Trying to lock in a time to meet with Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin of the NYC-based label Tome proved just how in demand the up-and-coming designers are. Put it this way: They had to cancel on me because Anna Wintour was popping by their studio for a visit, no biggie. Annoyingly, she had to cancel on them as well (leaving them feeling like ‘deflated balloons’) but promptly rescheduled for the evening before our breakfast interview on the Bowery. Over green juices and poached eggs, Lobo described Wintour as kind and benevolent, so clearly the meeting was worth the wait.
No strangers to waiting, long time best friends and fellow Aussies Lobo and Martin waited 13 years to launch Tome, despite knowing that it would happen back in their early days of fashion college in Sydney. They spent over a decade carving out their own careers in the industry before finally coming together to realize the dream they’d held onto for so long. The result was the culmination of years of exchanging ideas, from their love of ‘90s Helmut Lang to an obsession with ‘every woman who has ever worn a white shirt with confidence.’
Since launching in 2010, the label has been slowly built momentum and is now experiencing a transition from under-the-radar to in-the-spotlight, thanks in part to becoming finalists in the buzzy CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund (hence the tête–à–têtes with Anna). Chatting with Lobo and Martin, I couldn’t help but match their excitement for their nearly-finished, much-anticipated Spring ’14 collection. Read on to learn how everything from bad taste to esoteric art has informed their vision, which Martin humbly muses, ‘[those inspirations] hardly matter as long as we’re selling clothes to people to make them feel good about themselves.” And that’s precisely why we love these guys and their designs so much.
How did you meet? Did you work professionally together prior to Tome?
Ryan Lobo: We met when we were 19 at fashion college in Sydney. We made each other laugh and decided that one day if we launched something it wouldn’t make sense to do it without each other. We did our own thing in the meantime. Ramon had incredible design posts in Italy, Paris and the US … Alberta Ferretti, Gaultier, J Mendel, Derek Lam. I was in Australia the whole time traveling as a buyer and was in Europe all the time, so we would see each other a lot and stayed very close.
So why wait nearly 15 years after design school to launch the label?
RL: It was almost a very conscious decision not to launch the label when we were 24. We needed and wanted to work for other people. We needed opportunities. I mean Ramon worked at the couture atelier of Gaultier. I was able to go see the Balenciaga shows and troll through tradeshows in Paris and Milan. We knew it would be best to launch something when our aesthetic, ideals, taste levels and design eyes were more sophisticated and not as raw. Young people in fashion have this rawness, which can be amazing, but we just wanted to approach it in a well-rounded, mature way.
That’s very forward thinking …
RL: I know right! Funnily enough, we probably get more immature as we get older, but it was an early maturity that we knew we needed to get the youthful naivety and brashness out of our system. We were given a really beautiful compliment very early on, maybe our second collection, an Australian journalist said that it’s very rare when you find a brand that launches and is fully formed… philosophically and in its ideals and strategy.
So was it tricky to come together after all those years and have the same ideals?
RL: Everything that we’ve done has informed where we’ve come. I mean there were years of retail back in college, which is by the way the best education you can receive in fashion! I’ve been a stylist and consultant. On one level, we have tastes that are polar opposite, but on another hand, the synchronicity of our tastes are so ridiculously in tune. It’s been a really interesting fusion for us. Ramon loves ‘50s and ‘60s couture. I love ‘80s and ‘90’s Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren, and then we come together on ‘90s Helmut Lang or Miuccia Prada and Commes des Garcons. There are things that we agree on and things that we don’t, but when we don’t we respect each other’s taste, it’s always valid. And it informs the design process.
So what is that design process?
RL: I’ll walk into the room and tell Ramon about a dream I had or an exhibition I went to. Maybe we’ll suddenly be talking about snakeskin, which happened recently. In fact, snakeskin is kind of icky and reminds me of cowboy boots, but it’s sort of that philosophy of Miuccia Prada: A fusion of good and bad taste, of high and low, of opposing elements that don’t repel each other but actually fuse. I think that’s how we work. For example, we have this really chic tunic shirt in a luxe linen fabric, and I looked at Ramon and said, ‘it’s too perfect, who cares? It’s not us!’ So we decided to do something to make it a bit off, a bit ugly. We pulled out this garish metallic we’ve got in the collection and thought about how we could alter it just a bit so that the expectation changes. In maybe bringing it down, you can actually elevate it to that modern place. It’s a funny compromise … almost the irony of fashion. Good taste can be bad taste! At the end of the day the customer cares or doesn’t, but it’s fun for us. We have to entertain ourselves in the process!
So why did you decide to finally launch in 2010?
RL: In 2010 Ramon was in Australia and was about to take a post at a very corporate position with incredible money. He had just left Derek Lam. I was doing consultancy and styling work. Ramon just called me and was like, ‘it’s time.’
Right on cue, Martin arrived from a previous appointment to join our breakfast …
Ramon Martin: Yes, it was definitely a big risk, but it’s the kind you want to take and you’re hungry for at some point. You work for a lot of people and it’s a tough industry but also very nurturing. And we spent a lot of time even preparing. It all took a huge amount of time!
What was your first collection like?
RL: It’s still our favorite thing ever. It was the culmination of 13 years of ideas and obsessing over fashion and the women that we love.
RM: It was pared down for us. When you’re just two people starting a brand from scratch and you are your only resource, you can’t do everything. It was before we were on the fashion calendar, so we had, in a way, all the time in the world to discuss and plan. Now we’ll never have that again! We have these small windows and things only get faster.
RL: It was also the people around us at that time who helped us realize the collection. It’s still like that. The model Ruby Jean Wilson, whom I’ve worked with since she was a baby, she became a bit of a muse for that first collection because she was about to explode with Marc Jacobs and her fee was astronomical, but she worked with us as a friend not for a fee. Beautiful things like that made it so special. We are actually revisiting some ideas that we couldn’t realize with the first collection, that we can now.
RM: It reinforces that our ethos is correct.
What is that ethos?
RL: Relevant. Purity. Very essential. If a woman can’t make it a part of her life, then it’s audacious for us to suggest it.
RM: It’s the balance of desire and necessity. She has to need it, and she has to want it.
What were some of your early challenges as a brand?
RM: The hurricane! Not Sandy, but Irene. Manhattan was shutting down and we had a deadline for a factory and we had to race all night to get it done.
RL: If there weren’t the people that have helped us, we wouldn’t be here—models, photographers, friends. The biggest challenge is that there’s just two of us. There’s no giant investment from an outside body. There is no team of staff. There is no design student. No print house. Even though Ramon was here in the US for so long, since we aren’t working at the J Mendel level, we had to establish all the contacts again. It’s been a learning curve. The biggest challenge has been the biggest reward because we’ve felt so much love.
What have been your biggest milestones?
RM: Last fall we got picked up by Ikram, and that from the beginning was major for me. She is so supportive of us. Prior to that Ecco Domani was a huge boost for us. And now, of course, being involved with the CFDA is amazing. You get so caught up working on the label and it becomes such a bubble doing the day-to-day things, that you worry you aren’t connecting with the people out there. I mean our sales grow every season and press is great to us, but you want to know you’re on the right path. The CFDA has definitely been hugely validating and a confidence boost.
RL: When people say what you’re doing is good you’re like a three-year-old again. It’s a beautiful validation that what you’re doing is worthwhile.
Did your involvement with the CFDA change how you work?
RL: We always knew that this collection was going to be a very pivotal for us and that all eyes would be on it. To add the CFDA to the mix adds a whole new dimension. I mean when Anna comes to your studio, you have to give her something that she cares about!
RM: There’s pressure, but we work well that way.
RL: A friend said the other day that anxiety and nervousness are excitement in disguise, so embrace it. It’s about thinking about what this immediate challenge means in the grand scheme of things.
What’s your jumping off point with a new collection? What about Spring ’14?
RM: We’ve gotten into the spirit of choosing a woman to start with. Spring ’13 was Pina Bausch as inspiration. We’ve been inspired by Louise Bourgeois, and Georgia O’Keeffe was Fall ’13. It’s very much about not just the art or work that they produce, but the women themselves, their disposition and spirit. This collection is inspired by Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Her work is incredible. It’s just so ethereal, very much about the elements, forged by nature. She carves out her body shape and physical form in nature.
RL: She’ll make an effigy of herself in mud and then set it on fire. She is a lot about birth rituals and burial rituals—-the life cycle of a woman.
How did she translate into your designs?
RL: We set everything on fire! Just kidding, but sometimes you really want to… No, it’s the pagan spirit of her work. It’s about the protective layers, reflective surfaces. It’s that fusion thing again, which sounds like such a cliché, but it’s hard and soft, masculine and feminine. It’s dirty, and it’s pure.
RM: It’s about taking all that and making sure it isn’t challenging for someone to wear or excessive. It can’t compromise the commerce side. Ultimately, we are selling clothes to people to make them feel good about themselves. Nobody needs to know a shirt was inspired by Ana Mendieta. They probably don’t care!
Who are your fashion influences?
RM: We have such different reference points. For me, it’s Rei Kawakubo, Dries Van Noten, Azzedine Alaïa. But not just for what they make–it’s also for their approach to design and that they do things on their own terms. They run their own businesses and are privately owned. I read an interview with Dries recently about his ethics and the way he works with his mills and factories and how he feels he is responsible for all the people in his employment and that speaks volumes to me. Every decision you take cant just be a whim but it’s about how it affects your business and others.
RL: I would have a top five. I love a top five! Right now they are all women: Miuccia Prada, Stella McCartney, Phoebe at Celine, the Olsens at the Row and Victoria Beckham. I mean, duh… women making clothes for women! I mean, Donna Karan in her day. Coco Chanel!
How do you keep the connection with women as male designers?
RM: Through the women that we know. We have some great people around us that will come in during the early stages of a collection, and we see how they respond to it. They are really honest with us. If it’s not working you can see it on their face. We have an amazing fit model, and it’s those moments where she is trying on a few things and then suddenly she’ll get really excited about something, which is always a green light!
RL: By working closely with the women we know, it’s an editing process. It has to be relevant to them. It doesn’t have to be Anna Wintour coming over dishing advice like last night, though that is amazing! It’s just as important that out moms wear the clothes, and they’re in their 60s.