Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida have what one might call an “intense relationship.” After meeting in the first year of their fashion design studies in Portugal, the pair moved to London in 2009 to intern at Vivienne Westwood resp. Preen and later started their MA at Central Saint Martins under legendary professor Louise Wilson, which they finished with a much applauded joint graduation collection. The two launched their brand Marques’Almeida in 2011, literally living and working together in the same open space with a bed tucked in the corner–but things have looked up ever since. Having already built a fanbase for their deconstructed aesthetics and signature frayed denim pieces, Marques’Almeida were awarded NEWGEN sponsorship from the British Fashion Council/Topshop in 2014 and later produced their own collection for the high street retailer. The following year they won the highly paid LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, which finally allowed them to expand their team and collection.
Is there anything that you consider particularly Portuguese in your work?
Marta Marques (MM): I think the work ethics. We love to enjoy what we do and it has this whole layer of really personal and fun things, but we are also very earnest about what we do. That comes from being Portuguese and from the training we had: If you want to do something, you really have to work hard because things are not going to come on a silver platter.
So what is it that London gives you now?
Paulo Almeida (PA): The other side! We were coming from this industrial, very technical approach to design, and then all of a sudden when we came to London and Central Saint Martins...
MM: ...people were like: “Fuck that, do whatever you want as long as you do something exciting.”
I think Louise [Wilson] has said quite a few times: “Stop producing, stop working so hard and so late, go home with your hands in your pockets and stare at the ceiling and just wait and think about why you want to do this and what’s your identity and why is it relevant and meaningful.” In Portugal it was more like “Go, go, go, work, work, work.” So London gave us this completely other side, that you can literally do whatever you want, as long as it’s you and it’s authentic and relevant.
As you two spend your work and your private life together, doesn’t that make it really hard to just stop doing things for a while?
PA: We really like what we do so it’s not like we’re sacrificing ourselves to do what we do.
MM: But we do to sometimes say: “Wait, we said we’re not talking about work!” But it’s something that we’ve only introduced recently. For the first two or three years we’ve lived and worked in the same open space with a bed tucked in the corner so there were literally not physical boundaries. Now we are kind of trying to have more of a normal life again.
So what happens if you have big fight in the evening?
MM: That happens a lot actually and then we just move forward. You just do what you have to do and by lunchtime it should be fine.
PA: Most of the time it wears off or you forget that you were annoyed and then you remember that you were annoyed again. (laughs)
Does it ever happen that you completely disagree on things?
Both: Oh yeah, all the times.
MM: Our team is used to having us argue over something–even if it’s like the length of a hem–for half an hour, passionately.
PA: But that’s probably what most of the time ends up in producing something quite exciting. We fight a lot for what we believe.
How do you develop a collection?
PA: It’s always kind of a work in process. Ever since we started the brand we are trying to challenge ourselves and put us a bit out of our comfort zone and do something that might be a bit borderline techie or ugly or weird, because we believe that’s probably where you can find something fresh and exciting, because your eyes are not used to it.
MM: I think we went into a slightly different direction with this collection for fall/winter ’16, which is all about real girls. Our inspiration used to be more about girls in magazines or models or whatever. But now we have all these amazing girls in London that started buying the brand and have been friends with us, plus the amazing ten or so girls in our team that are always around and wear stuff in a really inspiring way. So now instead of pictures from magazines on the wall only, there would also be pictures of someone’s Instagram account or pictures of an intern that we fitted stuff on that had a really cool look. That really opened up our eyes to a way of building collections that is much more conceptual than what we were doing in the beginning. Now it feels like our collection is our vision of these girls’ wardrobes plus some kind of crazy obsessions that we might have at the moment, all mixed together in a crazy blender.
Does the collection divide into show pieces and wearable ones?
PA: No, not at all. I think we do every single piece with the intent of being special and wearable at the same time. For example last season we did this massive shearling jacket that could be a bit intimidating because it’s blue on the outside and orange on the inside. But then when you put it on, it’s so comfortable and nice that they were actually the first pieces to sell out in the stores. That’s important to us. We don’t really identify with the idea of this glamour side of fashion, this man-made kind of thing; it’s about what real girls want to wear. That’s what we feed off afterwards to the next season.
As opposed to "real girls", how important are celebrities as wearers of your brand?
PA: I get asked which celebrity I’d like to dress but I have to say I get as happy seeing someone wearing Marques’Almeida on the bus than actually a celebrity. I mean it’s really nice to see that for example Rihanna actually wears it if she is going to the pool instead of going to a concert–that means that she actually enjoys wearing it. And I think that’s the most rewarding thing.
MM: And then there are things like this girl who e-mailed the other day saying that she really loved one of our dresses and that she saved for one year to buy it. That’s equally as amazing–maybe even more, because she doesn’t have a truck for her wardrobe.
Having strong signature pieces like your fringed denims and denim tops–is that boon or bane?
MM: It’s weird with us because it was never about doing denim it was about translating this mood, this attitude and rawness. And denim was like a means to an end. We always wanted to do something democratic. It should still feel special and high-end, but it doesn’t need to be the cocktail dress, it could be something simple that you would wear to death until it falls apart rather than keep it in your closet because you can’t ruin it. Denim was the most instinctive way of translating that ethos. And what we learned about working with denim and how it’s supposed to be handled and lifted and worked, really informed how we work with everything else and we apply that to all other kinds of materials like fur or silk or Swarovski. Like, we worked with Swarovskis, like really expensive crystals, and we handstitched them with a thick thread–but we still had them stored in a plastic Tesco bag in the studio. Therefore denim is really precious for us–it’s like our basis that kind of grounds everything. Catwalk-wise, it’s getting less and less every season but it’s still the quintessential representation of the Marques’Almedia girl. So it doesn’t feel like we want to get rid of it just yet.
So what did you like about working with denim?
MM: There were a lot of surprising things, considering that none of us really knew how to work with denim when we started. (laughs)
We’ve always worked with Japanese denim because it just felt like the basic canvas that we needed. And then we could work on it and do stuff to it. I think what we learned is that when you spend so much time shredding it and washing it and rubbing it against walls, denim gains that sense of something special that feels more lived in as opposed to that thing in a zip locked bag that only gets touched every Christmas. It’s quite fascinating
P: I think the only way that high-end designers had been working with denim up until recently was very revival-driven and referential. Something like the Tom Ford collection with denim for Gucci with this ’70s, hippie kind of approach. But for us it was really about making something current.
Recently, there are quite a few brands doing deconstructed or frayed denim like you’ve been doing it for years. Does that annoy you?
MM: We like that it’s a movement and that people are embracing it. But it’s weird for us because a lot of those copies started quite early on when our brand was still fairly unknown. And it’s obviously frustrating when you’re selling like ten tops and someone is selling 10,000, because at the end of the day you are still struggling to make a business out of your ideas.
PA: But it’s not even just the denim. The white chunky platform shoes that we did in our first season were the first thing to be copied and no one actually had any idea that we were the first ones doing them. We did 20 pairs and then all of a sudden other brands were producing thousands of it.
MM: It’s a bit weird but I guess things are just taking their natural path and there is nothing for us to do about it. We just challenge ourselves in going forward and move on to the next thing.
You did a collection for Topshop. Were you ever afraid of commercialization?
MM: The thought of it might have been scary, but then the process wasn’t at all. We got approached in a very personal way by Kate Phelan of Topshop, who used to be at Vogue for ages and knew us from the very beginning and really liked our work. And she basically said: “You guys do whatever you want and we’ll be there to make it happen and produce it.” Even in terms of image and campaign, we did everything ourselves.
PA: There is always a different market as well. It is good to actually be able to do a product for a client that you probably wouldn’t normally reach because obviously we are producing a lot less and at a different price range. But it’s really good to see people wearing your ideas, even if it’s coming through Topshop!
MM: And it raises brand awareness and you can’t complain about that. It’s always a good thing.
You just had your 5th anniversary. Is there anything that you want to achieve over the next five years?
MM: I kind of always think that at some point we’ll get a better answer to that, but we just actually don’t have a master plan. We know we want to grow because there is always something that we want to do and growing allows that. Thanks to the LVMH funding we were able to increase the team, which means we can do bigger collections because we have more time to design. And the fact that we have more people in our sales team means that we can expand our markets and reach out new customers. But there is really not an “end of the line” thing. We just take it as we go.
Is there anything that scares you?
MM: I think the one thing that takes more of our sleep away is finances. It’s how volatile things are in this industry and how as a small brand you could really be pushed into a tricky corner. When you go to the big conglomerates it’s so easy to have a financial slip with paying terms and things like that and then your business is still too green to survive that kind of thing. We don’t have a secret back; we still live off doing one collection to fund the next to fund the next... But I guess you just have to make silence to those things and then do your collection anyways.
This interview was published in SPORTSWEAR INTERNATIONAL #275, The Denim Lover's Issue. Read more about denim design, trends and brands in the digital magazine version.