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Vagabond Shoemakers founder on the past, present and future of the Swedish footwear brand

By Huw Hughes

12 Sept 2019


Vice president and creative director of Vagabond Shoemakers, Marie Nilsson Peterzén, founded her Swedish footwear brand in 1993 with her husband Mats Nilsson, some twenty years after his family founded the original brand, Vagabond.

It began its days as a pure men’s footwear brand, before diving into unisex and women’s shoes as it grew its presence across Europe. Fast forward to today and Vagabond Shoemakers is primarily found in physical and online multi-brand stores worldwide, with around 1,000 stockists worldwide and a number of own-stores and concept stores in selected cities throughout Europe. Prices for Vagabond Shoemakers footwear ranges from between 60 euros and 200 euros.

FashionUnited spoke with Peterzén about the origins of Vagabond Shoemakers, how the brand combines high-quality minimalist designs with sustainable production processes, and the launch this Autumn of ‘Atelier by Vagabond’ - a mini collection inspired by the brand’s 90s archives.

Could you tell us a bit about the origin of the brand?

The brand is Swedish and was in my husband’s family for many many years. They used to make men’s shoes in the 70s and the Vagabond Shoemakers brand was launched in 1973. I was working in the company and after about 10 years of being there I met my husband. We lived and worked together and eventually the opportunity came about for us to buy the brand from the family, so we did.

Our goal then became to really build put the brand up on in the fashion scene, but to do that as a footwear brand in Sweden wasn’t too easy because as we the country didn’t have any shoe factories at all. So we took the decision to move to Italy towards the end of the 80s where we opened a design studio. We started making shoes there and around the corner we had all the competences we needed; tanneries, outsole factories and last factories.

At the beginning we were making very few shoes, mainly unisex ones - and we sold them in Scandinavia and Germany. We then started to make more women's shoes and by the time we moved back to Sweden in 1993, we were producing around 50 percent men’s shoes and 50 percent women’s shoes. Today that’s changed to around 75 to 80 percent women’s shoes.

How important is sustainability to the brand?

It’s funny, someone told me last week: “you were in sustainability before it became a trend,” but to be honest at the beginning it was really just about surviving.

Many years ago, we made what we called an ecological shoe. We bought the leather in Sweden, we sent it by air to China where the shoes were produced - they were then delayed so we had to take them back to Sweden by air which isn’t good at all sustainability-wise. I’m not proud of that. But what we do today is that we select and focus on certain things that are important to improve, and then we apply that to our entire line.

For example, we have been working on chrome free tanned leather for inner soles and lining, because we know that chrome tanned leather might cause allergies. And this is something we have applied on all our shoes, regardless of what upper they have.

We are also focusing on creating better glues to use in the production of our shoes. Most glues for shoe production are strong because of the durability, but also harmful to breathe in, so you’ll need good ventilation in the factories and protective equipment to protect from the fumes. However, due to warm weather, we see that protective equipment is not always used. The solution for this is better glues. We’ve searched the market for alternatives, but since we did not find any, we have a collaboration with a Swedish laboratory to find one ourselves. Right now, we have the first version out for testing with promising results so far.

We also work with very few factories, the number varies a little bit from season to season, but it is around 5, all in Vietnam, which means they are easy to monitor and make sure everything is as it should be.

So in regard to all those points, sustainability to us isn’t just about doing one thing and leaving it at that, it’s about making a lot of small changes that impact the company across its entire supply chain.

I’d also like to stress that first and foremost we are a fashion brand. Everyone talks about sustainability and it is incredibly important, of course, but I really want to emphasize that fashion is our passion. Fashion is really the fun part for us.

Could you tell us a bit about your shoe take back service? How has the response from customers been?

We offer a shoe bring back service, which we collaborated on with the German company I:Collect. We saw that H&M had a similar service, but that they weren’t doing it with shoes. When I:Collect had developed their techniques and started with shoes a couple of years ago, we where one of their pilot companies.

We collect shoes in all our concept stores that customers no longer want, and send them to I:Collect in Germany. They systematically sort the shoes and offer shoes that can still be used to secondhand stores around the world. Shoes that can no longer be used are shredded down and sorted into different fractions. One part is rubber and right now we are testing to use that post-consumer rubber in new shoes. That is fantastic and one step towards becoming more circular!

The response from our customers has been great. We really want to go a step further though. Our overall goal is to teach people to use their shoes for a longer time, to increase the lifespan of their shoes by either using them for longer or giving them away - that’s really the best for the environment. It’s a responsibility we all have.

You also have a small collection at the moment of completely animal-free footwear, how has the response to that been? Will you increase this range?

The response has been great. We had requests from many of our customers who wanted that type of shoe. We understand and respect that there are people who don’t want to use animal products. Saying that, we aren’t planning on increasing the size of the range. At the moment we are only selling them in our own channels, and we think that works well. We think we have a good selection and, but for us, leather is still the best material for long- lasting footwear.

Are there any new or innovative materials you’re particularly excited about in the footwear scene?

It’s an exciting area and we are always looking into other materials but there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made before these materials are good enough to be used. For instance, we are looking into using grape skin and pineapples to make our footwear, but that type of material just isn’t good enough yet. Tencel is really exciting for lining and we are using antibacterial cork for innersoles in our non-animal collection. I think cork is being used more and more, but apart from that there isn’t so much. They just aren’t meeting the same standards.

We launched a group of men’s shoes in a material from wood, but it didn’t sell so well, and it isn’t as durable as the materials it’s trying to replace. So, we are always looking into new materials, but they need to meet the standards before we really start using them.

Speaking of materials, if there is one thing we really don’t like at all it is waste product and leftovers, so as exciting as new materials might be, managing production quantity is always important. On our website we write: “Only buy what you really love”. That’s something that we really believe strongly.

It’s interesting to see that as you’ve grown you’ve kept your mini-factory at your HQ in Varberg, Sweden. How important has the factory been to the company?

It is essential. We really don’t know any other way of doing what we do. Every shoe we have, we’ve made a prototype in-house. There are around 25 people working there, designers, technicians, shoemakers - it is vital, and it will remain vital.

What markets are you doing best in at the moment?

We are focusing heavily on the UK and US now. Germany and Scandinavia are still our strongest. We started off in Germany, so we are very well known there, and we have steady distribution there. We also think that having a strong foundation there has set the standard a bit - if you work with Germany you must really deliver, and we deliver. If we make a mistake, we take care of it, we answer emails within 24 hours, we are well organized. Germans set that standard. In fact, a lot of people think the brand is German because of how well known it is there.

Do you have any plans for expansion in certain markets?

First, we are not planning on opening any more of our own stores. I think it’s good to have a few flagship stores in bigger cities, for example one in London would be good - but for the moment, it is too expensive to have a shoe store there.

We had one in Kingston, but it is closing. It was a bit of a test for us and we decided not to keep it open. It was fantastic but we are too unknown there. We want to grow with the customers we already have.

We think we work better with others and we are always looking to expand. I think that is a part of our story - we are not forced to do anything. We believe in partnership, if we have a good partnership we can grow, if we don’t, we’ll go to someone else.

You are selling sustainable and good quality fashion, how do you manage to keep the price down?

Efficiency. It’s as simple as that. We know how to make shoes as efficiently as possible, for example we know how to cut the leather so there is as little waste as possible. We also started our own warehouse in Vietnam many years ago to be able to handle the goods in a better way. We really believe that it is our responsibility to work in an efficient way so that we can still have a good business. It’s just about being efficient.

My husband uses to say: ‘It’s not difficult to go to Asia for cheap products, but it’s not okay.” That means the responsibility to be more cost efficient lies on the other parts of the value chain, the actions before and after production.

You are launching Atelier by Vagabond this Autumn, could you tell us a bit about that?

We are an affordable brand in the middle segment, but we wanted to reach a customer that maybe wants full leather lining - they want just that little extra or to pay a little bit more - so this collection is a little bit more expensive and made in a smaller volume.

They have some features that are just a little extra, some styles have full leather lining or prefabricated outsoles, some have molded outsoles and so on. We’ve asked a few customers if they are interested and they seem to be. We have started with Need Supply in the US, Selfridges in London, and a few stores in Copenhagen and Sweden. They launch on 25 September.

For Autumn we have created around ten lady pieces for three constructions and maybe two styles each. Then for Winter 2020 we are planning to launch both men and women’s collections.

What are your plans for the next 5-10 years?

That feels like a very long time away for me so it’s quite difficult to say. The past two years we have been a little worried, like many companies, because of the situation of the global market. But in the last six months, I feel very confident that we as a brand are on the right path and I am very happy with the direction we’re headed. I am confident. Everyone says the market is challenging but I think we just have to get used to it. This is how it is now.

Photos courtesy of the brand