deal with mushroom leather.
KNOTORYUS: What kind of headspace where you in when you were creating the SS18 collection?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I was listening to a lot of acid house and techno from the late 80s, sounds from the Boccaccio (a legendary now-defunct night club near Ghent – ed). I wanted to make a kind of rave shoe. The rest of the collection fell in line with what I did with natural materials in previous seasons. Like one shoe in particular - a derby - was made up of different layers from sources like laser-cut wood, bio cotton, Piñatex pineapple fibre and cork. That all came together in one shoe, with a ROMBAUT artisanal stamp. But it was mainly music that inspired me. Almost every season I listen to a different kind of sound and that influences the collection.”
KNOTORYUS: What’s your routine like, does it take a long time to put everything together?
MATS ROMBAUT: “Normally it takes quite some time, but it goes faster and faster with each collection because I’m more aware of what I want. In the beginning of ROMBAUT, I wasn’t sure which direction to go in. For a couple of seasons, I changed quite a bit in terms of style and trying out different things without feeling totally satisfied with the results. But for next season I’ve already advanced very far. I’m almost finished, actually. Because I’m more aware of what I want but also because I now have a slightly bigger team. I have two interns now, instead of one." (laughs)
"I’ll also be working in a different way from now on, the shoes will have a more polished and finished look because I’m starting earlier. I used to start two to three months before the collection needed to be done and that’s not soon enough for footwear. The pace increase is also because I have more design liberties now. I’m working with a new agency who will handle development, production and sales so I can focus on design and communication. That means I get to work with new manufacturers and develop more models. That’s what limited me last season, only being able to develop one new model with my other manufacturers.”
KNOTORYUS: That sounds promising. For the SS18 campaign, you worked with Spanish photographer Kito Muñoz. How did that collab come about?
MATS ROMBAUT: “We released a pre-campaign first and we’ll be doing the entire campaign together as well. We're shooting that soon but I wanted to give a teaser first, to set the tone for the collection. I was introduced to Kito via Luca Guarini, his boyfriend. Do you know Luca?”
KNOTORYUS: Yes, from DUST magazine?
MATS ROMBAUT: “Yes! I had seen Kito’s work for Palomo Spain and I thought those images were great. We all see each other a lot during fashion week and I had only met Kito once or twice before deciding it would be cool to work together. We’re great friends now, he’s so nice and the collaboration went ever so smoothly and spontaneously. I wasn’t even on-set during the shoot. Unfortunately, I was still in Paris and he was shooting in Madrid. Obviously, I worked on the casting and creative direction and the colour scheme and we discussed everything he was going to do beforehand but I trusted him completely. There was a lot of material, it was hard to narrow down a selection of two images for the teaser.”
KNOTORYUS: Did people respond well to the campaign?
MATS ROMBAUT: “Yes, for sure. I think that people who didn’t like it stayed quiet, but we got a lot of reactions and the full campaign will be in the same vein. Do you know Kito?”
KNOTORYUS: I follow him on Instagram and I loved his work for Palomo Spain, that’s something you don’t forget once you’ve seen it.
MATS ROMBAUT: “Those images are just art, really. He’s also super young, only nineteen.”
KNOTORYUS: I can’t with that. Speaking of age, I’d like to go back a bit. I was wondering when you first became aware of fashion or knew it was something you wanted to pursue. For me it was when I watched Marge Simpson as a kid finding a pink Chanel two-piece at an outlet that she got into some country club with. She kept altering the same outfit for each occasion to keep up with the country club ladies till it was completely ruined. Honestly, that torn Chanel left me in pieces.
MATS ROMBAUT: “I think my first fashion memory was the Power Rangers. I was very fascinated by their outfits. The white Power Ranger had a suit with golden accents and he’d wear a harness on top, I thought that was fantastic. So, I asked my grandmother to make me one of those suits because she used to sew. I wore it to carnival, but it didn’t look like the original at all. (laughs) I think that’s my first fashion memory. It had those really wide shoulders, which was actually pretty Balmain.”
KNOTORYUS: Exactly, those Power Ranger diamond patterns were also quite Balmain. If your grandmother used to sew, did she pass any fashion knowledge on to you?
MATS ROMBAUT: “No, not at all. She used to sew all her children’s clothes, but that was more out of necessity than out of a love for fashion. I’m the only one in the family who works in fashion and when I was 17, I didn’t know there was a future to be had in it. I just didn’t think it was one of the possibilities."
KNOTORYUS: So, you went on to study economics.
MATS ROMBAUT: “I had read on the LVMH website that they were looking for people with double degrees, in both economics and fashion. Since I was straight out of secondary school, my mother also coaxed me to get a degree first and then go off to do what I wanted. I started out doing economics first, thinking I’d have that in my back pocket. That was quite grim, I got fed up with it pretty much instantly. I stuck it out in Ghent for two years and then transferred to Barcelona on an Erasmus programme. When I got my Bachelor’s, I was able to go to a fashion school. I went to a local one in Barcelona but that only lasted for a few months, because the bar was quite low there and I didn’t really have the patience. Then I moved to Paris to intern at Totem Fashion Paris because they represented all the really good Belgian brands – Walter Van Beirendonck, Veronique Branquinho, Raf Simons,... I was a particularly big fan of Raf Simons, and that placement was a good opportunity to experience first-hand how the fashion system works and who’s who. I also got to learn French on the job.”
KNOTORYUS: Why did you decide to stay in Paris, rather than head to Antwerp for example?
MATS ROMBAUT: “Ever since I was about 15, I felt the desire to venture outside of Belgium. At the time, I wanted to work at a luxury group like LVMH, so France it was. Paris drew me in; I felt like there was a serious work atmosphere here. There’s a future in Paris for people willing to work hard. In Barcelona, that wasn’t the case for me. It felt more like a party city, I’d go out a lot. Staying in Paris was a bit of a counter-reaction to that whole experience; I was fed up with going out and yearned for a more serious professional environment. I don’t know, I’ve been here for ten years now and I still like it. You can do what you want, when you want to.”
KNOTORYUS: When you became tired of going out all the time, was it around that time that you decided to shift gears to a more conscious way of living and to create a sustainable brand? When did you make that call?
MATS ROMBAUT: “It was around that time. I’d have Burger King 3 or 4 times a week in Barcelona, I wasn’t even a vegetarian. But when I lived there, I also encountered a different type of people. As an economics student, I previously was a part of a scene I didn’t really want be in. So, in Barcelona I surrounded myself with a different set of people, widening my view on the world. I watched a lot of documentaries and started questioning everything. But I only became a vegetarian when I moved to Paris. I’d just watch films, not only about animal abuse but also about the impact animal agriculture has on the environment. That’s when I knew that if I ever started my own brand, it needed to be sustainable either way and not contribute to all of that shit.”
KNOTORYUS: ROMBAUT footwear ranges from a European size 36 to 46. Is the gender-neutral aspect of ROMBAUT also something that came from that regard for the future?
MATS ROMBAUT: “That happened automatically. I didn’t really ask myself too many questions about that. The women in my life wear heels just as much “men’s” shoes, my male friends can perhaps be seen as more “feminine” … I felt like the genderless fashion trend that popped up these last years was a bit over-hyped but that’s probably because I live in a kind of bubble, an environment where self-expression is okay and “normal”. I realise that in society in a broader sense, that’s not as self-evident as I think it is. There are a lot of stereotypes left to shatter, women still don’t have the same rights as men, they’re still paid less for the same work, there’s the issue of trans rights… All those old, archaic ways of thinking are still in place. Maybe that’s why I wanted to travel outside of Belgium, or a smaller environment in general, because there are so many limits and ways of thinking that I couldn’t agree with or feel at home in. That’s why I like Paris, everything is pretty chill here. I don’t feel like I need to answer to anyone.”
KNOTORYUS: It’s the best of both worlds, we still get to claim you as a Belgian but you’re out here doing things on a global scale.
KNOTORYUS: Creating low-impact fashion is more complicated than making fast fashion, it’s hard work. What motivates you to keep going? Will all brands have to change eventually?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I think all brands will need to change with time, no doubt. I think that there will be more regulations from the government to counter pollution. You see it happening in every sector and the same will happen in fashion, but it’s just going much slower than in other industries. People will have to adapt, for sure. I think there will also be a lot of material developments, making them less polluting and lowering the impact like that. I think exploitation of lower-wage countries will always exist, because that’s just a part of human nature. I think more clothing manufacturers will disappear too. In Belgium, almost all of the manufacturers are gone, especially when it comes to shoes. I can only think of Ambiorix when it comes to brands producing shoes in Belgium. But the motivation to keep working in a sustainable or vegan way, that’s an automatic thing. The motivation to keep competing with all of these other, mainly bigger brands, is a challenge every small brand faces. When it comes to shoes it’s even a bit different because in clothing, you can tell a bigger story. You can hold fashion shows and build your image up more, create an entire world around it faster. Shoe designing is more product-based, concentrated on an object. It’s difficult to go up against the big luxury groups as well as sportswear giants. There are a lot of brands producing in China, making it difficult to compete with those prices. Of course, every season I ask myself whether I want to keep doing things this way. But I think that happens at every small brand. The motivation is just there because I don’t feel like I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do yet, that the brand’s not as big as I’d like it to be yet. I can design for other people too, or implement sustainable ideas for other brands and companies. I can still do that. I actually work for three other brands as a designer as well. In part I do it to be able to continue my own brand. It requires a lot of sacrifice but I’m still motivated to keep going. Having my own brand is a kind of freedom I’m not willing to give up. I need the freedom to be able to work for myself and decide for myself. That’s very important. I think that motivates me. It’s funny you’re asking me these questions, because I never think about why.”
KNOTORYUS: Independence is a powerful motivator, I think.
KNOTORYUS: One of your first ever collaborations was with Bruno Pieters' Honest By. How did you end up working together?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I think it happened for my first collection, which was 100% natural and made from tree bark. I think Linda Loppa connected us somehow, I don’t recall the details. Bruno proposed to sell my shoes on the Honest By. e-store, which was a great opportunity for me. It went very quickly, and spontaneously, I headed down to Antwerp and we had a chat, took a picture, it was very chill. The shoes were there; I still needed to fill in the form with the provenance and production details but wasn’t an issue because I knew were everything was from. We were really on the same wavelength on ideas like transparency and ethics and stayed in touch ever since.”
KNOTORYUS: Did you learn any lessons from his experience running Honest By.?
MATS ROMBAUT: “He was always very calm, which I think I learned the most from. I always want everything to go quickly, I’m not that patient. But you don’t have to rush things. It’ll be alright in the end. Bruno has a positive attitude and doesn’t give up, there are so many difficulties tied to what he does, going down the entire supply chain like that. It’s admirable, the amount he’s willing to do.”
KNOTORYUS: You’ve worked with many different materials over the years, are there any recent developments that you’re excited to test out?
MATS ROMBAUT: “There’s this mushroom leather that I worked with on my last winter collection, but I couldn’t sell the finished product because the material wasn’t fully ready yet. I found out about it through a friend who is obsessed with mushrooms. I was super excited and wanted to use it straight away. It took months to get a small sample, it was also extremely expensive. Still, I think we’ll be hearing more about that soon. On social media, you always catch these clips about a “crazy new material coming soon” but it often still takes a year before anything’s ready to be put on the market. You’ve also got Piñatex. That’s been out for a while, but when it was completely new I was the first to use it in a shoe that was being retailed. That development excited me, I had been looking for a natural substitute for leather for a long time. The only other option is canvas, from cotton or hemp for instance, but those are always woven fabrics which can get dull and don’t look like leather. There’s a kind of silk being developed now that’s made from an element found in spiders. It’s vegan though, they don’t actually use spiders or kill them. I believe they discovered some spider silk molecule, and they make it in a lab.”
KNOTORYUS: When talking to Sébastien Kopp of Veja earlier this year, he mentioned wanting to find a way to completely recycle old sneakers. Is there anything else you’re holding out for aside from a better leather substitute?
MATS ROMBAUT: “Realistic vegan leather is highest on the list. It would be great to have a biodegradable leather replacement that’s not made from a resource like oil that’s finite and polluting. That’s also why vegan burgers exist, to provide a point of transition for people to form new habits. And in order to do that, you need something that’s similar to the real thing. A lot of vegans or vegetarians criticise the need to make things that look like meat, but it all has its reason and on the materials front it’s just the same. I think that clean vegan leather will exist in the future, we can’t keep pumping the oceans full of waste. A lot of progress will be made on that front in the next ten years, I believe.”
KNOTORYUS: I’d like to talk about your personal Instagram, which is amazing by the way. Did you happen to see the film “Carnage”? It’s a mockumentary by Simon Amstell that’s set in 2067 in a world where everyone’s vegan and kids are shocked to find out that their grandparents used to eat meat. The humour used to broach a “serious topic” like veganism reminded me a bit of the way you inject irony and self-deprecation into veganism on your Instagram. Is that something you do consciously?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I haven’t seen that film yet, but I think I’m most inspired by Louis C.K. He’s one of my idols. Well, the only one, really. He’s so dark and self-deprecating, he jokes about everything; gays, vegans, the lot. I think I mostly get it from that. I actually sent him a pair of shoes once, but I don’t know if he ever wore them.”
KNOTORYUS: I think that the Boccaccio would really suit Louis C.K. Actually, I can totally picture him wearing them with those dad jeans.
MATS ROMBAUT: "I might have to send over those too."
KNOTORYUS: Tilda Swinton was out there wearing ROMBAUT this year too, is there anyone else you’d love to see in a pair?
MATS ROMBAUT: “There are two ways of looking at it. For me personally, it’s important that someone like David Lynch or Louis C.K. wears my stuff. But from a commercial point of view, that’s not that big. If Rihanna would wear a pair, then my brand would double in size overnight. I’m not even exaggerating; several Parisian brands have become really big through celebrity placings. I used to feel like those things should happen organically, when a celebrity genuinely likes the shoes. But you’re actually always going through their stylist so I’ll be working on that in the future, I wasn’t really focused on that in the past. But Tilda Swinton, that was amazing for me. She’s really the kind of woman I wanted to have wear my designs, so I was really happy about that.”
KNOTORYUS: Did you get any feedback from the Bernie Sanders team after you put his face on your SS17 shoes?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I had forgotten about that! Okay, Bernie Sanders, that’s the ultimate dream. But no, I didn’t hear from them; I don’t think they knew about it. They did react to the Balenciaga designs from the following season, though. I think we tried getting in touch but that was back in July and still in the middle of the presidential race, they were most likely flooded with questions.”
MATS ROMBAUT: “I’ve been wanting to simplify things and just have more fun with everything for a bit and that’s what I’m working on now. I’d like to do a fashion collaboration, with a clothing brand and that’s actually in the pipeline for early 2018. There’s also another fun fashion collab coming up, which will most likely be released in February. I can’t say too much about those things yet, that would ruin the surprise. Looking ahead, I’d also like to work with a really high-tech company like Tesla or NASA one day. That’d be pretty fantastic.”
KNOTORYUS: Which leads me into this final question: what are your hopes and dreams for ROMBAUT?
MATS ROMBAUT: “I hope that my brand can keep growing and that more people will have access to it. The price point will be lowered by working with this new agency, so the shoes will become accessible to more people. My dream is to make completely biodegradable products, no trace or pollution left behind. And I’d like to keep collaborating with people in all fields. It took a long time, before I felt like I could enjoy doing this and I’d like keep doing just that. I think that a combination of having my friends around and working with different brands makes me feel less isolated. The first couple of years, I was all by myself, which isn’t very good. I’d like to keep visiting different places. I travel a lot for my job, it’s a bit too much at the moment because on average I’m in three different countries each week so I’m constantly on some train or plane with a lack of sleep. I’d like to keep getting those different impressions from different places, just at a reduced pace perhaps. Those are the dreams, but I usually take things day by day. That's how it seems to work for me.”
Top portrait by Quentin Saunier