Mats Rombaut is the creative mind behind his own brand, Rombaut – the shoes Mats would like to wear in his every day, produced in a life-friendly way. Rombaut gathers all the qualities many brands aim at having: personality, avant-garde, success and, above all, awareness. Mats has told us what Rombaut means to him, and his understanding of today’s fashion.
Hi Mats, nice to meet you. What got you into fashion and how long have you been designing for?
I think it was a combination of different things, but mainly I thought it was going to be fun! I’m from a small village in Belgium, and when I watched Absolutely Fabulous at the age of 16, I thought: “this is how a life in fashion is going to be.” (Laughs).
I have been designing for my own brand for three and a half years now. Before that, I was working in product development for other brands like Damir Doma and Lanvin.
Why did you decide to create your own brand? What was your earliest fashion wish?
I decided to start my own brand because I felt ready for it and I thought the idea I had was very relevant and needed to be out there. When I was younger, I was a Comme Des Garçons fan and my earliest fashion wish was to sell in their store in Japan. It came true when they bought my first collection. It was the most exciting moment of my (fashion) life.
You are from Belgium, a country well-known for its fashion history. How is the current scene like?
I actually left Belgium when I was 19. They were having great parties at the time, which is how I got in touch with the fashion scene in Antwerp – Fanklub parties with lots of Antwerp Academy students and at the Culture Club in Ghent. Most of these people are still in fashion 10 years later.
What I love about fashion from Belgium is that it is about individualism. Every designer has a very different story and artistic vision. Ann Demeulemeester, Raf Simons, Dries Van Noten, Walter Van Beirendonck, Margiela... I love the diversity and I have a lot of respect for what they created. Belgians aren’t very proud of their heritage (my grandparents were farmers and I guess most of the populations’ ancestors were), but a lot of great things have come from such a small country. I think we should be more proud!
Your collections are life-friendly and you don’t use animals. How important is it for you to discover and innovate with the materials? What kind of materials do you use?
It’s the core of what I do. It’s the reason the brand exists and also why I still like to do it. I’m very curious, so this quest for new materials and processes comes naturally. I use natural fibers where possible, such as cotton, pineapple fiber, coconut fibre, etc., but also manmade leathers which are PU-based. For footwear the materials you use are quite specific and they need to be very durable, so synthetics are a good alternative to leather.
Where are your shoes made in? Do you control all the process?
They are made in Portugal. We visit the factory once a month but we’re constantly in contact. We control the whole process, from sketch to final prototypes, to production deliveries and quality.
How difficult was it for you to begin your own brand with this personal sustainable view?
It was hard because I didn’t want to make compromises in the beginning. I wanted to make a vegan shoe that was also bio-degradable and all-natural. It was technically difficult to come to a first prototype because I was substituting all the different shoe components for other untested materials. They were organic, haute couture shoes made in Italy, and not many people can afford that. Now I have two lines within the collection: one is natural and organic, the other also uses technical fabrics and manmade leathers.
Your brand is green, but how green are you in your daily life?
I’m quite green because I almost don’t leave the house and mostly walk or use public transport. I buy most of my food in the local bio store around the corner, but that is about it. Also, I don’t buy clothes. I’m wearing the same stuff for the past 3 years. To be honest, that’s more because of a budget problem than a green and deliberate choice… If I bought clothes, I would buy very little anyway. I still wear a Bernhard Wilhelm sweater I bought 11 years ago, there are so many memories attached to it. I can see people’s face being like, “oh he’s wearing that one again…” but I don’t really care (laughs).
Where do you see the sustainable fashion industry going? Have you noticed more interest from the consumers lately?
I don’t know if we can speak of a “sustainable fashion industry,” because sustainability is a concept you can apply to any fashion company. And I think it’s very vague, everyone interprets it the way they want it to. I hope designers question themselves more in their choices: not only the aesthetic choices, but also where the materials come from and what impact it has on the environment. To be honest, I think there is more interest in sustainability but I’m not sure if it’s deep and genuine. There is definitely a lot of press about it, but if it translates in actions or change in behaviour I don’t know… I guess it’s probably a general thing, people have become quite indifferent to everything because we get an overload of stimuli every day.
People think sustainable fashion is too expensive. How do you respond to that?
Sustainable usually also implies that workers have gotten a fair wage, that the quantities are limited, the materials noble… So yes, this can result in a higher price. If it is “too expensive” to do the right thing, that depends on everyone’s own judgement. I’d rather buy 1 piece that I really believe in than 2 or 3 mediocre things.
Nowadays we consume a lot of fast fashion, give us and advice to be more conscious about fashion industry and the fast fashion industry. Why should we choose a brand like yours?
I think it’s more conscious and sustainable to buy less, and to buy something that has a special value to you and can last longer. I think individuality is important. For me fashion is a way to communicate a part of who you are (or who you want to be), when you wear a t-shirt from a mass-market brand, you’re not only communicating the brand’s image but in a way you are promoting them and silently agreeing to their values, including their production methods, etc.
Today it’s a trend to spend a lot of money to show that you “don’t care.” Instead, when you spend money, why not showing that you “do care” and you’re happy to know that it went to a good cause? I think a good way to be conscious about your purchases is to realise the power you have as a consumer, not to accept the status quo and to put your money into something you believe in. That’s already a big step.  There are a few reasons to buy a brand like Rombaut: first of all because you like the aesthetic, because you’re looking for something unique. Secondly, because you believe in supporting something positive, a counter-weight against the standardisation of fashion.
What was the inspiration behind this last collection?
How technology can help us improve our physical performance. We did a photoshoot in collaboration with the Jacques Rogge Sports Science Lab in Ghent. It shows this relationship between the human subject and machines. The equipment you see on the pictures is used to measure the impact on your feet of your movements while running. I love to look at fashion in a scientific, product-oriented way. This collection was all about the objects, not the people wearing them. In the materials there is a contrast between organic and synthetic, which is also something that comes back every season. I like extreme contrasts!
And what’s your inspiration for the next season?
I won’t tell you yet, but it’s going to be big! It’s an idea I’ve had for a couple of months already and I can finally make it happen!