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The footwear niche onto a circular path – cases at Veja + Rick Owens, Virón and Hodei

Non-sustainably produced shoes take 50 years to decompose. Few brands set on sustainability to decrease the issue of the footwear branch

Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillion, founders of Veja, have set themselves to produce shoes utilizing raw materials sourced from organic farming and ecological agriculture, in support of the footwear industry. Richard Saturnino Owens founded his label ‘Rick Owens’ in 1994 after taking a course in pattern cutting at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Owens’ designs attracted LA’s retailer Charles Gallay that enabled him to expand to Europe. Today, Owens’ label counts as a darkly glamorous, post-apocalyptic take on gothic grunge brands in the fashion world. «At first, this collaboration seemed a bit strange, but when we met Rick Owens and his team, it made sense» remembers Sébastien Kopp, co-founder of Veja, when Rick Owens approached in 2017. The origins of The Third Act transpired as Rick Owens was intrigued by Veja’s ecological aspects and philosophy. Rick represented the opportunity to infuse their aesthetic with a sense of avant-garde.

The Third Act Fall-Winter 2020 footwear line created in collaboration between Rick Owens and Veja is the result of a dialogue between two universes, discussing questions and challenges the current fashion system holds. The aesthetic Veja is known for since its founding year in 2005 is sculpted by minimalism and athleticism. The two studios unite their visions by going beyond trends and seeking creative and technical innovations after two years of research. For the capsule collection, they created two models in six colorways using the technologies of the Veja Running project and the stylistic character of Rick Owens. 

Runner Style 2 had been proposed in winter 2019. The model comes with a natural cork, Amazonian rubber, and rice waste sole, providing comfort and lightness. Cork, harvested from trees between May and August each year, is a raw and recyclable material. Its versatility and density allow it to conform to the wearer’s foot shape, delivering ease and pain relief. The shoe’s midsole is composed of 46% cane sugar and 8% banana oil. The upper V-Knit is made from 100% recycled polyester from plastic bottles. 

veja 1
VEJA X RICK OWENS SHOES, ARTWORK BY PIETRO CAVALLARI

The second model, the Runner Style Mid, is a high-sock merging the Veja aesthetic with Owens inspiration. It develops on the 54% organic midsole joined by a 64% organic cork base. The upper V-Knit is made from 100% recycled polyester from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) obtained by accumulating and melting existing plastic bottles. According to a 2017 study by the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, the procedure requires 59% less energy than virgin polyester.

The global footwear industry has a value worth of more than $200 billion in 2020, with approximately 330 million pairs of shoes being sold each year within the UK alone. The majority of the purchase ends up in landfills, with estimates suggesting that the average pair of shoes takes more than 50 years to decompose. To incorporate and test the circular model, Veja has paired up with Darwin to create a store in Bordeaux where the brand showcases and sells all the prototypes that have not gone on sale, sneakers with minimal defects, and those from older collections. This move was made to give a second chance to the products. The store has a shoemaker that cleans and repairs worn-out sneakers. Those that can’t be recovered are collected and sorted for recycling. With this approach, Veja sets its tone and objectives on thoughtful production by collaborating with brands that share the same values.

A collaboration approached from a similar environmental responsibility angle and professional expertise represents the footwear brand Virón. The Parisian label, founded by Mats Rombaut and Julian Roemer, reimagines footwear, giving sustainability legs with shoes to storm the streets in. «In a new age of mass awakening, counterculture is key in forging a new path with new systems in place. It is on us to define the world we want to live in» underlines the brand’s Manifesto. Mats Rombaut is known for his eponymous brand Rombaut, founded in 2013 while Romer worked in fashion buying and sales. Together, the duo capitalizes on ethical sourcing and production by focusing on circularity while remaining connected to the youth. «Given our commitment to using only vegan materials, we are constantly looking for plant-based leather alternatives. Right now, we are using leathers made out of apples and corn waste from the food industry. The most promising development for leather substitutes is made out of mushroom roots. They can be treated to resemble the characteristics of leather» describes Mats Rombaut.

To produce apple leather, Virón works with apple residue from the food industry. The apple’s skin is collected, dried, and powdered before sent to a factory where it gets treated with Polyurethane to keep its smooth texture. The corn version is liquified into wax applied to 40% polyester. «We have already started working with local restaurants, farmers, and other creatives to use discarded materials and food waste to naturally color and create recycled and repurposed textiles» says Rombaut.

For their uppers, Virón recycles canvas, which they buy from a warehouse in France, selling vintage military supplies. Their signature sole comprises 70% recycled rubber and 30% newly produced rubber, ensuring the source’s longevity. For the founders, it is not solely about the footwear itself. To sustain the company’s concept, they decided to produce shoe boxes made from recycled, biodegradable cardboard. «The biggest challenge is to have a vision for the future but also a plan for the now. For us, this means maintaining a high level of transparency throughout the creation and production process through to the end consumer». He adds «Virón aims to produce more locally (within Europe) and source non-virgin and plant-based materials locally. We incentivize consumers to send back the shoes at the end of their use so the soles can be re-recycled. Our ultimate goal and vision are to become fully circular, reintegrating the soles of returned shoes is just the first step. The team is seeking to work with activists fighting for systemic change. What we need is to change NOW».

Still abiding to invade the footwear market is French newcomer brand Hodei. The brand fills the challenge of closed-loop recycling, where the producer, product, and customer are part of a circular model. In Hodei’s vision «you are not just the customer, but our collaborator in participative design and recycling», outlines founder Benjamin Camy. The brand, to be launched next year, builds on eco-friendliness and a circular production circuit by integrating recycling and disassembling strategies into the creation process. «The industry standards combine materials that require separation and treatment to be efficiently recycled. These steps have complexity and higher costs to them, resulting in 95% of shoes produced today ending up incinerated or in a landfill, even shoes made of clean or recycled material».

The brand’s footwear obeys ethical norms. Not working with glue or stitching makes reparations and recycling possible. After four years of research in design, materials, and eco-conception, Hodei came up with a deconstructable shoe design. «The model compositions allow them to explore a closed-loop production model, where shoes can be returned at the end of their cycle, to be reintegrated into the production of new shoes», explains Benjamin Camy. The aspect of utilizing locally sourced mono-material adds efficiency to the recycling process. The shoes are made from an Eva foam base, 120grams of material per shoe, ensuring comfort, adaptability, and breathability to the foot. An assembly kit made from leather waste and PLA adds comfort and stability to the prototype. «We need a shift from a product-centric to a material-centric approach, disconnecting the life cycle of a product from the life cycle of its constituents. To operate that change successfully, we need to work together as an ecosystem: sharing competences within the industry, learning from environmental key players and involving customers». 


IMAGE GALLERY

Veja The first sneaker brand to use fabric entirely from recycled plastic bottles
Virón Plant-based and vegan footwear
Hodei Deconstructable, returnable, recyclable shoes

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