Raphael Young is worried. For the past couple of years, the celebrated shoe designer has channelled his creative talent into raising awareness of sustainability, pollution and climate change, developing eco-friendly footwear under his activist streetwear label F_WD. But the pandemic has brought a new threat to the fore.
"I am very concerned that this pandemic will bring about another kind of pollution, with single-use masks and gloves," he says. "I witness a lot of incivility, with masks being thrown like paper on the streets. It is really important that countries like China, for example, one of the main mask manufacturers in the world, integrate the issue of sustainability.
"My hope is that they will soon develop masks that are more respectful of the environment, while keeping all their protective qualities. The one, more positive, point of the pandemic is that people have travelled and consumed less, giving some well-needed rest to our planet."
While the Seoul-born designer has been interested in the idea of sustainable design for many years, the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, COP21, represented a turning point for him. “I am sensible to my environment,” he says. “I feel involved and concerned about how fast our planet is changing and is harmed by our human activities. Sustainability is the future of fashion and of everything in general. The future can only be green, or we won’t have one.”
Young hails from solid shoemaking stock. He is the nephew and heir of Alexandre Narcy, who set up the Yves Saint Laurent shoe studio in the 1960s and is widely regarded as one of the leading bottiers of the 20th century. It was from his uncle that Young learnt the importance of craft and structure, and despite doing a stint in the French Navy and going on to dabble in engineering and physics, he eventually found himself following in Narcy's footsteps.
From Saint Laurent to activist streetwear
Coming full circle, Young started out apprenticing under Yves Saint Laurent, and worked at other French and Italian couture studios before launching his eponymous label in 2009, which has been donned by the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Rihanna. In 2011, he moved to New York to steer the creative direction of Calvin Klein Collection accessories, and then in 2013, moved again, to Milan.
"Despite my love for New York and my impossible attraction to the city's magnetic energy, I felt the need to move closer to the heart of shoemaking artistry: Italy," he says.
Taking inspiration from Plato, Le Corbusier, music, architecture, product design and myriad other sources, Young has since served as creative director for popular brands such as Off-White, Jil Sander, Paco Rabanne and Fendi, and is currently a creative consultant for Tod’s Men and Redemption. But it is his work at the creative helm of F_WD, a collaboration with the Onward Luxury Group, that has the potential to make the most impact.
All F_WD shoes are vegan, cruelty-free and environmentally friendly. They are made using polyesters, lining and laces crafted from recycled plastic bottles and, for the past couple of seasons, the brand has introduced eco-sustainable soles containing recycled rubber and vegetable-based dyes.
“The eco-fake leather we use is truly innovative,” Young says. “It is bio-based, meaning that it is produced using polyurethane made of renewable sources like corn, replacing petroleum products. Our material is water-based, meaning there is no use of toxic solvents. It is safer for the consumer, but also for the people producing it and making our shoes.”
Sold in the UAE at Level Shoes in The Dubai Mall and online at Levelshoes.com, F_WD’s products are 100 per cent vegan, are made from 20 to 25 per cent recycled and recyclable materials, and are 2 to 3 per cent biodegradable. The aim is to create shoes that are 50 per cent biodegradable in the near future and then, ultimately, completely biodegradable.
“Today, we are able to create totally biodegradable uppers, but we are not able yet to produce a fully biodegradable sole,” Young explains. “We can do biodegradable plastics, as Australian scientists have created plastics with the use of bacteria. The challenge is to be able to keep the technical qualities of a sole, with regards to flexibility and shock absorption.
“But I think we are not too far from achieving this. It all depends on how willing sole-makers are to invest in research and innovation.”
This, Young says, is the key challenge when it comes to creating sustainable shoes: a lack of investment by some suppliers, including sole producers, in the development of new and eco-friendly solutions. This creates a lack of choice for designers when it comes to materials, textures and colours, and ultimately damages the sustainable design cause.
"Our choices are a lot more restrained in that way, but F_WD is showing that we can overcome this lack of choice and still make exciting and vibrant collections. I also strive to create timeless products that will endure seasons, to elongate the product's life cycle. That is also part of being sustainable."
Another obstacle is perceptions within the luxury industry of what constitutes a "noble material". The term has traditionally referred to expensive and rare materials such as fur, leather and exotic skins, and until this mindset shifts, sustainability will struggle to enter the mainstream. "Most big names in the fashion industry sell very exclusive products, which means using exclusive and expensive materials," Young points out.
“Luxury brands sell tradition; they use noble materials. Selling sustainable products means selling products that are not made with ‘noble’ materials, even if I consider that green materials are way more noble than any real leather or fur.”
While the materials used for the footwear do not directly shape the designs, they do play into a wider concept, which Young refers to as "organic" design – shapes that "are bio and organic, reminiscent of shapes that blend into nature".
The message is clear
Elevating consumer consciousness when it comes to sustainability is fundamental, which is why the messaging on Young's designs is purposefully and unapologetically front and centre. A pair of black knee-high rain boots crafted from recycled rubber has the phrase "do you recycle?" in bold capital letters up the side, while the words "hybrid", "eco-logic solution", "waste", pollution-proof" and "support our cause" adorn trainers in the both the men's and women's collections.
A play on the words "warning" and "warming" appears on the backs of some designs, in brightly coloured block capitals, while an extended definition of the word "recycling" appears on a pair of thick-soled court shoes, including the warning that "plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to ocean-health worldwide".
If Young's creations are anything to go by, the time for subtle messaging around the theme of sustainability is over. F_WD makes its intentions and values loud and clear from the outset. "The messages on my designs function to awaken consciousness on the need for sustainability. The second function is that when applying literal messages on a product, it helps to make the product a conversation opener with the public," explains Young.
"We are a new brand and we have purposely used our own products to support a message of sustainability and raise consciousness on plastic pollution and climate change issues."
The designer may be committed to the sustainability cause, but he is also realistic about all the work that still needs to be done. Pricing can be an issue, as recycled materials still cost more than their non-recycled counterparts, meaning that the cost of creating sustainable footwear and fashion is generally higher than usual.
The sourcing of certain materials can also be difficult, as they require higher minimum orders. "There should be a lot more investment in research and development for green solutions," Young says.
But, ultimately, he hopes F_WD will be a trailblazer. "I want to open the way to a new way to create fashion. F_WD should not be an exception on the market. The entire fashion industry needs to embrace this consciousness and change their ways.
"My ultimate mission is to open the way to design that is virtuous."