Denim is just a fabric, but what a fabric: It’s done wonders for the careers of Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida, the Portuguese duo behind the London-based Marques’ Almeida label, launched in 2011 and propelled by items such as oversize denim T-shirts with frayed edges, a bestseller still.

In May, the designers scooped up the LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, which comes with 300,000 euros ($337,600 at current exchange), plus a year of coaching. They were warmly praised by Delphine Arnault, second-in-command at Louis Vuitton and a key talent scout at the luxury group her family controls, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who noted their knack for energizing unusual fabrics, and being wizards with denim.

This story first appeared in the October 21, 2015 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While distancing themselves from jeanswear and expanding their collection well beyond denim, which now represents only about half the business, Marques and Almeida maintain their affection for the fabric, emblematic of Nineties-era grunge, the time period that fuels their creativity.

During Paris Fashion Week, the two sat down to talk about the blue stuff.

 

Why did you start with denim?

Marta Marques: We were just looking at Nineties magazines, I-D and The Face, and you had those street-style pages where girls were wearing jeans and a T-shirt and we became obsessed. We decided to find out where we could buy a roll and start doing something with it, and it grew from that.

 

Do you find denim limiting as a fabric or liberating?

Paulo Almeida: What we really like the most is that it’s such a democratic fabric and it kind of brings in such a realistic perspective. We ended up not doing proper jeanswear, but very different skirts, jackets or dresses that you’re not really used to seeing in jeanswear brands.

M.M.: Yes, it has to do with the fabric more than the whole aesthetic of jeanswear. It took us maybe three or four seasons to actually do a pair of jeans. Now we’re working with really expensive silks and furs and leathers. We continue to put in the denim, less or more depending on the season. It gives it that attitude that we’ve been obsessed with since we started and it grounds everything. So I think that’s what we like about it.

 

Why so cruel to denim?

M.M.: We spent a lot of time doing things ourselves by hand: fraying, and washing, and ripping things. We never want anything that we do to feel detached or feel really precious on a hanger. I think we wanted the clothes to feel lived-in and [that they’ve] gone through processes and passed through the hands of people. So I think that’s why we started ripping up the denim. This goes back to the idea of realism. We want our shows and the clothes to feel quite realistic and quite in tune with the girl and her attitude.

 

How do you account for the enduring appeal of denim?

P.A.: I guess it has just to do with the idea of the casualness. Even if you are wearing a big mink fur coat, if you put it with a pair of jeans, it’s a very casual and real look instead of this very formal, red-carpet attitude.

 

Do you closely follow innovations in denim fabrics?

P.A.: We try to stay away from it so that what we actually do feels new and different.

M.M.: The less we know, the better equipped we are to create a product that would feel relevant and new, and not just another jeanswear brand. We go to denim fairs and try to focus on the two Japanese suppliers that we really love and that have products we identify with.

 

But has doing denim helped?

M.M.: Obviously, it helped quite a lot to have that visibility in the beginning.

P.A.: But we want to keep the denim very elevated and not considered jeanswear.

 

Has winning the LVMH Prize changed your lives yet?

M.M.: Yeah, we can feel it quite a lot already. The thing that we were most dying to do was build a team. It was only four or five of us before we applied, and there are now 10 or 11, so that was a very obvious change and a very needed one because everyone was really overworked.

P.A.: From designing a garment to actually distributing it in a store is kind of a crazy process. Bookkeeping and accounting, I used to do all myself and couldn’t find enough days in the month to do everything. Those are kind of boring structural things, but much needed.

 

Any fond memories of your first denim pieces?

M.M.: Growing up, I think we just had lots of pairs of Levi’s and Levi’s jeans jackets: The most classic you can think of.

P.A.: Yeah, my brother used to have thousands of pairs of the same style in black. He was trying to be a little bit of a punk. I’m from a small town, anyway. ■

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