Supermodel, actor, dancer, environmentalist, graduate with a double first from Cambridge University: now Lily Cole adds another string to her bow by launching her first shoe collection, with ecological footwear brand Veja, showcasing the use of wild rubber in new products.
Cole is becoming a pioneer in offering solutions to ongoing ethical problems. Her knitwear label The North Circular creates jumpers from a tight community of suppliers. Her latest venture, a social network called impossible.com, creates an alternative to financial reward by encouraging people to help each other out – for free. Very few people, let alone models, have thought as carefully or can express themselves as fluently about the issues of the day as Lily Cole.
It was in 2012 that Lily first found out about wild rubber, the ethical option to aggressively farmed rubber. A partnership between WWF and SKY called Sky Rainforest Rescue sent her deep into the Brazilian rainforest, where she used what she found to make jewellery and create a short film about the trip.
Speaking at the launch of her footwear, Lily said: ‘I was keen to use imagery of the forest itself in the design for the shoes. So I pulled out some still frames of different creatures I’d photographed from my super 8 footage. I’d focused on the small things in the forest, butterflies, hummingbirds, mushrooms, things we take for granted like the rubber tree itself.
Identical drawings of the images were made and printed across Veja’s canvas trainers. ‘I threw in a dinosaur, a playful idea of the fragility of all these animals,’ adds Lily.
The Amazon rainforest is the only place on earth where rubber trees grow in the wild and their sap can be extracted without damaging the trees. Veja works with local rubber tapping communities, buying the rubber at a price that guarantees a better income for tappers and offering them steady employment.
Lily has great hopes that the project will highlight the potential of wild rubber to replace farmed rubber – and to save the rainforest.
Cost is still key. ‘Inevitably, [wild rubber] is more expensive,’ admits Cole. ‘The trees are scattered. You’ve got to have local communities to walk through the rainforest to tap them and then transport the rubber. Wild rubber doesn’t have a market yet because it has to compete with plantation prices.’
But, she argues, people are already pay high prices for jewellery and trainers. ‘‘These trainers don’t actually cost any more than any other trainer in the market but instead of the premium going to that market, the premium is being split between lots of parties.’
Lily has a wise head on young shoulders and she will happily front a project, looking ridiculously beautiful in accompanying photoshoots, if she think it’s important. And if it sometimes seems like a lot of projects for one person to take on, they do share common themes.
‘I’ve now worked on several different companies that look at supply chain issues,’ says Cole. ‘There’s North Circular, the t-shirts I designed for EJF were carbon neutral and this month, on impossible.com, we’re launching Impossible Bazaar where we’ll only sell products with transparent supply chains.
The first stock are the trainers. ‘The vision for Impossible Bazaar is to create a space and an audience for affiliate companies such as Veja. So everything I do does tie together even though it seems dispersed,’ she grins.
The same thing might be said to be true of life itself. In the meantime, there are some lovely, ethical trainers waiting for us to buy them.
From £55. The limited edition collection will be available to buy online and through Offspring concession stores in Selfridges, London and Manchester, and Topshop, Oxford Street. For every pair sold, Sky will donate £10 to Sky Rainforest Rescue to help support the livelihood of rubber tappers and equip them to tap six more trees, helping to protect the rainforest. www.skyrainforest.com