Designer spotlight: Interview with Veja founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillon

Designer spotlight: Interview with Veja founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillon

Fair trade fashion

Text: Pakkee Tan

We speak to the duo that is revolutionising the way fashion labels incorporate eco-sustainability and social responsibility into their brand DNA

Bursting onto the fashion scene with its line of eco-conscious sneakers in 2004, Veja has quickly become the name on every enlightened shopper's lips when looking for a pair and a spare. The brand's commitment to using only sustainable, eco-friendly sources has both astonished and earned the respect of veterans in the fashion industry, and that's the way founders Sébastien Kopp and François-Ghislain Morillon intend to keep it.

The entrepreneurial pair travelled to Brazil in 2004, meeting with organic cotton farmers and wild rubber tappers to source for raw material for their sneakers. Ethical fashion has always been the core ethos of the brand, and it is prized because of its positive impact on livelihoods, economies and on a fundamental level, communities. 

"We started out working with 30 families of organic cotton farmers. That number has grown to nearly 350 families, and they are divided into five co-operatives today," said Kopp. "Likewise, in the Amazon, we worked with 36 families of rubber tappers. Since then, ten more have joined our project. The impact does not only affect the producers and their families, but also the communities as a whole — what we really want is to work closely with them, and help them strengthen local organisations."

We speak to the revolutionary partners about their motivations, meaningful brand milestones and future plans to further disrupt the fashion world.

We won't stop showing people that fashion design and respect for the environment are achievable, even if it is not the easier path to follow.

You started Veja with the vision of creating a sustainable and transparent fashion company — could you tell us more about your motivation(s) to do so?
Sébastien Kopp: After working on sustainable development projects around the world for a year, we became aware that the Earth couldn't stand our lack of inconsideration any longer. We quickly came to the point where words were not enough and that real action needed to take place.

François-Ghislain Morillon: We also felt that transparency was strongly lacking, and that we needed to give consumers this transparency. We wanted to reinvent a way of producing quality fashion and smart designs by using ecological material and incorporating the rules of fair trade by creating a transparent production chain that respects both human beings and the environment.

What did you aim to achieve when you started Veja in 2004? 
SK: The aim of our project was to show that another world was possible, and that making sneakers differently would be proof that working with fair trade and ecological raw materials was possible. For us, it is really important to prove that innovative design, eco-friendliness and fair trade are compatible. 

Ten years on, our aim is still the same! Veja sneakers are the successful combination of all these principles. We won't stop showing people that fashion design and respect for the environment are achievable, even if it is not the easier path to follow.

What have been some of the most meaningful milestones that Veja has reached so far?
SK: Designing our first pair of shoes was a real challenge: The shape, colors and materials had to impact people. We had to enter into sneaker world with something new, different and strong.

Our strength was, of course, organic and fair trade materials, but it was not enough — we had to enter the sneaker market with a bang. We were so inspired by the Brazilian volleyball team from the '70s. We worked really hard to modernise it and come up with a design smart enough to shake up the existing market. And it happened! Our crazy dream became reality, and it was a huge success.

FGM: When we sold our first million pairs of sneakers, it was also a meaningful milestone for us. It meant we were well established in this market and even successful.

Veja Esplar

On the flip side, what are some of the challenges that you have faced?
FGM: We choose to carry no extra stock. In order to avoid any kind of waste, we tightly control our production and only produce orders placed six months in advance. Furthermore, the production has to adapt to the availability of organic cotton, which may vary. Not having extra stock means retailers have to think and order in advance, because if they do not, they will not be able to sell our sneakers. So, this is one of the biggest challenges we have, and we have to deal with highly organized retailers.

Why did you choose to focus on Brazil and the Amazon as your source of raw material for your company?
SK: It was the only place in the world we could find all these raw materials, while being able to adopt agro-ecology and respect fair trade rules. So, Brazil was the perfect place to source for high quality ecological material.

Besides being ethical and socially conscious, the design of your shoes is equally unique. Tell us more about your design process.
FGM: We design sneakers we would like to wear. In terms of design, we are keen on a minimalist aesthetic, and we love vintage military shoes and clothing. We like to wear shoes and sneakers that do not conform to fashion; people would wear our shoes with the same pleasure five years after buying them.

Veja Esplar - Leia Sfez

'Veja' means look in Portuguese — is there a special meaning behind it?
SK: Yes, there is! It means to take a look around yourself; look at what's behind the product; look at how things are done, because it matters. It also stands for transparency: We want customers to see the the possibility of buying while knowing the story and production behind the design.

In the spirit of your company's namesake, what are you looking forward to for the coming year?
SK: Well, the next step is to develop Veja in Singapore and Southeast Asia! This is a very important market for us beacause, let's face it, Singaporeans love fashion. To adapt to the Singaporean market, we've developed new materials that are lighter, breathable and more resistant. For example, our bottle mesh, which are made from recycled plastic bottles, or jute mesh, which use traditional fiber produced in the Amazon combined with recycled cotton — perfect for the warm weather in Southeast Asia!

Veja is available at Tangs Orchard, L3.