PARIS — While dozens of brands and stores struggle to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, one independent French label is thriving.
Marine Serre, who in 2017 won the LVMH Prize for Young Designers with just one collection under her belt, was designated as the top breakout brand of 2020 in British online shopping platform Lyst’s closely watched “Year in Fashion 2020” report.
Within 48 hours of the debut of Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” visual album in July, in which she and the dancers wore Serre’s crescent-moon print bodysuits, searches for the French designer spiked 426 percent and in the following days, more than 3,000 shoppers looked for “crescent moon top,” Lyst reported.
Celebrities including Kylie Jenner, Adele, Dua Lipa and Selena Gomez have also adopted the signature print, making it the most wanted logo on Lyst this year. To cap it all, the 28-year-old designer won ANDAM’s family fund award in July, taking home a cash prize of 200,000 euros, or $236,767.
In a wry comment about her moneymaker, Serre’s sci-fi-inspired short film for her spring 2021 collection, titled “Amor Fati,” showed models with the pattern tattooed or scarred into their skin like a tribal emblem.
The crescent-moon print is omnipresent at her headquarters in a gritty neighborhood in northern Paris: plastered across the oversize sofas in the reception area — and many of her youthful staff.
But Serre is just as keen to put the spotlight on the more unglamorous aspect of her work: the secondhand carpets, tablecloths and T-shirts that provide the raw material for her upcycled designs, which now account for half of the label’s collections.
In one corner of the white space, part of an incubator for start-ups and artisanal workshops funded by Paris City Hall, stands a wooden board studded with vintage key rings — a nod to her grandfather’s collection, which he kept in his garage. This selection has been salvaged from an installation Serre did for Dover Street Market.
Glass walls are hung with a patchwork of vintage silk scarves. Though France is in the throes of its second lockdown this year, there is a steady thrum of activity at the office, which also acts as a sorting warehouse for the tons of recycled clothes that Serre incorporates into what she dubs her “regenerated” designs.
When she first started posting videos last year showing the process of converting old T-shirts into patchwork dresses, she found the response was underwhelming. Since the first lockdown in April, interest in the video series has spiked, with close to 48,000 views on Instagram for a clip on the making of a denim jacket.
“It’s several things at once: there’s the moon top, there’s Beyoncé, there’s the fact that the brand is becoming more established, and at the same time, our vision is perhaps clearer than it was three years ago,” Serre explained.
No doubt, her theme of environmental apocalypse, complete with ominous face masks, seemed eerily prescient during Paris Fashion Week last spring in the context of growing paranoia over the global spread of COVID-19. Even for a seasoned dystopian, it’s been a challenging year, and the changes keep coming.
Following the departure of her partner Pepijn van Eeden in September, Serre now acts as both creative director and chief executive officer of her brand, which employs some 50 people. She’s taking on the challenge with aplomb, happy to capitalize on a shift in public consciousness and business practices toward more sustainable alternatives.
The brand is on track to post revenues of 10 million euros in 2020, double its sales last year. In an interview with WWD, Serre talked about the romance of making clothes, the power of celebrity and what to do when your worst fears come true.
WWD: Are you finding this confinement easier than the first?
Marine Serre: Everyone has adapted psychologically. Having been through it once before, you feel a bit less stressed, whereas the first time around, there was a general feeling of panic. Everyone was hiding at home. We’ve got more experience now, having gone through it both as a society and as individuals. People want to work and create — they can’t stand being stuck in their tiny flats anymore, me included. So there’s an energy. We’re very careful and we try to have a rotation in place. The people in the workshop obviously need to be here more than the people who work mainly on their computers, so the finance and logistics people are working from home.
WWD: Lyst has listed you as the top breakout brand of 2020. How would you describe your year so far?
M.S.: We worked incredibly hard during lockdown. We did a lot of thinking and we made our film, which was a milestone for the brand. A lot of things happened at once: there was the Beyoncé effect, which was completely unexpected and happened very organically. There was also the fact that we’re no longer a new brand. We’ve been around for three years, which also generates a kind of stability in the way that people view us. And on top of that, with the confinement, we saw a surge in interest in upcycled pieces and in our videos detailing our regeneration process. It was very hard in the beginning. Three years ago, when we started, frankly, hardly anybody cared. And during confinement, I think people took the time to watch the videos, to look more closely at some of the products.
Sometimes, you have to repeat things, and it was only after the third series of videos about our regenerated clothes that people started to realize, ‘Oh yes — they do that as well.’ Now we’re starting to see good sales for the regenerated clothes, and we have strengthened and stabilized our production process.
We’ve also worked hard to bring our prices down, because it’s important to me that the regenerated pieces are not necessarily expensive. My team and I have to be able to buy it.
That’s also the reason why I created separate lines for different types of product. The Red Line is really for red-carpet, one-off items. This artisanal work generates a lot of ideas. Then there is the Gold Line, which is the most hybrid, commercial part that you see a lot on the runway. But we’re obviously talking about complex, high-end pieces that require an incredible amount of work. Then there is the White Line, which is very important to me, which includes leather pants, T-shirts made of recycled cotton and all our denim offer.
All of our teams — design, production and development — have been working together to see how we can streamline the pieces and bring down the prices. We’re talking to our factories.
But we’re facing the same challenges as everyone else. We don’t have more time to deliver, so it’s been a real challenge for us to ship the regenerated pieces on time, because they take much longer to produce. But I think the success of the brand this year also reflects the efforts we’ve made on this front.
WWD: You produced a fashion film, “Amor Fati,” for your spring 2021 collection. What was the feedback from editors, buyers and the public?
M.S.: Honestly, it was great. The film raised a lot of questions, and I think we were in tune with the general mood. The reaction was very positive, whether on YouTube or in the media.
We were ahead of the curve in many respects, but the pace of change has accelerated: we were already doing a lot of our showroom appointments online, we were only producing two collections a year, whereas some brands have 15. So there was a real desire on our part to slow down, but it’s hard to slow down when there are only a handful of you pushing for change. Taking things down a gear has worked out well for us, and maybe that’s one of the reasons the brand is doing well. On top of that, we’re a small company, so we’re very flexible.
WWD: Your shows have often felt prescient. You have regularly featured masks, even though it was a reference to climate change and pollution rather than a virus threat, and you often evoke a post-apocalyptic world. And now it’s our daily reality.
M.S.: I have to say, I was quite surprised after [my fall collection] “Mind Mélange Motor” when all the headlines came out about our masks. I wasn’t expecting it, because we’d been showing masks for three or four seasons. Probably the most destabilizing moment was when COVID-19 finally hit and we all had to stay at home. Suddenly, the apocalyptic vision was real. And I found that really destabilizing because we’d talked about it, we’d felt it, we’d prepared for it, but now it was happening. I think “Amor Fati” was a transition between the apocalypse and what comes next: what do we do, how do we move forward?
WWD: Do you expect to return to the runway next season?
M.S.: All I can say is that everything changes and you have to be open to change. I don’t know what I will do in six months’ time. I can’t say I will never do another show, but it’s a question of feeling, of being in tune with the moment.
WWD: Around 50 percent of your styles are currently labeled as regenerated. What percentage of actual production does this represent?
M.S.: For spring 2021, regenerated and recycled skus account for around 45 percent of production. Clearly, we sell fewer regenerated products than other styles, and there are several reasons for that. Having said that, it’s a target and a challenge for us to stabilize this proportion of 50 percent of regenerated products across all our product lines.
It’s important for me to include regenerated products in the White Line, which implies increasing production. We’re seeing an increase in regenerated pieces at the moment, whether it’s recycled T-shirts, jeans, jackets, even deadstock leather pants.
For the remaining 50 percent, we make all our fabrics with recycled thread, recycled PET, natural fibers, recycled wool, or for the tailoring, artisanal weaving that is made in Italy. We have two teams working on fabrics: one team on upcycling, and the other on researching new technologies and new fibers. Quite simply, there are some categories that can’t be produced using upcycled materials, for example the jersey pieces.
When we use upcycled denim or brocade carpets, we’re clearly dealing with fabrics that really stand the test of time. In some cases, they would be technically impossible to replicate today.
So I don’t think it would make sense to say we want to make 100 percent regenerated clothes. Clearly, that would fail.
In terms of product, I wouldn’t be able to offer the more technical, sportswear part of the collection, which is key to the hybrid aesthetic that I love. But we have to find the right methods of producing it and the right fabrics, both of which are evolving constantly.
WWD: I imagine regenerated is not the kind of production you can easily scale up?
M.S.: There are the more exclusive pieces that either go into the Red Line, because you only have enough material for one dress, or the Gold Line where, say, you find 50 carpets so you know you will be able to make 50 skirts, and not one more. Then there are the items where stocks are virtually unlimited: categories like denim, deadstock leather, recycled T-shirts and silk scarves, where unless a huge brand suddenly decides to do the same thing as me, the offer is truly enormous. So we really try to figure out how we can transform these materials into everyday clothes at an affordable price, which usually takes more than six months.
If we carry over a regenerated product, it gives us the time to improve both the quality and the price.
WWD: Tell us about the behind-the-scenes videos detailing how the regenerated clothes are made.
M.S.: I realized that people have no idea how products are made. It’s a very specific process, like making a chair or any other artisanal object. That’s when I decided that rather than giving 150 interviews, the most effective way to explain it was to show the process in a very unvarnished way. You can hear people talking and the sound of the machines.
WWD: I loved hearing the Italian pop music blaring from the radio.
M.S.: There’s something extremely personal and human about it. That’s what made me want to become a designer. That’s the part that interested me. I wanted to make it fashionable somehow, or in any case, for more people to be aware of that side of the work, because it’s not that easy and this type of workmanship is quite rare. And I was surprised myself at the number of people who were surprised to find out that this is how clothes are made.
WWD: Is this the new definition of luxury?
M.S.: For me, that’s always been the case. I used to wear thrift-store clothes that I would customize and embroider. It’s always been about mixing and matching things that don’t belong together, and today, the brand reflects that.
WWD: As an emerging brand, how have you weathered the coronavirus crisis?
M.S.: It’s been scary. It’s not easy. We’re 100 percent independent. We have about 50 people working for us, so on a human level, you have responsibilities, too. That’s been the scariest part. In terms of sales, the fall 2020 collection, “Mind Mélange Motor,” was down slightly versus prior years because we showed it when the crisis was already in full swing in China. Very few people traveled that season. We saw an improvement with “Amor Fati.” Sales were up versus the same period last year, which means that the brand is growing, despite the coronavirus.
WWD: Has the coronavirus crisis reshaped your growth ambitions?
M.S.: Completely, but I think it’s never been an obsession, as far as we’re concerned. In any case, I’ve never considered growth an end in itself. What’s important to me is that the clothes are on the street and that people feel comfortable in them.
We’ve grown a lot in three years. You just have to take your time. For me, it’s important to know everybody’s name and what they do. I think that also allowed us to be flexible in moments of crisis like the coronavirus lockdown. There’s a real team connection where people support each other. It’s important to me that people work here because it means something to them — not for my sake, not for money or fame, but for themselves. I hope to create that kind of synergy. I think if we manage to do that, that would be great.
WWD: How will you adapt following the departure of ceo Pepijn van Eeden?
M.S.: After having strongly contributed to the launch of the label, for which I’m extremely grateful, Pepijn has decided to focus on new projects. I’m in charge of both the artistic direction and the management of the brand.
Given the size of the company, it feels quite natural and coherent. It was just a question of common sense. I’ve got a great team around me.
I don’t know exactly how it will work out going forward. Pepijn and I were a great team. He’s moved on, and I’m taking the time to take stock.
WWD: Many brands capitalize on their celebrity associations. You downplay it. Why is that?
M.S.: I want people, no matter who they are, to feel free to buy, like or not like our clothes, so I think capitalizing on that kind of thing is a bit crude. I’m thrilled when it happens. With Beyoncé, it happened naturally. In fact, it’s been a natural process with everyone. We never force anything. Most of them purchase the product, so they really want to support us. I just like keeping things fairly organic.
WWD: The moon-print bodysuit in nude is sold out on your site. Are you having trouble keeping it in stock, or are you intentionally limiting sales?
M.S.: We do two production runs a year, so we put in one order for our web site, and another for our retailers who have placed orders. We make what we deem a reasonable quantity, so when it’s gone, it’s gone. You’ll have to wait until next season. Again, it comes down to common sense. I mean, you could sell more and make more money, but the question is, what is the brand vision? Do you want the moon top to be everywhere, or is the aim to keep a balance? I’m trying to find a balance between products like the moon top and regenerated products, although they’re often worn together. That’s also the irony of the look.
WWD: How do your product categories break down?
M.S.: It’s 16 percent men’s wear, 20 percent accessories and 64 percent women’s wear.
In recent seasons, we’ve developed our jewelry offer and it was important to me that it should reflect the brand philosophy. When I started the label, I would often wear old necklaces, things that belonged to my mother or that I found in thrift stores and that I mixed together.
Once we had a little more time to spend on the category, I decided our jewelry should reflect that approach. The collection is made exclusively with deadstock, vintage and thrifted jewels, so it’s a question of assembling, finishing and galvanizing them. Each piece is unique, just like our upcycled clothes.
WWD: Among adjectives in your brand’s mission statement are “resilient” and “realist.”
M.S.: Resilient is the capacity to adapt.
But if I really had to define it, it’s being in osmosis with events. Things change so quickly today, it’s difficult to adapt, but you have to try, otherwise you’re angry all the time. It’s a waste of time.
Realist is linked to resilient, in a sense, but for me it’s really about accepting the world we live in. You need the courage to keep your eyes open, because there are times when you’d really rather shut them.
WWD: How do you feel about the future?
M.S.: [Long pause.] That’s difficult to answer. Everything feels quite challenging and unstable right now. This period is really testing our mettle. It’s extremely destabilizing, but it forces you to really question things and respond in creative ways more than ever before. In that sense, I think it’s quite positive, because it’s leading to radical change.
To me, the coronavirus is a good excuse to accelerate change and to have the courage to do it collectively. If you’re talking about fashion, you won’t change things by yourself. The only way to make a difference is to stick together. So I would say I’m fairly optimistic overall, even if it requires a lot of courage emotionally at a time when everyone is struggling.