On the back of climate week, the United Nations Climate Action Summit, and likely the largest climate strike in world history, one designer had a new approach to tackling our climate crisis: unisex biodegradable sneaker heels. Staging a “die-in” (a form of nonviolent protest) at Paris Fashion Week this year, Mats Rombaut, the founder and creative director of Rombaut, a Paris-based vegan accessory brand, is combatting his own climate anxiety through “ugly shoe” hybrids.
His latest collection, Dysmorphia, is full of “sexy orthopedic-inspired” heels ranging from utilitarian-looking sandals to thigh-high velvet in colors representing a geological heat map: deep green, purple, blue, and shades of red. All of the heels are designed with sustainability and inclusivity at the core; they are made from Apinat Bio (a biodegradable thermoplastic) with a removable steel heel and come in large sizes for men.
Rombaut, who was born in Belgium, started his eponymous brand six years ago to fill a gap in the vegan footwear market. The designer made waves last year with the release of cowboy boot sneaker hybrids (worn recently by Lil Nas X) and is constantly finding innovative ways to communicate Rombaut’s environmental message, designing lettuce sliders and vegetable shoe art.
Rombaut was named in Vogue as Bella Hadid’s favorite sneakers, and some of the shoes from the brand’s first venture into heels have also been worn by Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Jorja Smith, Sita Abellan, and Kelsey Lu. In keeping with Rombaut’s slow-fashion guidelines, a limited number of each design is available. For example, selected shoes from the Dysmorphia collection are currently available online and the rest will be available in March.
Alongside his recent success has been Rombaut’s constant struggle to create the most sustainable shoe to ever exist. Six years ago he started the brand out of his desire to create shoes that “didn’t pollute the planet as much” and did not rely on animal agriculture and death -- a nearly impossible task, with no blueprint to follow. Back then, the vegan alternative market was heavily dominated by Doc Martens and Veja, neither of which cater to the “ugly sneaker” or “dad shoes” trend that has since taken over the fashion industry.
With leather being deemed "the most unsustainable material of all commonly used fashion materials" according to a 2017 report from Pulse of the Fashion Industry and the animal industry surpassing the oil industry as the world's biggest polluters, vegan footwear seems to be a step in the right direction. However, Rombaut is aware of environmental issues that arise from creating footwear made from plastic, including microplastics and bioplastics being accused of “greenwashing” the plastics issue, and takes his role as a designer very seriously in the context of the climate and ecological crisis. “It’s no secret I feel pain just from existing in today’s world. Maybe that’s what attracts me to medical footwear, a sense of healing,” Rombaut tells Teen Vogue. “The fashion world can use a lot of improvement. I put all my hope on the biochemists, material engineers, and developers to come up with man-made materials that leave no trace behind."
Rombaut previously used materials such as Piñatex (made from pineapple plant fibers leftover from pineapple harvests) and is constantly looking to new innovations for vegan leather alternatives. For his Dysmorphia collection he used Apinat Bio material for the outsoles, which is compostable in accordance with the standard EN 13432, meaning that in a landfill in 12 weeks the compostable plastics disintegrate and after six months they biodegrade completely. But, Rombaut says, biodegradable material provides its own set of challenges, including requiring the budget to create special molds to inject the material into, under the correct pressure. There are also limitations with the materials, such as colors and minimums, which may deter larger brands.
The designer believes the best thing he could do for the planet is stopping his brand altogether. But he is moving forward with what he calls the “second-best option”: being more impactful, leading by example, and giving a message of hope. With his spring 2020 fashion show presentation staged inside Espace Niemeyer, the Communist Party’s headquarters in Paris, Rombaut wanted to create a utopia “where politicians become activists.” He used the die-in protest to call out politicians who are sleeping through the climate crisis. The models were people he found through Instagram, and he even included his father, who “has a great time” wearing the unisex heels.
Rombaut also attributes his desire to create a gender-neutral and size-inclusive brand to his veganism, which gave him more empathy and understanding that “humans are animals too. We just think we’re different and more advanced,” he explains. “But I make shoes for humans, and it doesn’t matter which gender, color, or shape you are.” Rombaut envisions his shoes as a space for everyone to be free and express themselves. “Heels are typically linked to female dressing, but we make them in both small and big sizes,” he says.
As for the future of the brand, Rombaut plans to continue investing time and energy into new technologies. “I feel like I’m just at the beginning of what I want to do,” he says. “But it depends on how fast technology goes and whether I can afford it or have to find other ways.” He’s hopeful that there’s a shift happening in the fashion industry following a shift in consumer desires. “I think the fashion industry has always catered to what people wanted at any given time. With customer desires changing, we see that finally, the industry is following. By itself, the fashion industry will not change. Otherwise, they would have done this a long time ago.”
For his future collections, Rombaut shares that his current inspiration is coming from the next generation involved in the School Strike for Climate movement. “This generation and movement have given me so much new energy,” he says. “I thought I was doing my part, but now I feel like I’m not doing enough.”
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue