YY Nation founder Jeremy Bank has taken his family’s footwear legacy from its humble roots in Lower Hutt, Wellington, and ventured worldwide with his own sustainable brand.
The former Shoe Connection owner says his commitment to promote sustainable fashion design and manufacturing has led to the company’s newest discovery, cactus leather, which is launching in the US in mid-November.
What is YY Nation?
I was on a beach in Hawaii with my daughter about four years ago now, and seeing the amount of plastic washing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was really disconcerting and really worried me.
I started researching the problems with plastic and the way it gets into the food chain and also the amount of pollution. It doesn’t decompose so we’re just building landfills full of plastic products.
I had some experience in manufacturing footwear and decided to form a company to develop materials that would be sustainable and would decompose over time.
The meaning behind the name is, why is this happening? This was the question I asked on the beach and then why can’t I do something about it? That sense of personal responsibility to see if we could create something that’s even better than the current market.
When did you start the company?
I started in late 2019, and that was really purely around research, development and product design, then our whole supply chain from the beginning, right through to materials.
It took some time with Covid in the middle of that. We’ve really just started in the last year approaching the US market and in New Zealand, we mainly sell online.
How did you get into shoemaking?
Myself and my wife had a footwear company called Shoe Connection, which was based in Wellington. It came out of the experience I had manufacturing footwear through that business. Shoe Connection was sold about a year-and-a-half ago to Novo Group in Australia, so I could focus purely on YY.
This brand is purely focused on supply and retail and then direct-to-consumer business as well. We have some smaller, iconic retailers in New Zealand that we work with, like Rembrandt, but mainly online.
How big is your research and development focus?
The whole brand started on the basis of natural materials and working out ways to make our material strong enough - that was not an easy feat. It’s taken a lot of people and partnerships, using some patent technologies in how we spin and make materials and manufacture the end product.
We use materials like wool, bamboo, cactus, algae and sugar cane - all natural-based materials.
Where do you source materials and manufacture your products?
We tend to go all the way back to the grower. We know the grower, develop a supply chain where we take the raw material and have companies that transform it into materials for our product.
Most of the production is done within about a 150km radius of our factory which reduces our impact on the environment.
At the moment we’re manufacturing predominantly in South Korea. We have research and development outside of South Korea, some in the US, some in New Zealand, some in Vietnam, and Mexico where we work in collaboration to develop our materials.
Where are your international offices?
We’re fast reconsidering what we do in the future because the business is really scaling in the US and doing well. We’ve got some very good people on the ground in California and in the northwest of the US, in Portland, Oregon, which is a big shoe carrier globally.
We’re in Colorado and New York, and about to open in North Carolina.
How many full-time staff do you have?
In the US, we’ve got 14 people. In New Zealand, we have six people. We have one person based in South Korea as well.
What is your most recent product development?
We’re gearing up to launch our cactus leather shoes now, which is plant-based using the cactus plant. We’ve been working on this for the last three years and they come in different coloured materials. So I’m currently visiting different retailers in California before I go to Colorado, then I’ve got meetings in central USA with other retailers regarding some of the plans and the launch.
How did you develop cactus leather?
There have been a lot of different approaches to plant-based materials or people wanting to develop plant-based materials. We’ve got bamboo, which is a highly regenerative plant.
We want something that uses the least amount of water, that regenerates itself. When we were doing this research, we found that cactus is a really good option. It can be reduced down into a pulp, then from the pulp we can develop a layer of durable, leather-type material.
That idea came up about three years ago and we’ve been working on developing that material and testing different materials ever since.
The great thing about the cactus plant is we can take the nodules off the plant, but it grows back very quickly and regenerates itself. And it uses a very low amount of water.
It’s a really great plant for sustainability, performance and comfort.
Have you been hit by tough trading conditions?
It’s interesting because we’ve got such a unique product. We’re getting a lot of interest. Within the retail landscape, there is a real desire to do things in a more sustainable way and to give customers a choice of sustainable products.
We’re completely different from anything else that has been on offer in the market. Some retailers tell us they would like to come on board, but can’t now because of the current economic situation and inventory levels, but others are just making room and bringing us into their collection straight away.
What advice do you have for retailers getting through the current economic environment?
It certainly takes adjustment and perseverance. My advice would be to get a really good team around you and some really good mentors. I’ve got some fantastic people who are involved in the background at YY to seek advice and get different perspectives.
I think different perspectives are really important, and just perseverance. You’ll probably get a hundred no’s until you get a yes. It’s about believing in what you’ve developed and persevering.