In the depths of London’s gritty East End, bright Brazilian flowers sprout among distressed denim.
“Glamour was something we always shied away from. It was much more about realism,” said Marta Marques, speaking in tandem with Paulo Almeida, her partner for a decade both in fashion and in life.
“Oversize jumpers with Levi’s or Dr Martens,” said Paulo, describing their teenage garb.
But now the Portuguese duo, trained in London at Central Saint Martins, have a reason to think again about their artistic revival of grunge — all frayed edges and scissored holes. The Marques Almeida label carried off the €300,000 Louis Vuitton worldwide award for young designers. Suddenly the two-roomed London space for a handful of sewing workers and fabric printers seems not like the hand-to-mouth existence but a promise of a fine future.
But the Marques Almeida couple still seem to have their feet as firmly on the ground as if in the “tractor” thick-soled sandals that earned a cult following at the start of their joint careers.
The mix of Portuguese blood and a tilt towards Brazil, where Marta’s younger sister Sofia lives, has produced a meld of South American heat and a vision of fashion in the Nineties — as seen by two people who did not live through the heady cocktail of grunge from Marc Jacobs and sexualised glamour from Tom Ford at Gucci.
In their birth country — Marta in the industrial city of Porto and Paulo in the tiny town of Viseu — their vision of the Nineties came filtered through magazines, and later with vintage clothes.
Paulo leaps to his feet and pulls a magazine off the shelf beside the mood board and the pictures of the resort 2016 collection. It is a copy of <i-D> in 1993 with Corinne Day’s famous image of Kate Moss — raw, young, un-made-up but incontrovertibly sexy. It was an image that wiped away the cult of the supermodel and the extravagant Eighties in a heartbeat.
The “fashion model” for Marques Almeida has been from the start Sofia, whose fresh face fills the mood board and the studio walls.
“She’s been the quintessential Marques Almeida girl,” says Marta. “She was grungy and grumpy and didn’t care about fashion at all.” Paulo recalls Sofia “texting all the time” as they tried to shoot her.
But with her sister moving recently to Brazil, there was a fresh opening for this first resort collection.
“Her move to Rio de Janeiro gave us the idea of a cheesy, tropical look with an undone feeling,” said Marta.
In the collection, that feeling became shapely denim with ragged edges at hem and cuffs; fitted dresses with loose strings or scissored edges suggesting something undone; and floral dresses that might look like a Liberty print at first glance, but are in fact a complex work of paillettes embroidery from a French supplier of couture textiles.
I saw close-up a fabric with a wild, splodgy paint-brush pattern being worked on in the studio. It was photographed on Rio beach with the sensual carelessness typical of the duo.
Although all the denim comes from Japan, the Marques Almeida collections are made in Portugal so that, as Marta puts it, “the price makes sense for our customer.”
Both are overwhelmed at winning the LVMH prize, which includes a year’s monitoring from the luxury goods company.
Although with sales already established comfortably across the world, from Opening Ceremony in America to Matches in London to four stores in South Korea to on-line at Net-a-Porter, the duo are already on the road to business success.
The innocence with which they came to London as students at Central Saint Martins, must have been refreshing to the late Louise Wilson, their teacher and mentor.
“As teenagers we had no understanding of high-end fashion,” says Paulo, describing their style back then as “what our siblings and friends were wearing”: denim, sloppy sweaters and Levi’s — something his own brother would travel to the nearest big town to purchase.
Both speak of Louise Wilson as the person who pushed them to the outer limits of their talents, as they built their signature mix of grunge seen through a “noughtiest” lens — meaning not something “naughty” but related to the first period of the twenty-first century.
Marta describes their wonderment — not just at being finalists for the Vuitton award, but having a chance to meet with their fashion heroes like Marc Jacobs and speak with him about his years at Perry Ellis at the birthplace of grunge.
“It’s not about glamorising the Nineties, but filtering it somehow,” said Marta, who had just done a tour of the thrift shops in Toronto.
“It’s not meant to be nostalgic — I hate that word. It is new for us! Maybe that is why it comes up so weird.”
What do their families and friends back in Portugal make of their elevation to star status?
“We’ve been travelling so much since Paris,” say the winning duo, for whom celebrating in their birth-home is yet to come.