Local brand REEFER Shoes offers South Africans locally produced, ethical and sustainable sneakers made from natural cork and hemp fabrics. And they’re comfy and stylish too!
The Equilibrio team couldn’t be more excited. It has been an enormous challenge to find locally produced, high-quality sneakers. In the past, most of us put little thought into exactly how and by whom the items we bought were made, but the world has changed. In addition to demanding trendsetting styles, today’s educated consumers expect products to be made responsibly.
Seb Matheson, the founder of REEFER Shoes, appreciates how challenging it can be to find sneakers that prioritise both ethics and the environment and yet are stylish and desirable. It hasn’t been an easy journey for the brand which was founded in 2019. “It’s so difficult to source materials and manufacture certain components locally,” says Seb. And it’s an ongoing process of evolution. The REEFER Shoes team continues to research and find innovative ways to improve all aspects of the sustainability credentials of their sneakers.
“Our sneaker company is all about finding a balance between beauty, function and positive impact. We want to reinvent, recreate and re-imagine how we go about producing products. Making sure that sustainability, not only from a materials point of view, is at the forefront of what we do, to create sustainability through the supply chain, local job creation and an environment that is conducive to longevity.”
THE STORY OF A SOUTH AFRICAN SNEAKER START-UP
Seb grew up in Cape Town and after matriculating, completed a PPE (Politics, Philosophy, Economics) degree at UCT. He then did a post graduate course in Brand Strategy & Communications which culminated in an internship at a multi-national design company. He spent the next 3½ years here as a brand strategist, gaining invaluable exposure working on international brands and how they communicate with their customers. Experience that has been enormously beneficial in building the REEFER brand.
Seb always had an interest in fashion and specifically shoes. When he finally decided to launch his own shoe brand, aside from using a sustainable cork fabric, a cornerstone of his thinking was producing his shoes locally. “Everything is always ‘Made in China’, and I thought to myself, well surely we can create it [locally]. I would rather invest back into our people than have a product made elsewhere.”
Initially, Seb worked on his sneaker business after hours while still being employed full time. “After lots of research and speaking to Portuguese [cork] suppliers, I eventually quit my corporate job and started a sneaker company. I wanted to create a shoe that was going to tick a couple of boxes.”
“The boxes” that Seb refers to is developing a new brand of sustainable sneakers on the basis that “we as a society have a responsibility to improve our environmental footprint. To discover alternative, innovative ways to recreate existing products.”
And so in 2019 REEFER Shoes, then CORK Shoes, was born.
REEFER Shoes has since grown to a core team of 4 working from their distribution base in Cape Town. In addition, there are indirectly about 100 more people that form part of the manufacturing process in South Africa.
WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE SHOES?
So what makes a sneaker brand “sustainable and ethical”? What does this actually mean to the consumer? And why should we pay a premium for responsibly made footwear?
Sustainable shoes are:
- Made using eco-friendly materials that are biodegradable and can be harvested “time and time again, without causing environmental harm and which will ensure environmental longevity.”
- Responsibly manufactured using processes that limit further damage to the environment. For example, using fabric dyes that are less toxic to the planet.
- Made in factories that exercise social responsibility and the fair treatment of their workers.
All REEFER shoes are handmade in Durban in a family-run factory that has been operating for 70 years. The quality of the craftsmanship is world-class. “A big part of REEFER is making sure we have a sustainable supply chain, which includes the human component,” says Seb. “More consumers are actively seeking out sneakers that were made using quality craftsmanship which is also what sets us apart.”
Q&A WITH REEFER SHOES FOUNDER SEB MATHESON
How did you transform from “corporate employee” to “entrepreneur”?
The confidence and ability to just reach out to various people going through the same processes have been a tremendous help. I still often find myself not knowing what to do. I suppose that will always be the case, but engaging with different business owners has really helped me grow.
What has been your biggest challenge in launching and building REEFER Shoes to where it is today?
Probably deciding on a brand name!!
What are your favourite African ethical fashion brands?
My favourite ethical brand in SA has to be Sealand. Love their products. I am keen to hopefully do some kind of collaboration with them in the future.
We continue to find ourselves in challenging times. What piece of advice would you offer young fashion entrepreneurs seeking to create a foothold and brand in fashion today?
Challenging times indeed. I think honing into a core product or range is the best advice. We have been guilty of trying too much too quickly. It’s tough to maintain. Build and grow at a steady pace.
What would you say is the most important tool in building and creating awareness around a fashion brand today?
I think creating products that are authentic and that people can relate to is important. Sustainability is definitely a big focus around the world.
What’s your favourite part of your day /about owning and running your own sustainable luxury shoe company?
I love the energy in our office. I literally love getting up and going to work. It’s also pretty cool to think of an idea and then seeing that idea or concept come to life. Watch this space, we are launching some new stuff this year ;)
SHOP REEFER’S SUSTAINABLE SNEAKERS ON EQUILIBRIO
You can now buy REEFER Shoes on Equilibrio. Yay! Their small selection of Cork and Hemp unisex sneakers are fabulously minimalist and super stylish. You can wear them with just about any outfit as demonstrated right here on Equilibrio. They are perfect for casual days at the office, being comfy at home, running errands, or going on weekend adventures. Sneakers have become our go-to shoe for just about anything!
From what we’ve heard, 2021 is going to be a big year for REEFER shoes. Plans are afoot to launch a whole new range of products that they’ve been developing. The Equilibrio team eagerly awaits to see what this dynamic brand is going to come up with next. We’ll keep you posted!
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