Interview with bleed founder Michael Spitzbarth
bleed in Helmbrechts was already founded in 2008 by you, Michael – how did it happen?
Michael: «I originally come from the sports scene and was a professional skateboarder for years, I surfed a lot and in winter I went snowboarding. Even back then I was very surprised how people deal with the planet. And about how few sustainable products are designed in the sportswear industry – especially in the outdoor sector. Through my work as a freelance designer for various companies, I gained deeper insights into the industry and even then I tried to steer production in the right direction. But in 2006 nobody had an open ear for this topic yet. Even then there were already sustainable organic brands, but they were of course very much lagging behind in terms of style – I would never have worn their clothes! This gave me the idea of becoming active myself and founding my own label that combines both: sustainability and style.»
Why the name bleed? «Bleed» sounds unusual for a fashion label.
Michael: «As a skateboarder, I’ve always been very progressive and I didn’t want to have anything with «eco» or «bio» in the name, rather something revolutionary. People should be awakened by the name and made aware of the bleeding of the planet.»
How difficult is it for a small label to gain a foothold in a market dominated by big players?
Michael: «We started to establish contacts with retailers in a very classical way at the sporting goods fair ISPO. Winning the «Brand New Award» and the following two years in the «Brand New Village» helped us a lot. Because especially at the beginning it is very difficult to convince the retailers of a new product. At that time I did the distribution myself and usually got a refusal from 9 out of 10 retailers. Back then, nobody was interested in the topic of sustainability – the issue of margins was more important. Of course, that was very demotivating.
I think it is easier today than it was back then. When bleed was founded, the world was not yet so strongly influenced by social media and the numerous new marketing opportunities it offers. Today you don’t need big fairs or the retailers to launch a brand successfully on the market.»
Especially in the outdoor industry, there is a lot of competition in terms of prices these days. Is it particularly difficult to gain a foothold in this area of the fashion business?
Michael: «I think the outdoor business is comparable to the regular fashion business here. Once you have to go through retail, it takes years to launch a brand. Today, fortunately, you can do a lot through direct sales – there are labels that only distribute their products through Instagram. With these lean distribution structures, a label naturally saves a lot of money. This also enables smaller, sustainable brands to sell their products – which I think is great, because it means there is more variety on the market.»
You describe bleed as 100% eco, 100% fair and vegan – what else exactly distinguishes bleed products?
Michael: «The triad of ecological, socially acceptable and animal friendly is very important to us. These three points in combination with style and function are our highest credo. This is how we have built the brand and are still holding up very well on the market.»
What are the biggest challenges, advantages or disadvantages of a sustainable clothing production?
Michael: «Actually, you only have disadvantages (laughs)…especially from a business perspective. You have higher costs in production, the product development often takes many years, the materials are much more expensive to buy and the margin is naturally much lower. So as a business economist, you might say that this makes no sense. But if you have designed and produced a cool and at the same time sustainable product, then the customer will see the added value in the end and we can sell the product. You need more money and patience in the beginning, but in retrospect it’s worth it!»
You were one of the first brands to focus on climate neutrality and launched the first climate-neutral functional jacket with Sympatex. How did this come about?
Michael: «We actually came across the topic of climate neutrality and the possibility of compensation or cooperation with ClimatePartner through Sympatex. In the meantime, our entire company is climate neutral. And we always take all our experience and learning with us into our next product developments. With a nearby supply chain and recycled raw materials, we can reduce CO2 emissions in the production of our Sympatex jackets, Better Climate-Sweaters or our «ECO4 Sneakers» right from the start. After all, the challenge is not just to produce somehow and then compensate for the CO2, but to make the product development as climate-friendly as possible from the very beginning.»
Which compensation project did you choose with ClimatePartner and why?
Michael: «We currently have two different projects. For the company we have the project clean cook stoves in Bangladesh. For the projects with Sympatex, we decided to focus on forest protection, more precisely on the Kasigau Wildlife Corridor in Kenya. This forest area and the animal species living there are threatened by massive deforestation and slash-and-burn clearing. Since animal protection is very close to our hearts, we have decided to take on this climate project.»
What influence does sustainable production have on the price? After all, alongside style and function, this often plays the biggest role for the customer, doesn’t it?
Michael: «The price is definitely a crucial point, which is in the manufacturing process. If I want to have a 100% ethical, socially acceptable and ecological production in Europe, then of course I pay a lot more than if I have it produced in Bangladesh under the worst conditions. In general, however, it is more difficult in the fast fashion industry than in the outdoor and sports sector, as different price structures generally prevail here. A functional jacket is usually available in stores for 300-400€ – with such a sales price I can produce a sustainable jacket and still have enough margin. But it is utopian to believe that you could produce a jeans for 20€ sustainably. At bleed, a certified organic jeans costs 99€ – which is a fair price compared to other brand manufacturers who don’t produce sustainably, but still have a decent price. It’s also our claim to make all product prices affordable.»
«To inspire a sustainable lifestyle that’s fun and easy to integrate into everyday life» – is your mission. How does that work in practice at bleed?
Michael: «I was not born as a hardcore eco I was mainly an athlete and skateboarder and I did relatively little research into sustainability. I was first awakened by my professional experience in the textile industry and then quickly realized that the topic of sustainability is incredibly complex. There are many different approaches, ways and possibilities to be more sustainable. But many people think it is mainly about avoiding consumption and fun. That is why they are often quite afraid of the topic of sustainability. We try to take this fear away from the consumers and instead offer them a sustainable lifestyle as our credo. Many customers have become fans and follow us because a sustainable lifestyle can be cool and simple.»
What exciting new products are currently available at bleed?
Michael: «We have now taken the step of withdrawing more and more from the fashion world. We were actually a classic streetwear brand that also developed functional clothing. But this year we have increased the focus on the functional area and developed our own sports collections for running, yoga and hiking. We want to develop further in the functional area with innovative, sustainable and highly functional materials that offer super performance«.
Will there be new products with Sympatex again soon? If so, what exactly and when?
Michael: «With the Sympatex membrane, we are currently developing new rain and winter jackets and are also working on a new waterproof winter footwear product in the footwear development division. However, sustainable product development is very time-consuming and can easily take several years«.
What is your highlight product from the bleed collection?
Michael: «I like my Sympatex functional jacket and my bleed sneakers and of course my Beanie, which I always have on my head. These are my favorite pieces. And I also love my plain white T-shirt made of kapok – a great natural fibre!«
What (other) sustainable materials do you use?
Michael: «On the one hand, biodegradable fibres such as TENCEL™, organic cotton and hemp, and on the other hand recycled materials such as the Sympatex membrane or Econyl. We work with these two product categories: biodegradable or recyclable«.
Where do you produce your collection?
Michael: «80% in Portugal, a little bit in Croatia and a few percent in China. Unfortunately, there is currently no European alternative to Asia, especially in the hemp fibre sector. In Germany, this development has definitely been missed. But in general we try to work as regionally as possible, for example we photographed the summer collection completely in the Fichtelgebirge in Bavaria. Without major air travel and with a production crew from the region – in addition, we have also created our bleed Headquarter here in Franconia – including a 100 square meter concept store. Everything here is united under one roof.»
Where do you see bleed in 5 years? Do you already have concrete visions for the future? Or would you rather not make any predictions about the future?
Michael: «You have to believe in something, right? And I believe that because of the reset button Corona, humanity might open its eyes and pause – otherwise we all would have probably gone on just as before. So at the moment I have more hope for a more positive future. We at bleed will continue to develop creative ideas as before and use the time we have gained to work on our concept, new sustainable products and cool alternatives.»
Thank you very much for the interview!