LONDON — A lot has changed for Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida since the arrival of their daughter Maria, and the 300,000 euro cash injection and mentorship they received after winning the second edition of the LVMH Prize.
One thing, however, remains the same. They always spend their summers in Portugal with the family, while supervising the production of the new season’s merchandise. Almost everything from Marques’ Almeida is made in Portugal.
The brand is arguably one of the most successful LVMH Prize winners to date: It boasts 85 stockists worldwide, while a new web site with a better shopping experience, and pre-owned items is set to launch at the end of this month. The brand’s signature distressed denim, oversize down jackets and chunky boots are street style staples widely seen on showgoers.
The couple, who are returning to London Fashion Week after showing in Paris for two seasons, realizes that if they want to sustain growth, the brand needs to do things differently.
Marques’ Almeida dipped into see-now-buy-now with its spring 2019 collection and now the designers want to experiment with a direct-to-consumer approach and to swing the spotlight onto the end consumer. During an interview Marques said she wants to put the focus on “the person on the other side of an Instagram” comment or message.
“Last year was a big turning point in terms of questioning the system and understanding what we want to do for ourselves,” said Marques. “The retail market is changing, and people are shopping differently.” She said the big priority now is to solidify retail distribution.
“I think this will probably be the future. We would have to figure out how to do things as a brand, an individual brand, rather than as part of the fashion system because it doesn’t quite work like that anymore,” she added.
In the past two to three years, the brand’s core business has also moved away from denim and pivoted toward knitwear and shirting, which now represent the biggest chunk of the business.
Marques’ Almeida is already on the path to becoming a consumer-first business as it has always looked to its own clients for inspiration. The brand managed to gather a group of young “M’A” men and women over the years who have helped the brand to develop creatively. “We’ve always said that M’A is more about attitude than clothes. The more we know about them, the more inspiring they become,” she said.
The designers showed their fall 2019 collection in July in a warehouse in London, creating a “hangout” moment. “We did an open casting a few weeks before and got more people to come and join. The M’A boys and girls were shooting each other and the content that they were producing was being projected all over the world,” said Marques. “We were basically trying to hand over control — which wasn’t easy — but we were very happy that we did.”
Their spring 2020 collection will be an evolved and bigger form of the hangout.
“We want to put the spotlight on these M’A girls and boys rather than the clothes. We’ve been filming some videos about them for the show and we hope to make the audience think about things in a broader way rather than just looking at what comes in and out the door,” she said.
The couple founded their label after graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2011. They first met in 2005 at CITEX fashion school in Porto, Portugal, and were clear from the start about what they wanted to do.
“We wanted to build a high-end designer brand that wasn’t about hotel dresses, or eveningwear. A kind of very raw quality fashion that was missing at the time. We realized we could make something that was high-end, something that felt like it had gone through a process and had loads of handwork in it. Something that was just as exquisite and just as special as an embroidered gown,” said Marques.
Their first collection was bought by New York’s Opening Ceremony, Hong Kong’s Joyce and Tokyo’s Desperado and the duo’s signature distressed denim technique was widely copied from the high street to designer brands.
“We bought their collection because they have a strong identity. Their first collection was about a distressed hem on denim. Their idea was fresh and strong at that time,” said Michael Mok, general merchandising manager of Joyce.
Kate Foley, a former buyer at Opening Ceremony, remembers the first collection she bought for the shop was sold out within weeks. “It still stands totally alone and it was so powerful seeing a totally new brand show its extreme fashion vision with such incredible confidence. It was totally electrifying and impossible to not feel moved and excited by. It’s somehow kept that same confidence and unique voice almost 10 years later.”
Influencer Susanna Lau said: “Marques’ Almeida is my type of uniform, one that doesn’t conform. They excel at making wearable staples special with unique features. A slip dress might have a feather trim. A silk top might have an interesting cut on it. And of course, its denim is constantly doing twists on tried and tested silhouettes — like extreme boot cut, or exaggerated bell bottoms.”
That same vision won over the likes of Nicolas Ghesquière, Karl Lagerfeld, Phoebe Philo and Raf Simons during the LVMH Prize deliberations. Delphine Arnault said the jury was impressed with “their technical expertise and their unique approach to working with color and texture.”
“With the cash injection, we created departments and structures and process and things that the company needed. Our mentor Sophie Brocart (formerly senior vice president of LVMH’s fashion ventures and ceo of Nicholas Kirkwood) kind of really made us think about Marques’ Almeida as a business in terms of financing, logistics and distribution that we didn’t have. Before, we would just ship things from our grandmother’s garage,” she said.
The brand is now based in Hackney, a fast-gentrifying borough in east London. It is home to a large number of young creatives who are starting a family like the couple. They say the arrival of their daughter Maria has a profound influence on their business.
“We are trying to launch a kids’ line. It’s one of our plans for next year, and having Maria really changed the way we see fashion and the way we see our responsibility in fashion,” Marta added. “We try to see if we can make the industry a bit better and a bit different via our work.”