An interview with the founder of the sustainable footwear brand MDMAshoes

An interview with the founder of the sustainable footwear brand MDMAshoes

As you may have heard, sustainable footwear is really picking up speed. In a recent blog post I looked at some different brands and initiatives focusing on recycled, and even recyclable footwear. One brand that I really admire from their product right through to their ethos and business model is MDMAshoes, and I had the chance to ask their incredible founder Sara Pignatelli some questions and find out more about the MDMAshoes story.

Why is it important for you to use recycled materials in your footwear?

After working for several years in the shoe industry, in daily contact with footwear factories and suppliers, I have to admit that the realisation of the clear link between fashion and the environment truly shocked me. I became angry, and I mean angry! So I decided to make a stand – to make a change.

I believe that I belong to a generation that is tired of meaningless products and meaningless jobs that only fill the pockets of companies that don’t take our environment into consideration. We want to open doors to a new, more positive and conscientious era of business and consumerism.

MDMAshoes are super stylish and timeless, yet never compromising on complete sustainability. Image courtesy of The Portuguese Boutique

MDMAshoes are super stylish and timeless, yet never compromising on complete sustainability. Image courtesy of The Portuguese Boutique

How do you source and choose the fabrics?

Instead of going to regular suppliers, the fabrics we use come from waste management companies and, at the moment, we have two different sources:

· One source deals with damaged clothing which has been discarded in proper containers, instead of regular refuse. These materials are very interesting in terms of colours, prints and textures and allow us to create very limited and special editions of shoes. We can make between two and seven pairs of shoes from each piece of clothing.

· The other source provides us with leftovers from the textile industry and, normally, these materials come in larger quantities. From this source we were already able to produce a limited edition of 108 pairs.

At this moment I have one tonne of textiles stored in my garage ready to be converted into new MDMAshoes. I don’t yet know exactly how many pairs I am able to produce with this quantity of fabric, but I would imagine more than 5000 pairs of sustainable footwear.

There is no formula regarding the selection process, I simply choose the textiles that inspire me the most and, most of all, that I believe that will make people happy when wearing it.

Sustainable footwear

Making the shoes! Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Sustainable footwear

Molds for making the shoes. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

 

Do you find there are limitations using recycled fabrics? How do you work around them?

Yes, there is a major limitation that all business models like MDMAshoes have to face, which is the impossibility of producing large quantities of the same style/material. This goes completely against the current standards of the fashion industry in which the companies work one year in advance and produce their stocks according to the retailers’ orders. When you recycle, it’s very difficult to plan collections with that anticipation in mind.

We are a new generation of businesses that must create different strategies to enter in the market and to stay there. The fashion system has been operating under a very old and saturated model and this is a great time to make a change because the public is also looking for that. The market landscape is also being altered by a rising demographic of purpose-driven consumers, who want to use their own purchasing power as a lever for social and environmental changes. These consumers support and reward responsible brands through their ongoing loyalty. They have different purchasing habits and prefer to interact with brands through digital channels, while forcing them to be transparent.

I truly believe that the brands of the future won’t be about pretence, projecting artificial lifestyles and offering good deals. They will be relating true stories and hold true values.

MDMAshoes is based online and is slowly telling its story on the digital channels where these consumers are. I also believe that it is very important to grow the community and to collaborate with complementary brands and professionals that share the same ideology – that will be our next step.

Sustainable footwear

Working some sustainable shoe creating magricultural. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Sustainable shoes

Shoes in progress. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Why did you choose the deck shoe style?

At the university, while graduating in Fashion Design, my creations were very conceptual and were conceived beyond wearability and commerciality. However, entering the market led to a tremendous shift in my thinking and operating mode. I realised that innovative designs don’t always sell.

During the period I worked in the footwear industry, my interest in the design process slowly decreased and I became very interested about manufacturing and business strategies.

At the age of 30 I felt I was entering in an identity crisis because I did not agree with what I was doing in my work. This was what led me to do the MA program Fashion and the Environment at London College of Fashion. I based my research on reducing the environmental impact of a standard deck shoe because during the period when I worked for other footwear companies, this was the shoe that sold the most.

My goal is to turn sustainability mainstream and to prove that it is possible to start reducing the environmental impact of day-to-day, popular products and to foster positive change through consumption.

 

Sustainable footwear

Textile waste ready to be made into shoes. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Sustainable footwear

The soles of MDMAshoes. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Where do you see your brand going next?

While I was doing my MA course, I was feeling very lost and fragile because I didn’t want to go back to the companies I worked at before and I also had to invest all my savings in my MA. It felt like it was my last chance. My research ended up being awarded the Creative Enterprise 2014 from the London College of Fashion. This was the moment I realised that my own idea for sustainable footwear could be converted into a real project.

Due to having spent all my savings on going back to uni, all I had left were knowledge and contacts. “When you have short resources, you have to be creative”, so I went looking for industry partners that could support me.

MDMAshoes only took off because of the support of two main companies:

Markrys – This a factory that has been producing deck shoes for more than 30 years. They agreed to producing the MDMAshoes under a consignment agreement.

Bolflex – A Portuguese company manufacturing soles, with pioneering technologies in the recycling of rubber. Bolflex agreed to invest €15.000 in an exclusive sole mold for MDMAshoes, for sizes ranging from EU36 to EU45.

Besides these companies, I am the do-everything person. It took me precisely one year to launch it into the market, which happened in January 2016.

With the money coming in from the sales I am paying my suppliers and re-investing in the brand, so there is not much left yet… this forces me to continue looking for accessible solutions.

I created an online shop on Shopify (an ecommerce platform that I highly recommend) but at this moment MDMAshoes already needs a more robust and dynamic selling channel. For this reason I spent the last few months looking for a web design company that would work with me to the agreement of a commission per sale, instead of me paying them huge amounts of money to create a good website – this collaboration will start in a couple of weeks and it will be our next big move.

Sustainable footwear

Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Sustainable footwear

Making a statement visually and practically. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

Big brands like Adidas and Ipanema have just launched ranges of sustainable footwear using recycled materials. Do you think it can be something more large companies do?

Totally! I believe it will take two to three years to see the whole fashion industry start using recycled materials and being more “conscious”. There is no other way. Big companies will be forced to do it, not only for the sake of their conscience, but to be competitive and be seen as trustworthy. And these big companies have a very important role in this journey because they have the power to demand a change from the manufacturers’ side.

The purpose-driven consumers and brands like MDMAshoes are not just a trend, we are here to stay… and we will be THE GENERATION THAT MADE A DIFFERENCE!

Sustainable footwear

Supporting transparency in the fashion industry. Image courtesy of MDMAshoes

1 Comment

  • I loved your post and I never considered the notion of sustainable shoes before but of COURSE it makes perfect sense! I’m a sewer and always aim for sustainable fabrics in my craft – hemp, organic cottons, bamboo and fabric finds at thrift and used stores. I’m excited to see there are forward thinking people doing this work in shoes! I’ll definitely check out your shoes and the other companies as well mentioned on your site. Thank you for doing such wonderfully creative and responsible work.

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