Mats Rombaut is a socially conscious visionary bringing his wonderfully wacky ideas to life through his vegan shoe brand, Rombaut. Since 2012, he has been pushing the boundaries of fashion, showing that environmental responsibility and creativity can go hand in hand. We met him for a chat.

MONNIER Frères: How did you get started in fashion?

Mats Rombaut: My parents didn't want me to study fashion. So first I graduated from business school, before moving to Paris to take my first steps in fashion. I was 21 years old. I started with an internship in PR to help me learn French, then moved onto another at Lanvin in product development for men's accessories. That's when I started to become especially interested in accessories and shoes. I then worked in a few other jobs before launching my own brand two or three years later. I felt unhappy about the whole production process and the amount of waste that I kept seeing, I wanted to try to change things.

M.F.: How long ago was this?

M.R.: Seven years, but at first I mainly focused on experimenting with materials and manufacturing processes. And because I wasn't really a designer at the time, I had to learn my trade. I'm not ashamed of my first collections, but let's just say they were much simpler than the ones I make today. Everything was handmade in Italy. I was very involved in all stages of manufacturing. Since then we've done a lot of testing with natural and biodegradable materials like tree bark. Nevertheless, for me the birth of the brand really took place three years ago when we started collaborating with photographers, doing public relations... We had decided we would try and break away from conventional fashion codes, and it was really at this point that the brand began to make itself known.

M.F.: Your pieces are produced as limited editions. Is this because you want them to be rare, eco-responsible, or both?

M.R.: We want our pieces to be special, and at the beginning of the brand, we wanted to make vegan shoes desirable. At that time, only Stella McCartney made stylish vegan shoes, but for women. Nothing existed for men. So, we began to focus on creating fashionable shoes that were environmentally responsible, vegan and trendy. That's why making limited edition footwear made sense: not making "mass market" products for the general public, but creating an exclusive brand. Even today, we limit our production in order to make sustainable fashion.

M.F.: What message are you hoping to get across by choosing completely plant-based materials?

M.R.: In reality, it's not one message; it's several. We are protecting animals and we don't want to kill them. We therefore want to show that a vegan product can be both high quality and on-trend. We also believe that animal farming contributes to environmental problems and climate change. Consequently, By making vegan products, we are more ecological, and we strive to be greener every single day by working on new biodegradable materials, so we have an even lower impact on the environment. We try to push the limits, break the fashion rules, to show other brands that there are alternatives: yes, you can make beautiful shoes without using leather.

M.F.: For a young designer, would you say today that it was a risky move?

M.R.: Absolutely! At the time in stores, fur and leather were staples. Customers didn't want to hear about vegan fashion. It's only recently that buyers have realised the potential of our brand, once celebrities started wearing it, which gave us visibility and credit, boosting people's confidence.

M.F.: It's true that vegan fashion at the time was much less - if at all - developed compared to today. Do you think there has been a collective awakening?

M.R.: I do think there has been a collective awakening, and people are starting to realise that we have to change things in order to protect our planet's resources. At first it was all about food, but now, slowly, sustainable fashion is more and more talked about. Both small labels and major brands are making eco-friendly capsule collections. It takes time, but little by little attitudes are changing.

M.F.: Is it the material that inspires the designs or the designs that inspire the choice of materials?

M.R.: At first the inspiration came mainly from the materials. That was what dictated the designs. We looked at the materials available to us and depending on what we could do with them, the designs were born. Hence the simplicity of the first collections. It is worth pointing out that at the time the choice of vegan materials was very limited. Today things are different, we can come up with much crazier designs thanks to the different options available to us. This allows us to start with the drawing and design side of things, before tackling the choice of materials and production.

M.F.: Can you describe your designs in three words?

M.R.: Innovative, visionary and sustainable. Always with a focus on openness. We want our products to be for everyone. We don't discriminate against anyone based on their social background, gender or the colour of their skin.

M.F.: And can you do the same for yourself?

M.R.: That's a very difficult question. I would say hard working and persevering. I don't give up easily...

M.F.: What’s been the most memorable moment in your career?

M.R.: There have been several, like the first time the brand was chosen to be sold at "Comme des Garçons" in Tokyo. That was crazy for me, as someone new to fashion. Then, more recently, there's been the support of people who are not really in the industry, like Lil Nas X, for example. He's an American rapper who was number one in the US charts for 50 weeks with "Old Town Road", a mix of rap and country. That kind of support really helps the brand to grow and reach new audiences.

M.F.: What is your favourite of all your designs?

M.R.: I really love our latest pair of shoes. We don't have a name for them yet, but for the time being we're calling them "Alien". It’s a hybrid shoe, a mix between an ankle boot and a sneaker, which was a real challenge in terms of design.

M.F.: If you weren't making shoes, what other accessory would you be making?

M.R.: We are slowly starting to make bags, caps and a few ready-to-wear pieces, while remaining focused on our flagship item: shoes.

M.F.: How do you see fashion in ten years' time?

M.R.: People will continue to buy clothes and accessories to distinguish themselves and show which social group they belong to. However, I do think it will be done in a more sustainable way, and that everyone will have to adapt to environmental realities. There may no longer be big catwalk shows as we know them, fashion will probably be more virtual and therefore less polluting.