Words and Interview by Patrick Boyle

Sébastien Kopp co-founded footwear brand VEJA with his friend François-Ghislain Morillon in 2004. Fresh out of college, the pair had a realisation that big brands were not pursuing effective sustainable development goals, instead focusing on optics over real world results. Sébastien and François wanted to do the opposite. They started the company by pooling together €12,000 and heading to Brazil in search of the beginning of the supply chain. They did not want to purchase ecological raw materials, they wanted to go to the source themselves, meet the farmers, understand them and learn from them. Brazil was chosen as it was the only country in the world that had cotton, natural rubber and where workers were treated fairly. Across two months Sébastien and François went between small farms, forming relationships with local farmers and sourcing the raw materials for their first batch of sneakers. The line sold out within a week and the company has been growing ever since. Today, VEJA works with over 1,000 farmers in Brazil, has over 600 employees and continues to pursue the social, economic and ecological goals that it was founded upon. 

The VEJA project goes past the production phase, placing social and environmental considerations at every step. Since 2004, VEJA has entrusted its logistics to vulnerable, disabled, and socially excluded people. For the past two years, Log’ins has managed all of the logistics for all online orders and deliveries to European stores. Workers are given a two-year contract at the warehouse, providing the opportunity to learn valuable skills and to build their confidence to reintegrate themselves into professional life. In all, 438 people in the warehouse have found a job or training following the support. 

Veja acknowledge that the most ecological sneakers are the ones that you already wear. To address this, the “Clean, Repair, Collect” project was launched in June 2020. The cobbler workshop at the logistics center fixes returned pairs from clients that have minimal defects to sell them again. At the workshop, a cobbler with over 20 years of experience trains reintegration workers to become shoemakers. The project has expanded to 5 cobbler locations where VEJA and other brands of sneakers can be cleaned and fixed. To date, 15,300 pairs have been repaired  

I sat down with Sébastien Kopp in VEJA new head office in Paris to discuss the VEJA project’s past and future. The impressive 4,200 square meter space is spread across five floors and follows the raw minimalist spirit of VEJA stores, decorated with vintage furniture and recycled details. 

Can you tell me about your background and how you ended up co-founding a footwear brand?

We were students and then we started in banks. We were 23/24 and only stayed for one year. When we were students we started a lot of projects, like magazines and I think we were open to everything music, art etc. We started from nothing, we knew nothing and had nothing, we just designed the sneakers that we wanted to wear. That is still the case today. 

Were you always interested in fashion? How come you decided to go with footwear instead of clothing?

We were more interested in style than fashion. We were wearing sneakers, we liked the product and we knew the product as customers but not as designers.

How would you describe the aesthetic of VEJA?

Our style is very low-tech, very vintage, very military, the same as how we dress. We are not into the super creative fashion world, but then that is why it is cool for us to do collaborations with Rick Owens, with Marni, with Dover Street Market. They were all shoes in fashion. 

Are you currently working on any more collaborations or do you have any brands that you would love to collaborate with?

Yes, we are but I cannot talk about them at the moment. I have a lot of respect for Hermés because they have a similar way to us in being very careful about supply. They do not just focus on the result but on the way of getting to it, meaning that they have a special care. Japanese brands also have this. We are not very big in Japan but we are starting to develop there now. More and more cool stores are carrying VEJA and they all say that there is a special link between us and Japan in the way that we are doing things. Tracing the raw materials until the end, knowing every step exactly and so on. Also, the style that remains, not the fashion of the season but what remains cool for 5 years, 10 years, 15 years. For me a good design is one that stands time, that is not cool for one season. That might be the opposite of fashion. Fashion is changing and changing and changing, we are looking more to the long term. I understand and find it the designs of the season cool but not for VEJA.

VEJA has recently expanded into running and hiking shoes. Do you envision the range expanding further?

No, we are good with leather and we could do different things but we have so many projects going on. I think that the risk is that we lose ourselves if we do too many things. Our design team designs one or two models a year, we are very slow.

It’s very impressive how transparent about your supply chain you are on the VEJA website. It would be great to see other brands in the industry following a similar path, how do you think this could be encouraged in broader terms in the industry?

By setting example. I think it is the best way. All the big luxury brands are asking us about this and I say there is no secret, everything is on our website. Everything has been on our website for 15 years. 

What is VEJA currently doing to go even further in terms of sustainability?

We can always do better. Like today we are focused on our recycling and repairing programme. Nobody does it well. We have so many things to do. In our shoes, in our transparency, we are maybe half of the way now. As we expand it gets easier. We started VEJA with €6,000 so the beginning was tough. Today we have a team, we have a sourcing team, they are doing many projects. Now it is easy. 

You talk a lot about growing slowly and developing the company in that manner. How big is too big for you?

When people start coming to the office sad, this is too big for me.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to start a sustainable and ethical business in fashion?

Go there, go see the factories, go see the materials, meet the farmers, meet the makers. You will be super inspired. That is from my own experience. To go beyond. Everybody sees the results, everyone is focused on the products and the sales but if you want to setup a brand go to the factories and meet the people. They will be your teachers. What material is it made with? It’s made with plastic, polyester it is cotton it is what? What is cotton, what is polyester? Follow the path, it is a never-ending run but that is what I suggest. It is a very simple path but nobody does it. Everybody thinks that the Instagram account is more important than the reality but we are the opposite. 

What about VEJA gives you the most pride?

The people that came 10, 12, 15 years ago with us and to seem them change, to see them grow and to see us all grow together. I am most proud of seeing these people evolve. That is one of the most satisfying things about VEJA. Carolina, she came as an intern in 2012 and now she is managing a team of 50 people, that is something strong. All the obstacles she had to overcome, all the problems that she solved. That is spectacular and that is what we created, a place that is more than a company where people have evolved.