Friday, 24 February 2012

OΔ+ - 'shoes that bloom' - interview with Owner

For my most recent MA project of creating fully bio-degradable, highly desireable shoes, I interviewed Christiaan Maats, Founder and Owner of + and found his appraoch and replies so inspiring that I decided to publish them here.

1. Please tell me more about how Oat Shoes came to life: what was the
initial idea behind it and how was the journey to becoming a real
product with a team of people?

I came up with the concept in 2008 during my graduation project for my Industrial Design master. I had researched  ‘Storytelling through Product Design’ in Sydney, Australia and I wanted to tell my own story with a product. I developed the story of OAT Shoes to reunite people with the cycles of nature: in everything that ends lie the seeds of new beginnings. Whether those are flowers, a new product or even a new idea. 

Sustainable shoes were sparse back then, often very ugly and based on recycling, making them cumbersome to get rid of: once you've worn out your shoes, you have to find a box and an address to send them to and then ship them off, without really knowing or seeing what happens to the shoes. To me it seemed too much trouble and too little fun. I thought: I want shoes that look good and I want to be able to just throw them out in the organic waste bin. Or better yet: I want to be able to bury them and have flowers grow out. Then they're really part of nature and you become part of nature's cycle.

We went through several design stages, learning to use the materials, exploring production methods, finding people who could make the shoe and believed in the concept, talking to experts in various fields. We've explored and learned so many things on so many levels, telling the whole story would take a book!

2. What motivated you to make a pair of sustainable shoes? And why did
you choose bio-degradability (as opposed to other sustainable values)?

I guess I'm impatient by nature. I had a clear vision of what I believed the future should look like and didn't see anyone doing it, so I decided to do it myself in stead of wait for it to happen. I chose biodegradability because it's the most intuitive way to link back to nature, and it's the easiest way to get rid of a product: you just chuck it out. Like I explained earlier: recycled products often need  to be brought somewhere or sent off to some factory where you lose site of what happens to them. When you bury something you're in direct touch with nature and you get a great reward: new life. Aside from that: recycled soles are still toxic. Biodegradable ones are not.

3. Why specifically sneakers; what influenced your design?
Are you consdiering expanding your range to producing more
fashion-driven shoes? Or bags?
Sneakers are a personal preference: I love to wear them. I wanted to create shoes that everybody could and would want to wear and I think sneakers provide the biggest audience. 

To introduce the concept of OAT Shoes, I wanted to offer a complete collection of sneakers based on classic models: a high-top, a chukka, a tennis classic and what became a casual weaver/boat shoe cross-over. The clear-cut, clean designs contrast geometric lines with the organic qualities of the materials, which give the sneakers their unique look and feel. I designed the Virgin Collection to be a presentation of the shoes in their purest, most basic form, using only white and natural hemp shades for the upper complemented by the colorful soles that symbolize the four elements. It is the point of departure for future creations, a blank canvas that invites people to wonder about other possibilities and future incarnations of the concept.   

The new Autumn collection has a more minimalistic look and features deep-toned autumn colors. It's a more sophisticated style, so we are definitely evolving the style and looking at new possibilities. We've also developed a new bag: a leather shopper based on the classic plastic bag and we've got a bunch of products on the list to be developed. 

4. What about finding fully bio-degradable materials and joining
techniques - how much of a challenge was it?

Very big: the biggest challenge was not using glue, because shoes are litterally stiff with glue. Also using the hemp canvas was a big challenge. Making a shoe purely by stitching it is very hard and it asks a lot of the seamstresses.

5. Can you talk about the technical aspects of materials and joining?
Or is it a secret? (If it is, don't you believe this knowledge is
better off shared to create a more sustainable world for everyone e.g.
Nike's Green xChange?)
It's no secret: we stitch. We do have some creative solutions up our sleeve which we don't reveal. While I do believe in sharing the knowledge, the difficulty with being a small brand is that when you do reveal all your techniques, it makes it easier for the big boys to push you out of the market. That's why we're a bit hesitant to tell absolutely everything. However, we are working to get it all out in the open in the future and get everyone who wants to involved in the development of new products. Aside from that we do offer advice to individual designers and starting entrepreneurs to get them going. (so if you need specific advice, let us know!)

6. What was the reaction of people when you were developing you shoes
(sceptical or interested?)? 
Actually people almost always responded enthusiastically to the concept, be it with slight disbelief. Everybody understands the premise, although they do often have questions as to how we achieved it.

When we were developing the shoes, people from the industry always reacted with disbelief: 'it can't be done' was the general reaction. It feels quite good to prove them wrong!


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