Speak ya clout is a series of heart to heart conversations, exclusively found at BSTN Chronicles. From insiders of the fashion business to blazers of new trails and creative forces from other industries, topics vary for each conversation. This time, we sat down with Noel Klein-Reesink, the founder of the latest addition to BSTN’s hand-picked lineup of brands, ekn footwear.
To solve that mystery right away: How do you pronounce ‘ekn‘ and what does it mean?
It’s pronounced “ʔɛkɪn Footwear”, and ‘ekin’ means ‘seed’ in old Osmanian language. That’s the metaphor we use for our brand. It’s the seed that we put in the earth, and if we do it right, we will grow a nice big tree with strong roots.
Retro-futurism plays a pivotal role in the designs of ekn Footwear: Where do you get your inspiration from?
I look through art and old magazines almost every day. Not only to find inspiration, but also to track our past and the future. For me, big influences are music, art, architecture, furniture, stuff like that. When it comes to music, the people on my team, we have a different taste in music. But we have a certain path that goes through it. But we have a common denominator. And that’s uniqueness. Me personally, I’m a big hip-hop head. I also listen to jazz, reggae music, Drum ‘n‘ Bass, old Afrobeat. I’m pretty sure, music is probably my biggest inspiration.
With your background in hip-hop and skateboarding, do you think you approach shoes and design differently?
Probably, yes. When I was around 17 years old, I had a sponsorship thanks to skating. I received three pairs of shoes, and the approach was not just to skate them, but to also give feedback. So I tried to understand how shoes were made. You had the cup soles, you had the vulc soles, and I cut them in half. I wanted to see how many layers they used, on the ollie area for instance. I also cut running shoes in half to see what’s inside.
After being a skateboarder, when I was a student, I worked for a running store. The store was specialized in triathlon and marathon. So that was kind of my second inspiration to understand the technology in shoes like cushioning, stability, the materials and all that. After that, I was hired by some big sportswear companies.
Back in 2012, what made you want to found your own footwear brand? And a sustainable brand, to make it even trickier?
I was working in the sportswear industry for a certain time. And after that, I worked for the biggest eco fashion company in Europe for a couple of years. I had created the Conference on Sustainability and Business before, so my idea was to bring together sustainability with the style of sportswear. And this didn’t really exist yet. And I wanted to create something that is as locally produced as possible.
Sustainable fashion wasn’t as big then as it is now. Which challenges did you face when you started ekn footwear?
In the very beginning, I wanted to produce in Germany. I tried to find factories here that could produce my shoes, but that wasn’t possible. So I went to Portugal. And there, you have almost everything. As I mentioned, I worked for a sustainable fashion company before, and they were already producing at some Portuguese factories, and had already developed the highest standard in labor and materials there. And I was lucky I could work with these factories as well.
What does ‘sustainability’ mean to you in the context of ekn Footwear?
The idea is to have a footwear brand with the highest ecological and social standards. That means we have a leather and a vegan line. So for the leather line, all of our bio-leathers are tanned 100% chrome-free. By that, we don’t pollute water, we don’t harm the people that work with the leathers. And there can’t be any residues in the leather after it’s processed. We use recycled materials for the outsoles and organic cotton for the laces. Right now, there’s a big trend going on with petrol materials that are mixed with food waste. We don’t do that, especially because you can’t recycle that material afterwards.
We are on a different path right now: We have found a new material that is vegan and 100% compostable. This is quite revolutionary, moving from all-recycled PET materials to a vegan alternative that is poison-free and also compostable. The development of it took about one year: We have everything tested in a laboratory, where they have certain machines to test it. They pull it, they stretch it, to see if it really lasts.
The most sustainable shoe is probably made of, I don’t know, paper? But if it breaks after one day, that’s not sustainable. Because a sustainable shoe is supposed to last. So all of our shoes are made in Portugal. It’s old factories with a long heritage we work with: Second and third generation-run factories. Everything is handmade. We know the people personally. In small factories, you have like 20 to 50 people working there. That way, it’s a completely different game in terms of quality. I’m pretty sure, you can’t produce the quality and standard of sustainability we have somewhere else.
How important is it for you to stand for something as a brand?
The purpose of the brand is to be sustainable and also fashionable. So this is the main idea of the brand, to combine these two things. And not to add sustainability to a conventional product, or the other way around. My idea was to create that from scratch, bringing these two things together that belong together.
If you have a shoe that doesn’t look nice, it can be as sustainable as you want. If the people don’t like it, they won’t buy it. With us, it’s like that: We talk to our customers a lot, and we have our little store in Frankfurt where people come by. I would say, 50% of the store visitors don’t even know our products are sustainable. They buy it, because they like the style and the designs. And after they understand the idea, they like it even more, but that wasn’t the first approach why they went into the store and tried to buy the shoes. And this is the goal we have, to make a product so nice that the people want to have it, even if they don’t care for sustainability.
You already collaborated with Mr. Bailey, Max Herre and other artists. How do you decide who you want to work with?
All the people we work with are friends or became friends. I’ve seen so many – can I say that? – assholes during my career. And I once said ‘I don’t want to work with assholes anymore’. Everyone we work with, has to be on a certain level in terms of, let’s say, attitude, vision, consciousness, etc.
So Daniel, aka Mr. Bailey, is a friend of mine. As well as Max [Herre] or Kinsey. So the main question is: Do we like their art? Does that have a fit with the brand? Second is, what kind of person is that? The people don’t have to be the most sustainable people on the planet. But it’s more about their dedication, realness and authenticity. And of course, I have to like it.
While we’re on the subject: We really dig the music recommendations you occasionally share. Which three artists are you listening to right now, that people have to check out?
Dead Prez. Miles Davis. Fela Kuti. About that: After school, I went to live in the U.S. So I was living in D.C. and New York for a little bit. In Brooklyn, to be exact. All of my friends were diving deep into conscious, sustainable and social topics. So this had a strong influence on me by that time, even though it’s a long time ago.