The possibility of environmental devastation is not something French designer Marine Serre sugarcoats in her gripping fashion shows, her models swathed in protective layers, warning lights flashing red from necklaces and subtle menace radiating from globular handbags reminiscent of the Death Star.
Her press notes are similarly unflinching: “By hiding in caves and shelters deep underground, small but illustrious groups have survived the Apocalypse — climate wars, heatwaves, mass extinction” is how she introduced her spring 2020 collection, paraded under persistent rain in a ditch, the guests seated on culverts.
Yet she blunts all the toughness with tender touches — a pregnant model here, bits of vintage crochet there. And despite her fierce commitment to sustainability — about half of her seasonal styles are upcycled from discarded textiles — she never skimps on fashion fireworks.
Winner of the LVMH Prize in 2017, the graduate of La Cambre fashion school in Brussels has quickly crafted a unique brand identity that transforms dystopian despair into uber-cool clothes and accessories.
She’s seen as something of a seer for showing face masks for the last three seasons, long before COVID-19 threw the world into upheaval.
In a telephone interview this week, birds chirping in the background, Serre talked about the roots of her dark tendencies, the meaning of “futurewear” and why hope ultimately wins the day.
WWD: Fashion historians agree dystopian styles have figured most prominently and persistently in men’s wear. You’ve fully embraced it for women. Why?
Marine Serre: For me, it was really about a novel way to look as a woman, for a new generation. The habits and lifestyle of women have probably changed a lot in the last 10 or 20 years.
I don’t really think about gender. I focus on the garment and the practical or the protective way that I can make new garments and accessories.
I never really thought about it being more of a look for men, and I certainly didn’t set out to adapt it for women. But it’s probably true men always had these kind of practical and protective clothes. In the past they had military garments, and then suits.
For women, fashion was always perceived as a bit more funny, light, sexy. You were not supposed to think about being comfortable in your garment. For me it’s really important that if you want to really be this persona, you have to embody it and you cannot do that if you’re not comfortable.
WWD: Are your proposals — face masks, enveloping silhouettes — a reaction to or comment on what’s happening in the world, a personal aesthetic — or some combination of the two?
M.S.: The way I create is always in reaction to what is around us. I really feel like a sponge that is simply there looking at things and absorbing them.
If we take the example of the face mask, it’s not about any virus. I live in Paris, and I was cycling to work every day and I was getting a lot of pollution in my nose, so at some point I said to myself, “I think I have to wear a face mask.” It’s always that kind of merging in between what is your reality, what has been the recent past and what is going to be the future. I’m always trying to be creative, but always with one foot in reality.
WWD: And the meaning of those blinking lights?
M.S.: It’s something really recurrent in my work — sometimes on bags, as a necklace, or even on tailoring.
You need these kind of safety lights when you’re walking your dog, when you go to the mountains, when you go running, when you go biking, when you need people to see you. They let people detect possible dangers.
The lights say, “You have to watch out somehow.” These lights are very important to me. Of course, it has a science-fiction reference, too, so I also like it a lot for that.
WWD: You call your look futurewear and ecofuturist. Can you explain these terms?
M.S.: At the very beginning, I made a lot of merged pieces, for example a jersey top merged with a dress, and when we were talking to the factory or new people on the team, they never understood if it was a top or dress or some hybrid thing. So instead of calling it knitwear, we decided to just call it futurewear.
Ecofuturism was more because of all the work we are doing around upcycled and regenerated garments.
WWD: Are you a pessimist, or an optimist, and how does fashion let you express this?
M.S.: It depends. If I had to choose, I would say optimist. But I am an extremely sensitive person, so most of the time I can go really deep in the dystopia and be really pessimistic about the world, and also really sad about what I see. But most of the time, this transforms itself into a ball of energy that is becoming positive because it transforms into something: a garment, a show or an idea.
So they work together for me. If I was not sad, I would have a hard time being happy. I always find a lot of hope, so I do not stay too long in the dark side. Or at least I try.
WWD: There were many dystopian-themed collections for fall 2020, paraded as the coronavirus was starting to spread in Europe. Do you think it’s mere coincidence, or something else at play?
M.S.: I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all. Fashion is always a result of what is happening around us.
It was really striking that everyone felt the same. It was not an easy time to be in the world.
WWD: When we can finally emerge from confinement, do you think men and women will seek out happy, escapist fashions, or suit up in tougher, protective garments?
M.S.: Maybe a bit of a hybrid between both. Probably in certain places you will not be able to walk without a mask, so that will be part of the new world.
But honestly, human life is meant to be lived and enjoyed. Maybe it’s why I use color.
I also love black a lot, I cannot lie. But I’m not someone who chooses in between black or color — I have always used both. Of course, sometimes you just want to wear everything dark, but then you have other times when things are hard and you need to be stronger, and to battle stronger, and maybe you will not choose black.
WWD: Films like “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max” continue to inspire countless designers, even those not committed to dystopian themes. Any idea why?
M.S.: I really love them, too, and I actually often ask myself this question, why I keep coming back to these films I’ve seen 100 billion times. It’s not only the fashion, but also the architecture, maybe even the technology, which often turned out to be right.
I really like “The Matrix.” “Blade Runner” also a lot. These would be the two that have been the most influential for me.
WWD: Amid this crisis, have you detected any change in demand for your face masks, or interest in your brand in general?
M.S.: In terms of the brand interest, I can feel more questioning and enthusiasm. We just launched a second series of videos about how our regenerated or upcycled garments are made and we already have six or seven newspapers talking about it, whereas normally we have one or two.
For the masks, in terms of retail buyers, it didn’t grow so much. In terms of customers, yes, on the web site we are sold out and people are also asking for more. They are definitely more in demand now.
WWD: What challenges and pressures has the pandemic put on your business, and how are you dealing with them?
M.S.: It’s extremely difficult to be an independent brand right how. You have the pressure every day if you’re going to survive tomorrow.
I’m someone who is extremely driven. I started this brand only two and half years ago and it’s something that’s become my whole life. So I’m not going to let it go.
I’m trying every day to find solutions, to make things work, to act, and to process things. Also questioning ourselves more. As everything has stopped with the factories, we have more time to think about our processes. It’s almost like a pause in fashion, which is always moving so fast. It’s a chance to think without noise.
For example, when I do regenerated garments, one of my first thoughts is, “OK, how can we make them cheaper” because they end up too expensive and yet we can’t manage to lower the price because it’s a really difficult process of transformation.
WWD: There’s been some debate about how the crisis might affect the sustainability movement in fashion. Will it stymie it, or light a fire? What signals are you picking up?
M.S.: We shouldn’t just blindly take on sustainability as a religion. We have to think more broadly about the world of tomorrow. If we put too many rules on top of things, and everyone does the same thing, it’s not going to work.
We have to remain extremely creative, but at the same time rigorous. What we have to consider most is the environment around us and start from that. With sustainability, I don’t want to say that the only way to do it is the way I’m doing it, or the way someone else is doing it. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Brands of different sizes have to find different ways to make their own sustainable processes. We should start looking at what is around us.
We have to be conscious about the whole chain. We also have to take care of people who are working with us, making the fabric, the garments… It’s important to sustain their talents. Change can only happen if we are many people on the same path.
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