It feels like there's no shortage of brands attempting to make luxurious, timeless wardrobe staples for modern women at the moment. But few of them come at a price point that reflects their aesthetic simplicity. And two industry veterans — Jennifer Noyes, a former womenswear director at Prada, and Alex Gilbert, the founder of Paper Denim & Cloth — felt there was a hole in the market.
They met in 2013 when Gilbert was in the process of relaunching the designer denim label in the hopes of turning it into a lifestyle brand; Noyes ran multi-brand showroom Hatch at the time. Shortly after Noyes began representing Paper Denim, the two decided to ditch the rebranding attempt. "It really was like putting a square into a circle," says Gilbert, "because I really wanted to do something that fit where I am now in my life, and Jen, even though she's 10 years younger than I am, we were very aligned with that vision."
Both ladies are pro-uniform — "She's obsessed with the idea of a Smurf closet," says Gilbert of Noyes. "We've talked a lot about as women, as consumers, what do we really want out of our clothes? We really want quality and craft but also an easy luxury." So, they decided to create it.
A top priority, particularly to Noyes, was manufacturing as much as possible in New York. "Coming from Prada, [at first] everything was so important in terms of we had our own factories, and when things started to become more outsourced to Romania or Turkey or wherever, people started to notice a difference in the quality," she says. Working in a contemporary showroom also helped her realize how an item's provenance can impact quality. "I knew we could create something that felt really commercially viable, but also covetable." The void they sought to fill was something in the advanced contemporary price range that was high quality, manufactured in New York, not trend-based and rooted in American sportswear. "We just wanted a grown woman's wardrobe [with] a relevant and contemporary feel as far as being modern, but not contemporary as far as the execution or stylistically."
They've done what they set out to do: M. Martin clothes feel at once comfortable and aspirational, classic but cool, from slouchy trousers and oversized sweaters to tailored denim and structured tops. They're timeless, no-brainer pieces anyone from any age group could throw on and look chic.
Prices range from $196 for a T-shirt to $295 for jeans to $795 for a jacket. Everything is made in New York except for denim, which is made in Los Angeles, and knits, which are made in Japan and Italy — though Noyes and Gilbert hope to move that to the US eventually. They launched with a pre-fall 2015 collection in a very thoughtful way, choosing to partner with La Garçonne in the US and Tomorrowland in Japan. "The Japanese really care to be first with brands and they really get excited and they really understand [M. Martin]," says Gilbert. For fall, the label expanded to a few more boutiques that the founders refer to as "stamp of approval stores." Without saying whom, the designers confirmed they're in talks with a department store for spring. But Noyes feels it's important to start with independent shops. "They're the ones who really grow a brand essentially," she says, adding that their personal relationships with customers can provide a helpful feedback loop.
Thanks to their previous industry experience, there's a shrewdness and calculation to Gilbert and Noyes's approach to building M. Martin that other newbie designers sometimes lack. Their debut New York Fashion Week presentation last month was small and intimate. They plan to launch e-commerce next season and hope to dip their toes into brick and mortar with a pop-up shop within the next two years. They also want to start expanding into other categories — "lifestyle elements" — for next fall, whether it's a shoe or a bag. "We're determining the strategy of that," says Gilbert.
Oftentimes when a new designer lists their ambitions, you almost have to take them with a grain of salt in this fickle, challenging industry. But with Noyes and Gilbert, you get the sense that they know what they're doing, and longevity seems likely.