Give your feed a good scroll and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the new sustainable upstarts begging for your attention. But it’s rare when you come across a vegan apparel brand with 20 years experience in the business.
Two Decades in Business, and Counting
That’s what we found when we were introduced to Ucon Acrobatics, a Berlin-based label for minimalist bags and backpacks made from recycled materials.
At this year’s mark of Ucon Acrobatics’s 20th anniversary, we met co-founders Jochen and Martin to hear what’s attracted urban nomads to their iconic roll-top bag and what’s in store for another couple decades in the biz.
Roll it back to the turn of the millennium when skating veterans Jochen and Martin started producing custom t-shirts in their friend’s basement and selling their wares out of the trunk of their parent’s car. They quickly caught the attention of skate stores around the world and had to figure out how to scale a sustainable production model while building the brand along with it.
Ucon Acrobatics founders Martin Fussenegger and Jochen Smuda in their Berlin headquarters, looking back on 20 years of minimalism and functionality.
Through a skating contact with connections in the textile industry, they set up a small cut-and-sew shop in Poland for their burgeoning side hustle while finishing their studies.
“It was often very chaotic,” Martin recalls. “We made a lot of mistakes but also learned a lot about textile production.”
Old Backyard Cow-Shed Turned Modern Sustainable Enterprise
After deciding together to go all in on Ucon Acrobatics, Jochen’s and Martin’s connections in the skating community once again proved invaluable. In the backyard of a mutual friend’s flat in Friedrichshain Berlin, there was an old rundown cowshed next to it. (Ages ago, it supplied fresh cow’s milk to the neighborhood.) They saw the potential to transform it into a beautiful studio which they still operate from today.
The Ucon Acrobatics label grew alongside the myriad small fashion labels in Berlin—from skate to streetwear to street fashion.
“We want to establish ourselves as a brand that combines minimalism and functionality in the most beautiful way.”
As a small label in the fashion industry, it became increasingly difficult to compete in the clothing market, but their bags & backpacks were a commercial success from the start.
Tired of playing the margins and discount game while never wavering on their commitment to high-quality standards and fair production, in 2016 Jochen and Martin decided to focus solely on bags and backpacks.
Shots from a 2021 collaboration with Artist Katharina Truzinski, with a color palette inspired by the artist’s work.
This clear focus has freed them to focus even more on sustainability and new eye-catching designs. “We want to establish ourselves as a brand that combines minimalism and functionality in the most beautiful way,” says Smuda. Fussenegger adds, “We want to make our products better and more durable, moving forward on the path of sustainability while embodying solidarity values.”
A Path Toward a Greener, Kinder Future
Like any path for a sustainable business, for Ucon Acrobatics it’s been an organic one. Staying small, building a culture of honest debate, and outsourcing specialities like IT, logistics, and sales has given them the flexibility needed to continually reflect and improve.
“We never had the idea to grow as fast as possible, we always wanted to grow as good as possible.”
Jochen shares, “We never had the idea to grow as fast as possible, we always wanted to grow as good as possible. And therefore you need to take steps back from time to time. We bring our ideas to the table and we have respect for each other’s thoughts no matter which direction they go.”
Taking a step back to focus on bags and backpacks helped give the company the right direction and ensure their brand has staying power.
They became incredibly popular within a short period of time, and they came to embody the values that have been important to Martin and Jochen which they also live by every day:
“One of our maxims is that no one should suffer for our products.”
“We try to live sustainability both as a brand and personally. For example, our office in Berlin runs on green electricity. We all come to work on foot or by bike and eat a pure vegetarian diet,” says Martin. The backpacks are made of innovative, sustainable materials such as rPET, which is made from recycled PET bottles. “We’ve also had series made of paper and cork before,” he adds.
Swipe through Ucon Acrobatic’s Fall 2021 Lookbook to see the latest collection — where muted colors meet minimal silhouettes.
Ucon Acrobatics is PETA approved too, and while they’re not core vegans they don’t shy away from their no harm philosophy.
“One of our maxims is that no one should suffer for our products. No people, no animals and not the environment,” says Martin. “We firmly believe that only knowledge about the production and composition of materials breathes soul into a product. Even though our label is only a very small cog in the big wheel, I hope that we can continue to do our part.”
Achieving Longevity Through Creative Versatility
The fact that the collections of Ucon Acrobatics are sustainable, and vegan for that matter, isn’t necessarily what attracts the most attention. Their practical aesthetic and material innovation with a timeless yet futuristic quality certainly is. “Minimalism and sustainability are not trends to us. They are part of our DNA,” exclaims Jochen.
Their DNA also extends into ongoing creative initiatives, which are fuel for the brand — no surprise to anyone given their skating roots and the Berlin locale. “We’re all very design and art savvy and our artist collaborations have been a fundamental part of our company philosophy from the beginning,” guides Martin.
“Minimalism and sustainability are not trends to us. They are part of our DNA.”
Of note, project MOTIF was a collaboration with over 30 artists and design studios from around the world to benefit the homeless, producing an exclusive range of backpacks. Prior collaborations have included Haw-lin, HelloMe and Deutsche & Japaner.
So as Ucon Acrobatics pushes innovative materials and progressive style to a higher level and aims to give back to society, how better to do that than with artists and brands who can lend their unique take they couldn’t have created alone.
Covid times gave them the space to push many new collaborations and exclusive online collections, most of which are set to launch within the next few months. This small but mighty brand – now in 500 stores and 30 countries around the world – has made 20 years in business look like no big deal.
Martin leaves us with this reminder: “In the end, the quality and minimal design approach of a product will win. Get your homework done and focus on the essentials to create a great company. We’ve proven that we can stand this test of time over the last 20 years to survive in this industry and it shows us we’re on the right track.”
While “urban conquest” may be what inspired the Ucon Acrobatics name, when it’s run by people never wavering in doing things right for generations to come, you realize its noble mission is no small feat.