Czech designer Marie Nina Václavková: My shoes can be repaired, but I want them to also be recyclable

Shoes are a passion for Czech designer Marie Nina Václavková. In terms of ergonomics, as well adopting environmentally-friendly practices, shoes are perhaps the most problematic area of the clothing industry. “It is a small piece of architecture, a sculpture around the feet with very strict rules,” explains Václavková. The Czech designer prefers to try out her prototype designs on herself – in size 36.

Czech designer Marie Nina Václavková: My shoes can be repaired, but I want them to also be recyclable

Author: Kateřina Přidalová •  Photo: Tomáš Rubín • Translated by: Dominik Jůn

► For Czech version click here

In this year’s Czech Grand Design competition, Maria Nina Václavková’s “OffCuts” collection gained recognition in the “Discovery of the Year” category.  The young Czech also designed and sells a range of felt slippers called “Mule”, and her “Rectangle Shoes” range is featured in the collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met). Presently, Václavková has joined the ranks of the matériO Prague team. During her interview with Kateřina Přidalová, the pair examined each other’s footwear and discussed the difficulties of adopting sustainable principles in the field of shoemaking.

The aim of your award-winning OffCuts project was to create a type of shoe that is assembled mechanically, meaning without the need for glue. Such gluing is problematic both in terms of recyclability and also the ability to repair shoes. OffCuts evidently seeks to be a prototype charting a different direction for shoemaking. What motivated you to seek to create a more “sustainable” kind of shoe?
It was important for me to find a way to not be supporting mere consumerism and also to minimise the negative impact of the lifecycle of shoes. I carried out research into the various paths towards sustainability and asked myself whether it was better to make shoes from biodegradable materials or from materials that are suitable for recycling. But there is no real simple solution to such a question.

In which direction did you ultimately embark?
My main aim was to increase the lifespans of the consumer products I produced, and to thus enable owners to cultivate greater emotional relationships with the items they have purchased. My shoes are repairable. For me that was very important, because sadly today many shoes on the market simply cannot be repaired. Yes, for some you can have a new sole installed, but far more often people still wear down the soles and then throw their shoes away. For example, trainers are difficult to repair. For the Offcuts line, the individual components of the shoes are held together via small screws, insertable systems and stitching. In the future, I would like to be able to produce my products from recycled and re-recyclable materials. When shoes come to the end of their lifespan, the mechanical puzzle construction principle enables them to be taken apart into separate materials. And these can then be further utilised or recycled without losing their value. That means the materials can remain in a closed loop for as long as possible.  But so far, I have not been able to succeed in this.

What are the main obstacles?
Recycling is a complicated issue, to which we often want to adhere in the belief that it is a universal remedy. But such recycling must be meaningful. EVA foam [Ethylene-vinyl acetate], which I used to create prototypes, is indeed recyclable in theory, but no European or Czech companies that produce it offer the means to recycle it.

Where do you see the solution?
PLUSFOAM, one of the companies with whom I tried to establish a dialogue, manufactures a similar material, albeit which is designed to be fully recyclable. They process both so-called “pre-consumer waste”, as well as “post-consumer waste”. That means that when you decide to dispose of your old shoes, you can look up the specific model of shoe on their website, and they will locate your nearest centre in which the used material can be recycled. For Czechs, that means, for example, in Germany. They work with large companies such as New Balance, Toms or Patagonia. Sadly, for me as a small-scale designer, it is not possible to establish a collaborative relationship with these because of the fact that I run a retail not wholesale operation. Larger companies have an advantage in this regard. But I do believe that this will improve. At the moment, manufacturing plants are mostly not geared towards circular design principles. There is also the question of whether efforts towards circular design by a small-scale designer/manufacturer serve a point from a logistical perspective. 

In recent years some people have been making their own shoes at home according to DIY guides from the internet, or partaking in shoemaking workshops. Such methods do not require any complex technologies, merely a clever pair of hands. Have you ever considered developing a kind of assembly kit shoe that customers could assemble at home? After all, the conversation about future designers frequently envisages not finished products, but rather offering a system for product design – be that algorithms for 3D printers or mechanical components – that the end user then assembles.
It is an interesting concept, and I know many people who are interested in the idea of being able to assemble products at home in a DIY manner. However, there are also plenty of people who simply want to purchase a professionally produced product and don’t want to, figuratively speaking “dirty their hands”. If people are to end up creating their own shoes – be that from patterns from the internet intended for home 3D printers, or sew their own shoes by hand – there is a legitimate question regarding the ability to maintain the quality of design. Otherwise, it could lead to a degradation of style. But it is difficult to say – perhaps not. OffCuts may well be an assembly-type of manufacture, but the construction process is in fact very complicated, and if people ended up trying to do that at home then the designs would have to be altered both in a mechanical and aesthetic sense.

Three years ago I bought some shoes made of pineapple skin made by a British company, and they continue to hold together superbly. This was an experiment for me. But at the start I was a little wary, because the shoes were not cheap.
I have also owned a pair of Native Shoes trainers for three years. I take them everywhere, even in the rain, and they are still in good shape. Native is a Canadian vegan company for whom non-animal materials are a chief concern. However, the materials that they do use are not particularly sustainable. Although they did recently bring a limited edition trainer to the market that was entirely produced from natural materials, which should be entirely biodegradable. European companies do not have it easy as they face stiff competition from Asia. Here, within the EU, I am familiar with the limits and necessary certifications, and if I want I can go and take a look at a production facility.

The 100 percent sustainability concept is evidently quite complicated. It comprises social, economic, and environmental components, which can often not be satisfied without the generation of waste. You have said in interviews elsewhere that asides from the conduct of companies, small steps taken by consumers are equally important. You are striving for sustainability in your business – what about in your day-to-day life?
For me this principle forms an inseparable aspect of both my personal and professional life. Sustainability in design is as equally important as product form and function. It is another equal pillar of the design process – and the most difficult one. I don’t want to betray my time spent as a player in this industry. In recent times, there are strong debates about sustainability, and I am bothered by the fact that this has resulted in a vociferous hateful campaign on social media. For example, when people slam a vegan for being caught throwing away a plastic bottle into a regular waste bin. That is an example of how people mutually berate each other for failing to act in a 100 percent pure way. But no-one is capable of that. For me, the important aspect is to focus on a selected area of interest and to give that my all. I try to behave as responsibly as possible in my personal life. We don’t have to be the best in everything. We can’t go mad, and must also be able to enjoy life.

The 100 percent sustainability idea is also often accompanied by marketing “greenwashing”, in which products present themselves as organic and sustainable, but in fact are nothing of the sort. What is your take on this?
That complicates my work considerably. Sometimes I feel as if in order to fully evaluate the environmental impact of every component of production I would need a degree in chemistry and technology. Two years ago, we were at a trade fair in Milan which featured shoe design and accessory materials and components. Many companies there displayed green signs that they were organic, green, and sustainable. We asked them to explain the exact nature of these claims. But in most cases, their claims were only partially true. For example, it is welcome when a company uses less water in the production process, but the problem is that asides from that their products are in no way environmentally friendly, because they still might be using toxic dyes.

And so the presentation of information is a problem.
I view non-transparent communications as a major problem. It is understandable when something cannot be 100 percent as promised, but it is not understandable when companies try to gloss over that. Which is why I continually seek out supplemental information, then verify this, and maintain a sense of scepticism that often leads to disappointment. Be that as a consumer or as a designer. Greenwashing is dangerous, and causes great harm to the overall field of sustainability. It can even create a false sense of a clear conscience, and the belief that so long as there is a green sign, consumption habits can continue as before. It would help if people were unafraid to admit that they are not perfect.

Where do you draw the line as a designer in terms of what you will or will not accept as sustainable?
That is a very subjective question. Because sustainability is a very complicated and complex matter that covers a wide range of factors. It is not always possible to find a single all-encompassing solution or answer as to what is bad and what is good. I do try to carefully and judiciously select potential solutions based on my best possible sense of knowledge and good conscience; to think critically, and to look at things from multiple viewpoints. For example, it is important for me to not use animal-based products. Similarly, I would also not use materials where I did not fully know their origins, how they were manufactured, and how they should be disposed-of at the end of their usable lifespan – as well as who produces such materials, and under what conditions. But sustainability is not just about environmentally friendly materials. Rather, what is required is an overall change in our habits and approaches to consumption, as well as our relationships to things and indeed our entire planet.

In 2013, the Czech NGO NaZemi (On the Earth) launched its Obuj se do toho (Wear These Shoes) campaign, which highlighted the issue of disposable fast fashion and sweatshops. Have you noticed any changes in consumer behaviour since that time?
I do have the sense of movement in the air – of people taking a greater interest, more pressure on companies – but I don’t know the extent to which this resonates outside of my bubble. One female friend has no interest in fashion, and another no interest in sustainability, buying clothes from fast fashion labels. However, because the latter friend buys only very little clothing, then despite the fact that the clothes are not overtly environmentally friendly, her environmental footprint may well be smaller than the eco-footprint of some blogger interested in sustainable fashion who buys a large amount of clothing.

In recent years, the Czech Republic has seen the emergence of a number of small shoe labels such as CAVE, Vasky, and Playbag. How do you assess the activities of your colleagues in the market?
It is fantastic. Anyone wanting a quality local product finally has the ability to purchase something here.

Do you believe that large international corporations will be able to reshape the consumer market towards sustainability? Right now, it seems that only limited edition shoes are geared in this direction.
It is important for such pressure to work in both directions. People are certainly taking an interest in sustainable fashion, and both large and small companies are responding to this. The large firms have the resources for research, and the start-ups have the bolder sense of vision. It is welcome that large corporations are also concerning themselves with sustainability questions, even though their motivations are naturally more business than ethics-oriented. They are helping to spread awareness of this issue among the wider public. But the danger of greenwashing is very real, and many companies unfortunately continue to be lured down that path.

Your Rectangular Shoes, which were produced while you were still studying at the University of West Bohemia in Plzeň, are now part of the collection New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met). Are you the only Czech to be so honoured?
This is indeed a great honour for me, and I don’t honestly know if other Czechs have managed the same. They wanted the shoes as part of their permanent collection after I won the Talent Design competition in the town of Zlín, which led to some international media coverage.

17. 9. 2019



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