Vegetarian Shoes: “We are Using More Natural and Plant-Based Materials Like Hemp and Pineapple Fibres”

Robin Webb, Founder Vegetarian Shoes
Robin Webb, Founder Vegetarian Shoes (image supplied)

Vegetarian Shoes has been a well-recognised part of the Brighton landscape since 1990. Founder Robin Webb began to make shoes and belts out of leather alternatives after leaving art college, when he discovered a synthetic microfibre used in the yachting upholstery which offered the same properties as animal leather.

The shoes now on sale at Vegetarian Shoes are mostly made-to-order according to specification in European and English factories, including one established as a co-op as far back as 1881. The shoes and accessories are shipped all over the world and are also available in a growing number of retail stores.

Please introduce your brand to our readers – what is the story of Vegetarian Shoes and why you’re not in fact Vegan Shoes?
Vegetarian Shoes have been going for 30 years in Oct this year. When we started people barely knew what a Vegetarian was, let alone a Vegan! All our shoes are Vegan though. It would be very hard to register ‘VeganShoes’ now as it has become a generic term. VeganShoes.Com redirects to our site.

veg shoes
Image courtesy of Vegetarian Shoes

Also I love the humour of ‘Vegetarian Shoes’. I love the idea of taking something and turning it into something else. The first shoes I produced were handmade by me using car-tyres for soles and old inner tubes and bits of rain coat cut up into over-sized bumper boots. There’s a pic on the website. And the store in Berlin has some in a glass case. Maybe there will be a veggie shoe museum one day.

What kind of materials are you seeing now in cruelty- free fashion, which do you find the most exciting?
Quality breathable synthetics was always the exciting thing. We were providing an alternative to cheap and sweaty plastic shoes made in China. Moving forward we are using more natural and plant based materials like hemp and pineapple fibres. We are still making them in the UK and Europe.

You’ve been a longstanding part of the Brighton scene for many years – have you seen veganism / cruelty-free fashion evolve over the years?
Yes and no! There’s not a stereotypical customer. We have customers from all walks of life. And it’s like that now. There are new vegans but they are from far and wide. Some people come a long way to visit the shop and stock up on shoes (and belts and wallets etc).

Vegetarian shoes / Viva
Nathalie Crouch Photography

Where are your shoes available – to which markets do you ship? In which countries are your lines available in retail?
We have the store in the lovely North Laine area in Brighton, but mostly its mail order, and we ship worldwide. We also do wholesale to stores around the world too.

Tell us about the differences in sustainability between the products that you sell, and their animal leather counterparts.
That’s not a quick question to answer! People often think of leather as a greener option than synthetics but when chrome tanned it can be very polluting. Synthetics are getting greener in their production. And good quality ones last longer which means less impact. We are using more synthetics with an eco content too. Eg. apple skin mixed with cotton and PU upper.

Vegetarian Shoes
Image courtesy of Vegetarian Shoes

Do you envisage vegan leather shoes becoming more affordable at any point soon?
They might start costing more! It depends on what they are made from and where they are made. If we moved all our production to the far east then our shoes would be cheaper. No plans to do that just now. We work with European countries who have EC regulations to comply with on emissions, and the workers get treated well. Also we work with some really old UK Factories.

Currently our shoes are comparable to high street prices.

What else do you sell other than shoes?
Satchels, wallets, belts, polish, gloves and a few other bits.

If you had to pick one material and stick to it forever – be it hemp, pineapple, etc, which would you choose and why?
That is very hard to say. Shoe World is changing all the time. I prefer materials that have a leather look. Or rather a non-woven look. I want to design my ‘Ultimate Shoe’, that will be animal free, environmentally friendly, worker friendly, foot friendly, comfortable, fun, versatile, durable, breathable, AND a decent price. Haven’t done it yet.- I have some ideas though.