In 2004, Sébastien Kopp and Ghislain Morillion started a tiny sneaker brand based in Paris with a radical idea: create ultra-sustainable and ultra-ethical sneakers and offset production cost by eradicating all advertising spend.
Fifteen years later, the brand is sold around the world and seen on the feet of royalty and corporate CEOs alike. Here, Kopp walks us through what the early days of Veja were like, what philosophies drove the brand’s early decision-making and how he and Morillion got to where they are today.
When we first started Veja, we wanted nothing to do with marketing or market research or anything like that. We just wanted to make the shoes that we wanted to make in the way we wanted to make them. I didn’t have much experience in fashion before Veja, and I don’t think I could be a designer of another brand. We can only do what we do.
In the beginning, we were students in political science and economics. We traveled around a lot, we were eager to see different places and meet different people. We were motivated early on by meeting people who made shoes in Brazil.
We started Veja with just the two of us and €10,000 ($13,735) between us. At the time it was more of a test, or a kind of school project, just an adventure that we came up with no idea how it would evolve or what it would look like. We spent two months in Brazil looking for partners, one month learning how to make the shoes. We did the first samples. I came back to Paris with a few samples in my luggage and took them straight to a trade show. The first day, there were a ton of orders and the brand took off from there. But the buyers didn’t really care about the sustainability or the handmade in Brazil, they just liked the shoes.
I don’t know what the biggest challenge was in the early days because honestly, we didn’t really think about the problems we would face. We had lots of people telling us that what we wanted to do would be too complicated or not viable, but when you’re climbing a mountain, you can’t worry too much about the snow or the rain. You just have to take it a step at a time. Some of the steps were more difficult than others at first, but we made it work. If you focus too much on the problems, then at a certain point you start to create problems just to solve them.
With Ghislain, when one of us made a mistake, we didn’t dwell on it or waste time on judgment, saying “You made a mistake.” We just fixed it and moved on.
At the beginning, we did absolutely everything. Just us. Today we still do a lot of the day-to-day stuff but we also have 130 employees right now. Other than that, the company is still quite similar to the early days. Ghislain and I are heavily involved and doing different things every day.
We want everyone to work hard but also at 6:30 p.m. we kick everyone out and tell them to go spend time with their family, with their friends, with their lover. I have dinner with my family almost every night. Sure you can push yourself and work a lot for a few months if you have big projects, but eventually, you start to make bad decisions, you become crazy, you start to lose employees and that’s not good. We have a very low turnover, plenty of people are still here from more than 10 years ago. Maybe that’s not the way other companies do things, but that’s what we do.