An Interview with Bárbara León from Re_

Re_ is a footwear Brand that’s designed and rebuilt from potentially ‘reusable’ waste from used or discontinued products. The ingenuity of the Brand is easy to see but the Re_ team prides themselves on their extensive knowledge of shoe construction as well managing to create a re-energised, quality product at a fair price, especially when you take into consideration the huge amount of work involved.

The name Re_, refers to the pillars on which the Brand is built: Re_design, Re_build and Re_use. Recycled Design and the painstaking de-construction of the shoes, certainly warrant the prefix ‘Re_’ as the team aim to add their signature look to the product.

Re_ promotes doing things with their own little twist, innovative is a big part of their philosophy as well as looking to combine current trends from within the Fashion industry and blending all that inspiration together. Their customers completely understands the recovery of footwear, textile recycling, sustainability, over consumption and value of a uniquely personalised product.

We spoke to Bárbara León, the founder of Re_ and asked her to explain a little more about her passion for Sports footwear and how she’s managing to build a truly sustainable Fashion Business. Bárbara who is based San Sebastián in Northern Spain, has more than 10 years of experience in the fashion business and has tirelessly promoted the slow fashion movement and a term that’s very close to her heart is… “the recovery of a circular economy.”


Where are you based and why do you like living there?

For the last couple of years, I’ve lived in San Sebastián (Donostia according to the local language, Euskera). It is an amazing location, the sea and the mountains practically merged together, creating some incredible natural landscape, it really is a beautiful place to be. The City of San Sebastián itself is culturally brilliant and despite its size, there’s so much going on.

We have International Jazz and Film festivals and the City has a great relationship with Fashion. One of my reference point Designers, Balenciaga is originally from here. San Sebastián was the City that gave him his first opportunities in business, he’s always maintained a strong connection and a great affinity to the City.

I’m also very active within a fashion cluster that serves as an incubator for Design projects in the City. We have lots going of initiatives taking place and the community is extremely inclusive. Everyone does all that they can, to proudly support each other’s work.


Where did you learn your trade?

I have a Degree in Fashion Design and Management, I have completed several masters in Styling, Photography and Fashion in Seville (my hometown). I’ve worked in Madrid and also lived in Rome for 4 years. During my career I have participated and created multiple projects, editorials, fashion campaigns and lots of collaborations.

My love for creativity started much earlier, in fact when I was a little girl, all the women within my family would meet in the living room of the house to sew together. My Grandmother and my Aunts taught me and my sisters how to make our first party dresses or fix our favourite clothes. That's where I discovered my passion for this particular World started and it’s never left me since.

Obviously, things have moved on since the arrival of technology. I've spent most of a lot of time improving my skills in digital Design tools like Illustrator and Photoshop. I’m intrigued with the concept of 3D design with Blender, 3ds-Max and its relationship with 3D printing. I definitely think it’s a trend that will be a strong influence in the World of Footwear, moving forward.


How you source your product to work with?

Re_'s philosophy is focused on recovering footwear that will be discarded or that’s discontinued and bringing it back into the marketplace. We get the majority of our products as donations from our existing clients, as we’ve already built those trusted relationships and they totally understand the Re_built process. Our clients are without doubt our greatest fans, they promote and support our values and are super excited to be part of the whole story.

 At Re_ we have several product lines, and developing a close understanding with the client and their needs is vital to the success of that particular project. For example, if the client is a shoe Manufacturer or a Retail Store, the products could come from a batch of returns or various defective models, this tends to be larger volumes. On the other hand, we offer a personalisation service with individual clients.

The starting point is identifying the best pieces to work with from within their own personal collection, we also encourage the client to participate in researching in what excites them design wise. Then we’ll start a round of conversations with the client regarding what they are looking to achieve and it’s from this point, we develop the unique re_design and re_build the final product.


Are you working full time on creating your product? 

Yes, the Re_Brand is certainly a full time job, each and every day. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a phase of accompanying the client throughout the design process, despite being quite time consuming from time to time it’s such an element when it comes to maximising the results. 

I really do believe that of each shoe should be considered as an independent project and dedicating that time and effort at the right stage of its development, rewards everyone with a unique and personalised product, that the client can enjoy wearing for years to come. 


How long have you been working on the Re_ Brand?

My career has allowed me to enjoy the fashion industry from within, I’m delighted to say that it’s given me huge positives and some truly wonderful experiences. 

However, over the last few years I started to develop a critical evaluation, both personally and professionally of how I would like the textile industry to look in the future. I’ve started to investigate, absorb and adopt the concepts such as slow fashion, sustainability, circular economy the reuse of materials. I started to participate and collaborate with workshops, designers, platforms, stores and other activists, all with a passion for this particular mindset.

I had so many great ideas and big plans, but often felt that the Industry along with a strong wind of consumer negligence, could literally blow them away. So, after a period of some reflection, I decided to “take those ideas to the ground” and build upon my passion for footwear, reuse instead of recycling, responsible consumption and personalisation to develop the entire Re_ concept.

Re_ as an entity in itself, formed toward the end of 2019. The exciting part is that we are constantly evolving as a business, I have simply not stopped learning and experiencing new things for myself which also brings me a huge amount of joy. We have now developed a bit of a niche and extremely loyal customers, but I never want to lose the innovation and the constant experimentation that we have with product.


Who creates your photoshoots/imagery?

I do everything myself, using fairly simply means. During my time as a Fashion stylist in Italy, I had the opportunity to work on a number of photography sessions for Fashion magazines such as Bazaar and Elle. This experience has been become invaluable when it comes to my own Lifestyle photography and product shots. I have to admit, that my husband is also on hand to help me out, he’s got a PhD in physics and an expert in optics and imaging.

We even set up a small portable photography studio at home so I could still take the photographs of my work, during our time in lockdown.


What price do you sell your products for?

It depends on the project. When we work with lots of units we have to base our costs on the quantity of stock, the composition of the materials and the scope of the request. For individual more personalised projects, it will be dependent on the complexity of the work but they are usually in a range of between €150 and €250.


How long does each project take?

If we understand the Re_design and Re_built of a footwear unit as a project, the duration can be 8 hours and up to more than a week. 


Can you share your thoughts about how you with regards to sustainability?

The idea around “recover footwear” is considered to be a differential idea for the Re_ product and the brand. We just do not compete in the fast fashion footwear industry in volume or price. We pride ourselves in our design, quality and being a big part of educating the consumer. Sustainability must be linked to product durability and long-term use of the product.

The type of product we produce as a Brand has notable differential, which means that the Re_ audience values the use of a unique sustainable process and enjoys the fact that they have are also been involved in continuing that particular shoes journey.


Do you just work with sneakers/sports footwear? 

Most of the orders that I have received so far have been in this line, but I am passionate about all footwear and I am not at all closed to any challenge in terms of types of footwear. For example, during my R&D phase I created a prototype of an Inditex moccasin fused with pieces from a pair of used Adidas Samba that were to be wasted.


Will you still be creating one off pieces or limited runs of a particular style?

Of course, Re_ is not just a job or a passion, it's my hobby and I will never stop doing it. 


What other things are important to you?

I believe that it is necessary to move people towards a much slower consumption of goods, in which the consumer creates a closer connection with the product they buy. That’s exactly the culture that I have for Re_.


What do your friends/other people think of your product?

I'm receiving lots of support from those around me, not only with their kind words but with their altruistic donations of footwear. I would like to take this opportunity to tell to everyone who reads this interview… “never throw away your old shoes again, just contact us to generate Re_usable products.” 


What kind of mistakes have you made when upcycling your product?

Countless, from uppers impossible to rebuild, to pieces that after so much painting and sanding they have ended up, losing their physical presence. Although, I’m more than happy continue making these kinds of mistakes… this is the way, I’ve learnt the most.


What are your favourite Brands and why?

There are many footwear models that I really appreciate for their innovation, use of materials or colourway. If I had to choose, these are some of my favourite models: Air Max 1 x Tinker Hatfield, adidas UltraBoost Mid DNA, New Balance x Aimé Leon Dore, Nike x Undercover Daybreak and Off-White x Nike Waffle Racer, amongst many others.


What would be your perfect job?

Honestly, Re_ is a dream and I wouldn't change exactly what I'm doing right now. The dream could still be enhanced, if I could manage to carve a path into fashion and consumer habits and develop more respect for the planet, from everyone that lives on it.


When will your website launch?

At the moment I am working on Social Networks, where those interested contact me directly through our Instagram channel or by email. We would like to launch an online store, but that’s not our priority at the moment. 


Who inspires you creatively and why?

I am mainly inspired by the product itself. I can base a concept on an aspect of the upper, the sole or a pattern. When I'm working on my designs in the studio, I'm limited to creating certain techniques, I just don't have all the machines and tools. These limitations make me more creative, but some of my ideas are a little more high-tech. My dream would be to have access to more innovative techniques and push my concepts even further. One of my biggest sources of inspiration is Adidas MakerLab. It is a hub where limitless creativity comes to life through collaboration, sharing and exploration. Helen Kirkum, Shun Hirose and Alex Nash are three emerging designers who were part of this project. After viewing their work and researching more about them, they are a great source of inspiration. 


What kind of things are you planning to work on next?

The brand is still very young and I have more ideas than I can perform. One area that I would like to investigate is collaborating with other footwear brands. We are also starting to experiment in a more artistic line, that whilst we maintain the same brand values, we create less functional but more visually striking and conceptually risky products. I’ve always been open to opportunities and happy to discuss things with other businesses as long as our values align.