Beginning in 2014, I started spotting them on well-dressed Parisians of all ages—literally, from baby to boomer—as often as I was seeing Sézane handbags dangle from the arms of in-the-know locals. At the height of the Stan Smith revival (and maybe a year later), I couldn’t walk down the street without being drawn to a parade of sneakers: a mix of Adidas, New Balances, and Converses, with Vejas thrown into the mix.
With its signature V in a host of colorful hues and shapes that skew sporty or urban depending on the wearer, Vejas were compelling in their word-of-mouth popularity and air of mystery. It was around this time that I decided I’d look into the company to find out for myself: What was the fuss about?
The fuss, it turns out, was not only because its styles were unequivocally sharp and easy to pair with everything, but because of the company’s abiding ethical vision. From the time it launched 13 years ago, Veja has produced a sustainably manufactured shoe that founders Sébastien Kopp and Ghislain Morillion say costs five to seven times more to make as other sneakers.
Each model is designed in Paris and produced in Brazil from eco-materials, such as wild rubber from the Amazon, fair-trade cotton, recycled plastic bottles, and upcycled tilapia hides. The factory pays its workers fair wages, and Kopp and Morillion operate under full transparency, going so far as to publish their contracts with their Brazilian partners (and estimates from Chinese factories they opted not to work with) on the brand’s website, along with full disclosure of materials used in production that can be traced back to their source.
Impressed by the founder’s ethics and commitment to being a force for change in the fashion industry, I made the permanent switch to Veja.
The models I’d acquire over the years—two different pairs of the Esplar designed for Madewell, and the V-10 Unicorn in iridescent silver, which I wear religiously—were first and foremost more comfortable than the Converse I wore into disrepair, and ultimately better priced and durable.
Since then, Veja has rolled out several interesting collaborations, including the recent one with Christophe Lemaire, as well as vegan variations. But its biggest innovation to date—the one I’ve been excited about since I first learned it was in the works—stands to shake up an industry dominated by legacy brands such as Nike, Mizuna, and Asics.
Veja's Condor running sneaker is the first ecological shoe of its kind, designed with 53% bio-based and recycled materials. “Our challenge was to create a running shoe without plastic. Ninety-nine percent of the materials in existing running shoes are plastic and should be prohibited,” Kopp tells me. The plastic he speaks of, which wasn’t used to make the Condor, is specifically a polymer that’s 99% petroleum. “Our society’s dependence on plastic and oil is an ecological disaster,” announces the pocket brochure that comes with each pair. “From drilling petroleum to plastic waste flowing into the sea, why aren’t we looking at how we can reduce our dependence on both?”
Getting to that point required four years of R&D before the product was even conceived. The founders hired a running technician from Mizuna who brought deep technical knowledge and infused the company with the running culture it was missing. The brand overcame many failures over the years, testing and reinventing until they got it right. Right meant approbation from a host of testers, from amateurs to running industry pros, all over the world. “They were bluffed by the performance of the shoe, particularly given that it’s our first!” says Kopp.
The shoe is a balance of natural materials such as banana oil, rice husk, and sugar cane for the expanded midsole, castor oil for the upper stability inserts, and more innovative elements like Alveomesh (a technical fabric made from 100% recycled plastic bottles that lends breathability) and L-FOAM, a proprietary technology made out of 50% natural latex and 50% synthetic latex, used for the cushioning insert that protects against vibrations.
I brought home the light gray pair and immediately took them for a spin on the streets of Paris. I’m by no means a serious runner—ongoing back pain from a herniated disk limits the activities I feel comfortable pursuing—but as a fast walker, I’m just as much the target audience as a casual jogger or marathoner. Don’t run at all? The Condor could still be worn as an everyday shoe.
While the design is just as sharp as Veja’s other models, the Condor is ultimately a far more technical shoe—in shape, physical resistance, breathability, and lightness. It has excellent traction (great for city runs or bumpier terrain) and offers more stability for the ankle, which I often found lacking in other running shoes. But most important, it has good arch support and made me feel like I was in perfect balance with the ground. Contact with the street was soft and light, which hasn’t been the case with Veja’s other shoes. (By the end of a long day walking in my Esplars, I often have heavy legs and discomfort in my feet.)
“Comfort has always been a weaker point for us,” says Kopp. “But through working on the trainer, we’re going back and adding more support to all of our existing models.'' That’s very good news.
Launching today, 10,000 of what the founders call “reality-check” pairs of Condors will hopefully find their way into athletic wardrobes around the world and mark the beginning of industry change.
“Everyone is at 1% of what we can do from an ecological point of view,” said Kopp at the end of our chat. “It’s about making it a priority.”
Lindsey Tramuta is the author of The New Paris (Abrams, 2017). Her next book, about the women shaping Paris, will be released in April 2020. You can follow her on Instagram: @lostncheeseland.
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