Clément Maulavé and Mathieu Couacault are two surfers who created Hopaal, an apparel company that is trying to have the tiniest footprint possible. Relying on their first success of their “sweater of the future” manufactured from 100% recycled materials, they have recently left Olatu in Anglet to open their first shop in Biarritz, a few hundred meters from the Grande Plage.
Truly committed surfers
Creating out of what already exists, not digging into resources, which we are constantly reminded how finite they are, not living off credit and avoiding consequences for future generations, not endangering our environment, being clean, working locally, differently. All these positive mottos imply a change in models and require working habits. That and more is what drive the two founders of Hopaal.
They are fully committed to the ocean because they love spending time in it and are fully aware that it is high time we started taking action. Their solution is to recycle existing fabric and materials to manufacture their collections. Whether it is plastic collected at sea, production scraps, or clothing that has been hibernating in our closets, it is all good to be used and reduce our impact on natural resources. At Hopaal, CSR is the common denominator for action. Nothing is left to chance, whether in the production process or in marketing, the key element for people to grasp the level and quality of commitment of the business and the work that goes into putting their money where their mouth is. We caught up with Clément Maulavé.
“People are more receptive to our message compared to when we first started.”
Hopaal’s objective is to recycle as much as possible. At first, we wanted to create an association, but we believe that we can make a bigger impact as a business. The important thing is to create a team, then to succeed in doing what we said we’d do and say how we did it. Just doing that, required significant amounts of work! Our goal was to offer a range of everyday clothes with super low impact. We started out with very simple items like T-shirts and sweaters, lifestyle clothing. We recently came out with some swimsuits but we are going to take it step by step. We try to offer a coherent price range, increasing the technicality gradually. I think that very few of our customers actually surf, but we are working hard to develop our community and offer the right products to the right people who share our values. Later, when the base of our community is large enough, we can start offering more technical products and who knows maybe even wetsuits.
An extra transparent student start-up
We created Hopaal in April of 2016. We were students and worked on the project in the evenings or whenever we had the time. We only started spending 100% of our time on it while doing our final internships. Since we had no funding, we started with a pre-order campaign that allowed us to collect 20.000 euros and build up our stock. From the start, our aim was to never have to make decisions with the burden of finance. If something is good for the planet, we go with it. Therefore, to remain pressure-free, we did not seek out investors, though that might change in the future. Making beautiful products is great, but we also want to build a beautiful company and for us that means having people who are independent and responsible. The idea is to have enough freedom so each person can organise their time and do work the way they see it, just as long as the work is done right.
The biggest challenges we’ve had to face while growing rest in two separate issues. The first part related to products and how to build stable supply chains that we could control and the second was how to get the message across and build a community that would share our values. From there, it was a cycle. The objective was to design products that fulfill customer needs through well-managed supply chains.
“We changed our supply chains 3 times in 3 years.”
We started out by manufacturing in India and eight months later, we realised that we had to do it in France. From a transportation perspective it just didn’t make sense. From there, we saw that some things worked well in France and others did not, so we shifted to Portugal. Basically, we changed our supply chain 3 times in 3 years. It required time and money because each time we had to test things out, and there were many workshops that we had to readjust orders with. Some had trouble meeting our quantities, for others it was a quality issue. You can’t know until you’ve tried it out. Now we are starting to be able to see things in the longer term. We are extra transparent. When people ask us about our prices, we give them and explain how we build our prices so people understand what we do.
Today our t-shirts are no longer made in India, they are made in France. They cost between 17 and 20 euros before tax. Our goal is to make that type of fashion affordable, so we apply minimal margins. We only sell directly, but we don’t cut back on the raw materials nor on the social aspect. We are aware of the fact that a 45 euro T-shirt is expensive. We are all paid minimum wage and we wonder if people will buy our products. In my case, I wouldn’t see it as an instant purchase but rather a sensible, long-lasting one. The price is high, but when you think about it, in reality people only wear 30% of their wardrobe. So, if we concentrate on what we really need, that is when we can start supporting truly interesting approaches.
Our second big challenge was marketing and communication. Because we promise that we do everything we say we do and we also say just about everything that we do, there are levers of external communication that are coherent with our actions and sharing them. That is how we wound up on .Brut. Recycled clothing is something that interests them, whereas for other media the link would be more focused on a given fabric or material.
Positive outcomes thanks to the “council of the wise”
I grew up in Valence, my mother worked in Romans, and I early on met Thomas Huriez, the founder of 1083, an innovative company that makes jeans with organic cotton. Right from the start, we knew we had to meet all kinds of people from within the industry to share our experiences. We created a small group that we named the “conseil des sages” (the council of the wise). It included Le slip Français, Thomas de 1083, Viannet of Backmarket and other people from various industries. We didn’t have much experience amongst us apart from a few internships and at first we decided to meet on a regular basis, every three months or so, to get some feedback. There were all kinds of things we got advice on, we were extra transparent. That, however, also meant that others see the development of a small business like ours, which can give them ideas. We each took different paths, 1083 focused on organic cotton made in France, but today they are working on projects with recycled cotton. They bought a spinning company that was in liquidation. Le Slip Français is also starting to look into the recycled sector. The more of us there are, the more widespread it can become.
Making quality products with recycled fibres
To make our products, we use scraps. We do recycling, not upcycling. The scraps are collected, grounded and returned to a state of fibers. Among other sources, we work with Le Relais. True, the raw material is free, but there are services associated with it: collecting, sorting, cleaning. That all has a cost. Recycled fabrics like cotton don’t behave as well as when they are virgin for various reasons, which requires being particularly attentive to quality, but we manage do it very well. On certain products, we have to mix natural fibers and recycled synthetic ones to improve product lifespan. For recycled polyamide we work with Aquafil in Italy. For recycled polyester in our swim trunks, Seaqual supplies us with the thread that is produced in Portugal. Seaqual allows us to have a local impact since they also collect plastic from the Mediterranean Sea as well as the ocean locally here in the Basque Country. In certain cases we upcycle internally. For instance, for a jacket we launched, we had some really great fabric and sometimes there were large scraps. Sometimes, when there is up to a roll of 5 meters, in those cases, we ask that it be sent to us with the production and we reuse it to show people what we do at events, like making pencil cases etc.
Moving towards mono-materials
In the beginning, for t-shirts, we used a mix of recycled cotton and recycled polyester. We stopped doing that to do recycled cotton and organic cotton mixes because the regular use of a t-shirt doesn’t really require having two or more materials. In addition, there was a risk of the micro-fibers leaking in the wash and the product was harder to recycle too. So at first we were happy to be producing from 100% recycled materials, but it couldn’t be at the cost of a long lasting sustainable product. At every stage of development, the first thing we determine is the use of the fibers in order to choose adequately between polyester, polyamide, wool, cotton or other.
Today, we use around 90 to 95% of recycled materials overall, but we are not aiming for only recycled, but rather mono-material options. The problem is that to make 100% recycled threads that are long lasting and sustainable, sometimes, we prefer to use organic cotton to have mono-material for a sports t-shirt for instance whereas we’d choose 100% polyester and a mix of organic/recycled if it’s for everyday wear.
The “vest infinie”, collaborating with 1083
The “vest infinie” (infinite jacket) that we are developing in collaboration with 1083 will be made from 100% recycled polyester. The fabric, the buttons, the thread of the seams, the tags, everything will be in recycled polyester. The jacket will be returnable and thanks to an agreement Antex, which produce thread in Spain, our customers will be able to return the jacket to us for free in exchange for a voucher. We plan on stocking the jackets with 1083 and when we reach one ton, we’ll send it all to be recycled. The objective of mono-materials is also to make the recycling process easier for everyone. In reality, I wonder how many jackets will really be sent back, but then, if there aren’t so many it’s just as well. Above all, the key element is making a long lasting sustainable product and when the end of life is managed, it’s even better.
We would like to learn more about Hopaal…
What would you say to people who are reluctant to go towards clothing made from recycled materials?
What people have to realise is that we go all the back to the state of fibre, which involves everything from washing to regulations, etc. In fact, it’s basically the same as using virgin fabric. We sometimes hear people say that recycled options don’t produce good quality. Fundamentally, it’s true, yes. But you can also find solutions to produce high quality clothing. Recycled polyester, for instance, doesn’t have more chemical components than virgin fabric. There is a small amount of loss in the recycling process, but it still an assembly of strands. Compared to pollution, the risk of micro-fibres leaking has more to do with abrasion rather than the fact that the garment is made from recycled polyester. Basically, we have to take down misconceptions and popular beliefs like thinking that recycled products are cheaper, because in fact they are not. It requires work, and that work has a cost. Also, recycled options are not necessarily less beautiful either. We all have different tastes, so I’d say it depends on your style.
How do you check transparency with your suppliers?
In most cases, we go on site and check all the different steps in the process: collection, recycling, stranding, design and so on, which allows us to see how things really take place. Then, we check their regulations and labels. Actually going in the field is a pretty sure first filter. If we get a good feeling, we launch the prototypes. We also require OEKO-TEX type certifications. And after that, it’s a matter of trust. In terms of CSR, we work with France and Spain, so overall there is relatively little risk involved. Initially, we had written up a responsible purchasing charter for our manufacturers, but it’s difficult to get a signature for only 1000 units, so instead we take things easy. If things work out well, we then try to find common ground on more elements.
Do you manage to work with spinning factories in France?
Yes, we do. There are few left. We worked with the one in Brassac, which is one of the largest ones, to weave our jackets and our upcoming shirts in a workshop that is not working at full capacity. The boss has fifteen weaving looms but only runs two, so he was very happy when we asked for orders. In Portugal, the industry has survived a bit better than in France, but demand is increasing and it is becoming difficult for small volumes like ours.
Your business model is based on relatively low margins. How do you manage to stay profitable with such small collections?
In our case, we manage thanks to working online with a preorder system. When we started out we were students, we had no funds to invest. We each borrowed 2000 euros to launch the business. The banks wouldn’t finance the stock, since it was too risky, so we figured that little by little we could build up our stock and for every new product launched that required significant investment, we’d rely on preorders. Our first campaign allowed us to cash in 20.000 euros, so we figured it was a great strategy.
You chose not to have investors…
At first we wanted financial and economic freedom to not have to make decisions under financial pressure. Last year we didn’t break even, but only by a tiny bit and we remain very careful. It’s true that if in the near future we want to open 15 shops or build up more stock to provide to more stores, we will need more funds and we might have to rethink our strategy. For the moment though, we prefer to grow at our own pace. If tomorrow morning someone gave us one million euros, we might not spend it right and we still have quite a few things to figure out in terms of organisation and production before we can start spending our time looking for cash.
Being able to organise your working day yourself is a key element for people who love to surf. How does it work at your company?
It’s something we are very attached to. We are happy to make beautiful products, which is awesome, but we also want to build a beautiful company. For us, that means working with people who are independent and responsible and it came about quite early on. Right from the start we’ve always worked a lot from home, so eventually we thought about how we could set up more freedom in the workplace. At the end of last year, we sat down with the entire Hopaal team and started looking into how we could all individually organise our work, our weeks, our days to be completely free. If tomorrow morning there’s a great swell, no problem. We came to realise that in the end, that freedom lifts a weight and frustration, which actually makes organising time and work easier. You just need to anticipate a lot and use common sense.
Is it important for a brand like yours to manufacture water bottles and mugs?
It’s more about raising awareness about plastic pollution and offering alternatives. We don’t make money from those products because we produce them in such small quantities (dozens or so); we sell very few. It’s a bit like the wash bags that we’ve just put on the market. It’s a good opportunity and raises the issue of microfibres.
Interview: Stéphane Robin
Photos: Stéphane Robin et Maximillian Theo