Nae (No Animal Exploitation) are a footwear brand that hold the philosophy of a fair and animal-friendly alternative that respects the environment. Sneakerjagers asks founder Paula Perez where her inspiration comes from, and what her plans for the future are for Nae Vegan.

What inspired you to start the company?

It was mainly because of a personal need. I started Nae Vegan in 2008. I didn’t want to use leather goods. It was quite difficult for me to find some vegan shoes and some quality shoes that didn’t have any leather. And then I thought that maybe it could be interesting to work on a project like this because Portugal is very strong in the shoes industry.

So you saw a gap in the market?

Yes, because I thought that I’m not the only one, you know? I am quite sure that we have a lot of people that are looking for this kind of product to have. What was not made of leather was made of plastic PVC at the time, and I thought maybe we should do some research and see what we have in the shoe components market and understand the kind of fabrics that we have. I started to investigate a little, going to material trade shows. It was quite difficult because people didn’t understand the concept very well.

In 2008 we only had two or three brands in the world with vegan shoes. And I thought we have a good opportunity here, from a business perspective. Because I’m quite sure there are people who are vegetarian or vegan, or people who want to buy an alternative product, and also people who care about what they buy and want to make sure that the product they are buying doesn’t have suffering behind it.

It seems like quite a new market

Yes, it’s a new market. Although things have changed a lot, as we have a lot of vegan brands now. And also sneakers are one of the top styles that people want to wear and buy, so I think that things have changed a lot in the last 10 years.

Not just the small companies, but the big companies are making some changes in the product development and the way they produce. Although it’s more of a focus for the small brands of course, as they are more profit orientated and the big companies just want to fill a gap in the market.

Are you pleased that there is much more interest in vegan footwear?

Yes, when you talk about Nae Vegan shoes it’s no longer ‘what’s that?’, because people are starting to know us. Because the vegan community is not so big, and also because people search for this kind of product and they are very informed. It’s a type of consumer that reads a lot about the information and the brand. This year is quite a strange year because of the pandemic, but we are growing so I am happy.

What challenges did you face in creating your brand?

I think two big challenges were trying to find a factory, and deciding on the materials to use. We are in Portugal and we were talking to some factories about producing a vegan shoe but they did not understand the concept. It was quite difficult to convince them that this was a good project and that they should work with us, and also because we started with very small quantities and they were looking for big companies and quantities.

Then the materials were a challenge. It’s not straight-forward to build vegan shoes with quality, we needed to make a lost of tests, not just on the material itself but on the finished product. We test them in Portugal in the technological centre. The materials are a challenge as the more organic they are the more difficult it is to make them into good quality shoes. It’s a struggle, every day, but we succeeded. We are always looking for new materials, to innovate, find different alternatives, and see what the markets can give us in the next years.

Innovative things coming out must be exciting

Yes, the industry is changing. When we go to a trade show to see the alternative materials to leather, 10 years ago it was like a small space in the trade show with those kind of materials. But now it’s growing a lot and you can see that there are a lot of different options now.

I think that we now have a lot of materials, like leather made from mushrooms or from apples. For us it’s very important to guarantee the quality, and also to be sure we can have a relationship with that provider. That they can provide the quantity and if we ask for more metres they can provide it to us. Building this kind of relationship is not easy because it’s mainly startups that are working with this kind of project, and it’s not so easy to make things happen and make a big production of shoes with a new material.

Sometimes we find materials that don’t work with sneakers, and within the development of the product we have to make sure everything works. There is a lot of trial and error.

How long does the process take from thought to finished product?

Usually it is 3-6 months depending on how innovative the material is. If it already exists and it’s quite straightforward it’s not so difficult, so I would say 3 months development. But if it’s something more innovative or something from a new provider it’s not so easy. We may need 6 or more months. The tests sometimes didn’t work and we had to change things. We are always doing improvements and this takes a lot of time.

Where did the design come from?

We tried to go with basic, commercial styles of sneakers, and from there we followed what customers asked us for. We mix the sales data and also the customer feedback and we join all this together to define the next models. There are customers that like more basic styles, but we also have customers that like more trendy styles. As a vegan brand we try not to stick to a specific style. Vegan people don’t just like classic or hippie styles, they like all different kinds of things.

Did you do a lot of market research at the beginning?

Not so much, when we launched the brand it was more like let’s go, let’s jump in and see what happens. We didn’t really do any research. Today we  have competition so we have to think about it a bit more and analyse the numbers. At that time it was like let’s just do this. We will see what happens!

Did you feel like you were taking a risk?

I was absolutely confident that this was going to work, because I felt that I was absolutely sure I was not the only crazy one in this world. I didn’t think there was a risk, I was 100% sure that this would work!

What are you looking into for future releases?

We want to continue to use the materials we are currently working with because they work very well. We want to make different styles. But also we are looking for the next material we want to introduce to our customers, because it’s not easy to decide which one. We want to decide which one we are going to introduce in the market because shoes are on our feet all day, they need to be strong.

We also for sure will continue to pressure our microfibre providers to go more sustainable in their processes. Each year they are making positive changes regarding sustainability. But sometimes the biggest problems are the bigger companies, they need a lot of time to change, it’s not so easy as they have been working for decades in a certain way and now you tell them that they need to improve or change this, and for a big company it takes a lot of time to change in another direction.

This is something we give feedback on to our providers and we try to make them better everyday. We need this, our customers want this, we as a brand need to give this to our customers. I think they are changing, but I would like this to be more quick. I wish we had a faster process to change sustainability but it’s not so easy.

What would you like to see from other sneaker companies?

I would say it would be nice to see big brands giving messages about sustainability, this is good for them and for us. People become more aware about sustainability and it’s something we should all be looking at as something important, and if we have companies offering products that are more sustainable or just talking about sustainability and how important it is in the fashion industry, I think this is very very positive.

I think in the time that we are living in it would be perfect to see the big companies moving into sustainability. And for them to be more responsible with the factories they use. I think it’s important for a customer to know everything about a company, such as where you produce, and make sure that we can trust the company.

This is something with the big companies that’s very difficult, as they produce wherever they like. I think I would like to see some more responsibility regarding the production. And also have some concern about the workers and the people that produce the shoes. I think it would be positive that they produced vegan or sustainable shoes. I think this is good not only for them but for us and for the planet.

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