It was 9:15 a.m. on Labor Day, and I expected to find Tome designers Ramon Martin and Ryan Lobo in a bit of a panic. It was just three days before their spring 2016 collection would hit the runway — that will happen at 4 p.m. this afternoon — and though their Chelsea studio was humming with activity, there was a remarkable sense of calm.
It's been five years since the Australian duo launched Tome in New York — and by this point, it appears to be a smooth-running operation. "The collection is ready; everything's here," Lobo said. "We're more organized [these days]. And we have a team, you know, so it's not like the years when we had to do everything ourselves. We never say never, but there are no last-minute creations."
At a time when designers seem to be moving in every direction — '70s, '80s, '90s, normcore, androgynous, minimalist, you name it — Tome, whose clean, unfussy clothes have attracted buyers at Net-a-Porter, Saks Fifth Avenue and Moda Operandi, is consistent. Or, rather, it knows itself: Lace may feature heavily one season, pleats and stripes the next, but, to borrow Ryan's words, "form and function always trump fantasy." Cotton shirting, culottes, trench-style coats and casual cocktail dresses are mainstays. Embedded in the clothes is a profound respect for women, too — especially strong, creative types like Georgia O'Keefe, Dorothy Parker and Donna Karan, who have all, one season or another, served as muses.
Tome's maturity can no doubt be chalked up to the founders' own. Between them, they have about 30 years' worth of industry experience. Martin cut his teeth at Dunhill, Alberta Ferretti and Jean Paul Gaultier's haute couture studio before becoming design director of Derek Lam in 2007, while Lobo is a well-known stylist who has also worked as a buyer and journalist. It was in 2013 that Tome got its first major break: A nomination for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which immediately opened doors to major buyers and press.
Ahead of their spring 2016 show, we asked Martin and Lobo about the development of their latest collection, what we can expect to see at their runway show on Thursday and how they've evolved since their Fashion Fund days.
When did you start working on the collection?
Martin: We started talking about it when we took a trip — our first vacation in a long, long time. We went to Turkey in June or July, to Istanbul and Bodrum [and later to Venice]. We've been doing this for five years now, so we have things that we've explored in the past that we wanted to explore again, and also discovering new things. I suppose this particular collection goes back much longer than any of that because the inspiration this season is Fiona Hall, who is an Australian artist that we both discovered before we even knew each other, in high school, when we were first discovering art and culture. [This year she is] the Australian representative at the Venice Biennale, and there was a wonderful, I suppose a retrospective, of her work from the '80s right to her more recent works. We had immersed ourselves in that room.
Lobo: There's always some kind of necessity to settle on the views for the collection quite early, just because it influences all the things that you work on really early, like knitwear or accessories — things that take a lot more time because we have other people work on them.
Are there certain things that buyers ask for season after season?
Ryan: Yeah. Some of them do, some that we've worked with for a long time. It's more about what they respond to. There's a pattern to how they buy and certain things that are successful and continue to be really successful. We make small amendments for them. And then there are also things that we really believe in that couldn't work one season because it was too new or people didn't necessarily expect that from us or want or need to buy that from us. We try to bring it back in a new presentation and see if it can work again.
The trench coat is one of the things you do again and again.
Lobo: Yes, the trench coat. A couple of styles of shirts, culottes, lace pieces. There are certain things that come back more and they habitually buy, which you can never guess. We're always surprised by what sells. Not by everything, but a few things.
Martin: We'll do a recap at the end of the season and there'll always be a few styles and we're like, "They bought that?"
Lobo: Which is another reason to have women working on our team because we don't wear the clothes. We have a notion of what we think women might want to wear and buy from us, but we don't really know. That's why we have a female stylist and having women on the team is really important. Because they're the ones who will be wearing it at the end of the day.
You participated in the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in 2013. How has that shaped the brand?
Lobo: It changed the business immeasurably, immediately.
Martin: We were picked up by stores like Saks and Net-a-Porter and Moda [Operandi].
Lobo: And we only had four seasons behind us before. Even though we feel like veterans in the industry, we were the babies in the competition. So it really just brought us great attention, like we were suddenly legitimate and we were validated in the eyes of Vogue and the CFDA. And I guess in the American fashion industry, that's the ultimate validation.
Martin: You have to articulate what your business is, who you are, what you're doing, what you're trying to achieve — it really sparked that for us, what are we trying to achieve.
How would you characterize your development since then? Have there been any major milestones?
Lobo: Dressing Cate Blanchett. There's more coming, but we can't say anything just yet.
What can you tell me about the spring collection?
Martin: The work of [Fiona Hall, this season's muse] is not particularly optimistic. It's very bleak, she doesn't have a lot of faith in humanity. But there's a real handicraft that we've taken from her — there's a real hand-touched element to all of the clothing, all of the knitwear, which is hand-crocheted and appliquéd with beading and crystals. There's a lot of hand-draping. There's something so earthy and sincere and humble and hardworking about Fiona. She was in the collection in very literal ways. She did a series on sardine cans — we couldn't do sardine cans because it was too literal, so we did a sardine print [as well as a fern print]. We've never shown print on the runway.
Martin: And all of those things have the same kind of approach as Fiona has with her work. It's about what resources do we have, who are the people we work with, who do we know to create these things with us. There's a friend of ours who hand-painted the fern [print] for us. The knits are handmade in New York. Everything was sort of generated in this room by the people around us rather than try to manufacture things with resources far and wide. We brought everything to a more intimate recess.
You both light up when you talk about her work.
Martin: That's nice to hear. We want people to know about her. It's not like we need to educate anybody about Georgia O'Keeffe, but somebody like Fiona Hall, it's potentially the first time that she's ever been at fashion week. Not that she's going to care. She's notoriously... She doesn't speak to anybody about anybody about her work. Not even to the press.
Lobo: Also, we've become known for sort of a casual cocktail vibe and there's a little bit more red carpet in [the collection] this time, which is timely, as we're going into awards season.
You've been asked this many times before, but how would you describe your design ethos?
Martin: We never send anything out that a woman can't wear. It's very purposeful, very functional. We just make clothes that fit into a woman's life, fit into a woman's day, fit into a woman's wardrobe. And she feels beautiful in them and she feels empowered in them because they work for her, not the other way around. And I think they're the kind of clothes that stay in a women's wardrobe as well. We have people tell us they wear out things — now that we have a history of the label — until they become threadbare. It's just real. That's the point.