Making products requires constant investment in improving the creative process. Mats Rombaut, founder of Rombaut and Víron: «Sustainability means necessity»
«I watched a lot of documentaries about our planet; seeing the impact of animal husbandry (animals that are raised for meat, milk, eggs) and intensive agriculture, I made the decision to become vegetarian and then switch to a vegan diet. I was also working at Damir Doma for a time, and I was in charge of accessories production. I saw on a daily basis the orders for leather or fur that we received. It became too hard to reconcile my work and my ethics – I couldn’t go on, so I decided to create a business that respected both my values and my creative vision».
In what was a relatively new industry when Rombaut started, he felt that he «could add something and make an impact». The designer has put this core belief at the heart of his brands. For him, circularity is not just an idea, «it’s not something we need to keep talking about, but it needs to be translated into action, and we aim to do that every day with our work and all the efforts we make to create a sustainable product». He is not alone in this belief: the vegan leather industry is expected to be worth $89.6 billion by 2025. This boom comes as vegan leather goods are becoming more widely seen as a valid alternative to more traditionally produced accessories. For Mats Rombaut, «the accessory market is one of the industries in which animals are more exploited for their fur and leather, including bags, wallets, and shoes. Subverting an industry and an established system that has been using leather for most of its time, is the most step we can take. To change the archetype of this production, vegan accessories are the most logical point of start and also the most challenging». Taking a look at the bigger picture of the production process means that Rombaut has a holistic attitude toward sustainability, being active in inspiring change not only in consumers but in other companies linked to the brand.
Materials and methods. «We source and invest in new and promising materials that are being invented and tested in recent years. We introduced cactus leather (used for our belts) and biodegradable soles made of Apinat to our collection. These are, without a doubt, a huge change and a major step forward for the industry». One peculiar material the brand has been making use of is apple leather. Rombaut describes how it has been applied in their AW20 Collection, requiring «a completely different process to be created. It uses fibers derived as residuals from the industrial processing of apples. Recovering the industrial waste of the apple juice industry and transforming it into new raw material. This natural waste is used to substitute other raw materials of chemical origin in the product, lowering the emissions and the consumption of energy through the entire production chain. Why waste something that others have developed if you can find uses for them?»
The brand started working with upcycled materials, like old French army tents through factories that had fabric leftovers. «Experimentation keeps things fun for everyone. Designs and materials need to develop together with the latest technologies. Science goes on and so do shoes: there is no point in not using the tools that scientists and engineers work hard to develop. We have only now started working with a laboratory to develop something new: we can’t share details yet, but it’s something we think everyone will be excited to talk about». Technology is not a fresh focus for Rombaut, it is «part of how we work; we could never push new products forward without a parallel development in materials, process and production technology. The most recent example is our AW20 campaign, which represents the three main themes of the collection (BEACH, CLUB, MOUNTAIN) with three completely 3D rendered environments and subjects. Everything was made on a computer, so you see why digital technology is also so important for us, it gives you the freedom to create whatever you want». Despite such a strict focus on materials and processes, the shoes Rombaut creates are fun. With chunky soles, boots with spikes and metal pieces, or shoes with harnesses, the designs are not what you would usually associate with something sustainable and, eventually, recyclable. Rombaut is breaking the mold and his viral hit slides, which feature a piece of lettuce in their construction, are a case in a point.
The Belgian born designer executes a fine balance between keeping his shoes sustainable without sacrificing style or fashion. A lot of this comes from where Rombaut gets his inspiration. He grew up «listening to techno music and going to raves» and when designing shoes, «I’ll listen to a sound and I can see myself going to a certain club, wearing this pair of shoes I’m visualizing in my mind». This year Rombaut launched a new company, Víron, taken from the French and English words for ‘environment’. Described as «shoes to storm the streets in», the design is more down to earth than Rombaut’s namesake brand. When asked about Víron, he says it is, «as more of a platform, where we develop new ideas together with other like minded people. We work closely with NGOs, upcycle other designers’ deadstock, and use natural dyes developed from farms, and more. This approach would be difficult with a more complex design process, such is the case with Rombaut». Where the Rombaut brand is futuristic, modern, and eye-catching, Víron’s first collection is sturdy, militaristic, and strong, perhaps indicating the outlook for the climate movement.
The last few years have seen mass climate action across the world demonstrating that Rombaut is not alone in his belief that actions speak louder than words when it comes to solving environmental issues. «The younger generation stands up for what they believe in». For Rombaut the only way is up, «we want to continue making improvements in eco-friendly materials and production methods, and push the boundaries of nature merged with technology, while we keep on making visuals we like. I hope we will become the reference brand for this movement and I’m sure our efforts will be recognized on the long run».
Owner and Creative Director of the vegan accessory brand Rombaut.
Co-Founder of Virón.