Matt & Nat CEO Manny Kohli talks about growing a successful vegan leather empire

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Becoming vegan doesn’t just apply to your diet, it can also be a change in your clothing and clothing purchases. While animal-free leather may seem like a hot new trend, Matt & Nat has quietly pioneered the movement for over two decades.

The popular Montreal clothing and accessories brand started in 1995 and has remained true to its vegan philosophy ever since.

“Our goal has always been to stay vegan – which the company has been from day one,” current CEO Manny Kohli said in an interview with Daily Hive.

Intrigued by the idea of ​​a vegan leather business, Kohli became a partner of Matt & Nat in October 2000. Within a month, he quickly made a few changes – removing the old name (Via Vegan) and thinking about a new.

Manny Kohli, of Montreal, is the CEO of Matt & Nat. (Credit: Matt & Nat)

“We needed something eye-catching. We both found Matt like [a play on the] “Material. Often mistaken for a name, Nat, in fact, is a nod to the word nature – a subtle reference to the company’s vegan roots.

Although the term is now common, 20 years ago it was a different story, especially when it came to finding the right materials to make their stylishly designed bags and accessories.

“It was the biggest challenge for my business partner because he was having trouble sourcing fabrics and trying to source everything in Montreal,” Manny recalls. His partner left the company in 2013.

“Unfortunately, I knew we couldn’t [just make items locally]. “

In the early 2000s, Kohli had an uncle living in Hong Kong who was familiar with the Chinese market and suggested that his nephew do his research there.

“In a month, I changed my name. Within three months, we had my partner on a flight to Hong Kong, where he spent two and a half weeks. He returned to Montreal with 30 samples in his suitcase, ”recalls Manny.

Kohli’s wholesale experience has been integral to the growth of the company, bringing the brand to department stores in Canada, the United States and eventually around the world.

Various styles of bags are seen in a Matt & Nat store in Montreal. The company uses all vegan and recycled materials. (Credit: Matt & Nat)

Long before executing his vision at Matt & Nat (and fulfilling his dreams of running a fashion business), Manny cut his teeth in retail alongside his father and brother: the family ran a business. electronics, which also included a wholesale agreement in Canada. with the ultra-popular Beanie Babies.

“It was our first jackpot. We did this for six years, ”he explains. While business was good for the family, Manny’s passions and interests were elsewhere.

“All my money was always going to clothes and shoes. I used to dream that I wanted to have a business in the fashion industry, ”he recalls, starry eyes – recalling a particular retail experience that changed the course of his life. life.

As a teenager, Kohli immigrated from the Indian state of Punjab to Canada with the promise of a new and better life. “My father came to Montreal in 1980, he loved it,” Manny begins. After an extremely long visa process and a five-hour consulate interview, he and his mother were granted visas to travel halfway around the world.

Landing in the fashion of Canada, a capital, a trip to La Baie was in order. In the famous department store, Manny bought his very first pair of jeans and a big heeled boot.

“They were Wranglers,” he laughed, noting that he had seen them in a magazine. “I was in heaven.”

After high school, the future entrepreneur decided that he didn’t need a diploma to earn a living. In retrospect, Manny says he learned about the business world through hands-on experience with his family.

“I had 10 years of experience in the business world before becoming a partner of Matt & Nat. I knew I could make him grow, ”he says.

After their business partner’s trip to Hong Kong (and a slew of new styles in tow), the couple held accessory shows in Toronto and New York where they were able to connect with potential retailers.

“[The brand] took off… the price was right. Back then, a lot of people didn’t know much about veganism, ”he says, looking back at the beginnings. “A buyer told us he was happy to buy leather bags – but said it [vegan bags] we are crazy. A few years later, they came back and said they were ready to buy. We have never looked back. The result of consecutive shows allowed the company to double its sales.

The brand’s best-selling item is its ‘Brave’ backpack ($ 160), seen here in the ‘Ivy’ shade. (Credit: Matt & Nat)

Manny himself was not a vegan when he took over as Matt & Nat – and was a voracious meat eater in his youth. After experiencing digestive issues and seeing a nutritionist, he made food choices after realizing he wasn’t eating enough green vegetables.

“The first thing they said was no meat for three months – I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I can not. But I had no choice. I must have been meatless for three months. And the first week was very, very difficult, ”he says. “I have been a vegetarian for 21 years and a vegan for eight years. “

The father of three has owned Matt & Nat for so long, slowly growing the business into a leader in the field.

“From 2001 to 2008, we continued to grow with each season. And the growth has been tremendous: I’m talking about 200%, 400%, ”he notes.

Manny still credits design with being the key driver of the brand to global success, which can be found throughout Europe, Asia and North America. “It was simple and functional… and the quality was there, from our fabric to our hardware,” he says.

Sustainability has also been a core value throughout the company’s 25-year history – and in 2007 Manny began to look into recycled fabrics. “We found an amazing factory in Hong Kong that we still work with them today,” he says, adding that the brand first started using recycled materials in the lining of their popular magazines.

“We never looked back [once we made the switch] – our 2021 collection is the first where we have 75% of the collection from recycled papers.

Beyond their vegan approach and their commitment to sustainable development, the company has adopted the motto “live beautifully”. At Matt & Nat, that means constantly improving while being socially responsible, authentic and inclusive.

Manny had all of this in mind for the next chapter of his ever-growing business, which now also includes his three sons: Paul, 37, who manages IT and e-commerce, Tarun, 31, who is the director of IT and e-commerce. retail operations, and Harman, 26, warehouse manager for Matt & Nat.

After remaining exclusively wholesale with its own e-commerce site for 15 years, the brand made its first foray into brick and mortar in March 2016 with a flagship store in Montreal.

The Matt & Nat flagship store in Laval in Montreal. The company opened its first brick and mortar location in 2016. (Matt & Nat)

“I didn’t mean to bet big,” Manny says, explaining that the original store was a reasonable 1,000 square feet. “I was like ‘let’s try this for a year’… and it was crazy. We have done more than well and our first few months have been very strong.

He quickly began to think of a second location, choosing Toronto. “It has helped to strengthen our brand… but we are also making money,” he adds. As of 2021, Matt & Nat has twelve physical locations. The Western market, particularly Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, however, remains Matt & Nat’s largest market.

Today, the company’s best-selling item remains the Backpack “Brave” in black, which was introduced several years ago (“It’s very, very popular,” Manny says). Eventually, he also expanded the company’s offering to include a full line of clothing, including jackets and shoes for men and women. Unisex styles are also essential.

Their most recent expansion includes the addition of shoes to the collection. “We were getting a lot of emails and social media requests asking for vegan shoes.” At the time, Manny was a little worried about the business: shoes aren’t like bags, after all, especially when it comes to size.

The company’s most recent addition has been a line of vegan leather footwear. (Credit: Matt & Nat)

“I knew they had to be functional and practical,” he says. After finding a part-time designer, Matt & Nat started small with a handful of eight styles, just in time for their store opening in Montreal. “Why go 50 style if you don’t know how it’s going to go? ” he says. The brand has expanded its shoe collection to include more styles each season.

“Two years from now I think shoes will be our most important category,” Manny says confidently.

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