Representing the creative future

Keiga Hua Hui wanted to know what Mats Rombaut thinks of digital fashion

The menswear student spoke to the Belgian footwear designer about his eponymous vegan shoewear label

What’s the future of fashion design in a digital world? Keiga Hua Hui, a Chinese MA Menswear student at the Royal College of Art in London has been contemplating this question. In an attempt to find answers, he connected with a designer a bit further ahead in his career, Belgian Mats Rombaut, who started his sustainable shoe brand in the early 2010s. The duo talks about what to do when the going gets tough along the way (which it always does) if you really have to get industry experience before starting your own company, and how realistic a world of digital fashion could be.

This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on


Monday 24 May 2021, 3pm Paris time

Keiga Hua Hui: I know your career path is quite incredible so far. Can you tell me something about what has been most challenging for you in terms of creating your brand?

Mats Rombaut: The brand is now eight years old and every day is still like a survival game. I started alone and we’re now a team of ten people. Especially in the last two years it’s grown exponentially. I think it’s important to know that it’s going to be a very long road. Perseverance is an important quality, you cannot give up! In the beginning, it was quite a struggle financially for sure. I was working at Damir Doma for two and a half years in product development and it was very good to learn a lot of things. I had a lot of responsibilities for my age. At some point, you think you’re prepared enough to start a brand, having saved up a bit of money during those years of working, but you’re never really prepared. No one told me that it was going to be very hard to make money with your own designs and your own brand. I thought: “Okay, if I do everything right, I can just make a living with it.” I realised it’s not really like that and that a lot of young designers do consulting for other brands. Once I started doing that, I was able to grow the brand, otherwise it would not be here anymore. In the beginning it was also hard to manage time and ideas, and to try and have fun. In my case, I wanted to make sure that we’re 100% natural and biodegradable, so there was a lot of product development and error involved. We were making everything by hand in Italy, with our own materials and coating it with natural latex. In the end I was just working day and night.

Keiga: You must still be really busy! How do you balance life and work?

Mats: That’s a very good question. As I said, I just work all the time, so there’s not so much space to have a private life. I have become a little more conscious about that in the past two years. I don’t want to continue this way. When I started, the brand was in my 30 square metres studio apartment in Paris, and there was an intern coming to my house every day. It was really DIY with boxes everywhere and it was a mess for two years! Then I moved into a bigger apartment, which could have more people in it, but there was still no division, because all my work was there. More and more space was being taken over, and I even turned my bedroom into my office. In the end, I slept in the bathroom, it was that bad. Now I’m in a separate apartment, I have a separate workplace, and this is already a very big change. Also it’s about deciding to stop at a certain time. Now I stop at 11pm, sometimes 9pm. I also go to the gym, two times a week, and I decided to just be more healthy.

“I had a favourite shoe and nobody liked it or bought it. So then you wonder what the future is going to be like when nobody wants to buy your favourite thing. You just have to make some compromises to still reach your goal, even if your goal is just surviving. ” – Mats Rombaut

Keiga: Yes, I totally get that… Touching on your experience working for other designers, do you feel that it’s important to have strong relationships within the industry before starting your own brand? Or is just having a strong creative vision enough?

Mats: What I learned throughout the past eight years is that there is no one formula to make it. One thing alone is not enough, that’s for sure. Even if you have a lot of talent, and you’re making great things that people want, it’s everything around it as well: the way you present it, the way you sell it. In that sense, I would say that having connections or knowledge about how the industry works is valuable, in order to not make certain mistakes. It’s always good to have a network of people and know what you’re getting yourself into. I think the most important thing is that you do it in a way that works for you. When I think about it now, I perhaps felt pressure to go to a lot of fashion parties and forced myself to do this kind of stuff, even though I didn’t always enjoy it. Now I realise that it wasn’t really necessary. For the last two years, I was kind of isolated from it, and we made so much more progress than when you’re distracted by all this passion. I think that when you find your way, people will be naturally drawn to you. It doesn’t mean that it’s all going to work, that’s something I’ve also experienced. I had a favourite shoe and nobody liked it or bought it. So then you wonder what the future is going to be like when nobody wants to buy your favourite thing. You just have to make some compromises to still reach your goal, even if your goal is just surviving.

“When you’re working in the sustainable realm, it’s hard to make certain compromises.” – Mats Rombaut

Keiga: So you design your collection according to the market, but you also follow your heart?

Mats: I was really following my heart and what I thought was good or needed in the fashion landscape at the time. And there were no vegan shoes out there, apart from one major brand that did it for women. Everyone looked down on veganism a bit because everything needed to be something like horse leather or fur, you know? Leather was a status symbol. So my initial shoes didn’t really work financially, and I had to adapt to survive. Little by little, I made some compromises, still staying ethical, but finding the boundaries. When you’re working in the sustainable realm, it’s hard to make certain compromises. Now it’s a balance between creativity and having enough money to keep going. I feel very lucky that we have reached this point where I can, again, follow my heart a bit more. We’re experimenting in our studio with 3D printing, which I wouldn’t have been able to do before, and we’re really interested in digital and pushing the design forward as much as possible while still being vegan and ethical. We want to do a closed loop system that works on a bigger scale, and where it’s less about changing the collection every season.

Keiga: Would you advise recent graduates to first get a bit of experience before setting out to do their own thing?

Mats: I think it’s important to know how a company works. I would definitely recommend getting experience in the first few years. It’s a cliche: “Make mistakes somewhere else rather than on your own.” But it’s a very valid point. Even if you do digital things that are just made in your studio, I think it’s still important to know what kind of business you want, how you will manage it, and how big you want it to be. It’s important to be honest with yourself and understand what you want to reach, and to set your goals. I didn’t do that in the beginning and that was a mistake; the goal was just to survive as a brand.

“Getting noticed has a lot to do with consistency and perseverance, not giving up. It’s about finding a creative way to communicate.” – Mats Rombaut

Keiga: Do you have any advice for young brands to get recognised in today’s market?

Mats: It’s easier today to start your own thing and get a bit of attention without a big budget, because of Instagram and other social media platforms. On the other hand, it also makes it harder as there are so many people out there flooding the internet with content. Getting noticed has a lot to do with consistency and perseverance, not giving up. It’s about finding a creative way to communicate.

Keiga: Nowadays many brands are collaborating with 3D artists on their visuals. What do you think about digital fashion, like 3D products, and how it’s positioned within the fashion market now and in the future?

Mats: I don’t believe it will completely overtake the industry. There’s a certain crowd in fashion that’s educated and into the 3D path, and it’s quite an intellectual way to approach fashion. Yet humans are still programmed to hoard and amass objects and that’s why I believe it will never completely change. It’s similar to sustainable fashion: people have been talking about it for decades but it never fully came to fruition. When I started the brand in 2013, sustainability became again a bit more of a topic, and now it’s everywhere, but it took a very long time. Getting people to make an educated decision on a big scale takes a long time. I do like the idea of 3D design because there’s no waste, and fashion is still quite old school in terms of going to shows and events. In 2021, I don’t think that’s important anymore.

Keiga: The technology is moving so fast now with digital fashion, and you can simulate anything with a very realistic effect. I think there’s an incredible opportunity for a new type of designer who can design in an unlimited manner without having a team.

Mats: For sure, I agree.

Keiga: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, it was really an enjoyable conversation, and thank you for your insights.

Mats: You’re welcome! Even though everything is hard and the world is in a difficult place, it’s still important to be hopeful, have your goals, and be positive about the future. It’s all about balance. I wish you all the best with your graduate collection and I hope to see it soon. I will check it out for sure!


Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.