In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It's a bit ironic that M. Patmos designer Marcia Patmos is known for her specific knitwear talents because she actually started her fashion career with an extremely diverse mix of training. But then maybe it's the well-rounded background that helped the New York-based designer — known for her architectural silhouettes, multitasking pieces and ultra-inventive creation with knits — a shoo-in for the International Woolmark Prize this year.
"I went to Rhode Island School of Design, graduated and just came straight [to New York]; my first job wasn't very glamorous, but it was a great first job," the designer told me when I visited her sunlit West Village studio. Patmos moved in so quickly that her apartment didn't even have electricity yet, but back then, she spent most of her time at Macy's, working in a newly established children's department. There she learned enough about prints and textiles to branch off into freelance textile design, working with clients like Polo Jeans, Gap and Esprit.
But the corporate world came calling again, and she ventured into menswear with the Barneys New York private label BASCO (Barney's All American Sportswear Company, which was actually resurrected in 2012). While working under the label's visionary Lance Karesh, Patmos really dove deep into knitwear, and she also met her future business partner Tina Lutz, with whom she'd later found the knitwear line Lutz & Patmos in 2000. But first, the two paid their dues and gained training at more corporate gigs — Patmos at the Gap and Lutz and the Limited. Then, the frenetic pace of trend-driven fashion started wearing on them. (Sound familiar?)
"I was a bit burnt out on that side of things," Patmos explained. "We just wanted to do something we really liked, that had quality and wasn't something you throw away." In the pre-Uniqlo days of 2000, the two identified an unfilled niche in the contemporary cashmere space. "At that time, there was more private-label stuff, like granny twinsets, where the quality is really nice, but [that didn't have] cool styles or great colors." The two started with a super-tight capsule collection of 10 knits made in Italy. Lutz and Patmos went their separate ways in 2010, but the latter took lessons learned from the line to launch her own eponymous label M. Patmos a year later.
One takeaway from the Lutz & Patmos experience: Stores like to buy and sell whole outfits, not just sweaters. "I was trying to start a line that you would have all year-round," she said. What resulted was an aesthetically unique and continually innovating line of clothing you can wear 365 days of the year. "I try to design pieces that you can wear in multiple ways," Patmos explained, as she pointed to a modular puffer coat from her fall/winter collection. "Because the weather's so kooky and sometimes you get sick of things."
Patmos relies on word of mouth from her continually expanding network of like-minded designers to source the components and to find manufacturing facilities all over the world. For instance: alpaca yarn knitted by artisan groups in Bolivia, cashmere goat fur and yarn sourced and produced in China, special printed yarn from Italy to be knitted in neighboring Romania and yak fiber from Tibet. She makes an effort to keep the sourcing and production in the same location (or nearby in the case of Italy and Romania) to reduce her carbon footprint.
Patmos's knitwear design acumen and approach paid off off during the 2015 International Woolmark Prize competition. Joining former alumni, including Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent, Patmos won the U.S. regional and the final international awards for a total of $120,300 to put toward her line. She also enjoyed the opportunity to have some of her winning pieces produced and sold at retailers — including Saks Fifth Avenue and 10 Corso Como — and the chance to meet influential judges, including Victoria Beckham, who apparently had an entourage of bodyguards to shield her from crazed fans at the Beijing venue.
"I made this little story about a woman who's traveling for work," Patmos explained about her winning concept. "She's an architect and she's going to five or six cities in different climates." She also utilized the qualities of merino wool. "[It's] UV protecting and moisture-wicking, so it can be really fine as a dress, or drapey for a tropical city, or it can be handmade, chunky yarn [for colder weather]," she explained. "We even spun our own yarn for [a piece]." Hence, an incredibly innovative collection featuring light as air, "ballerina"-like layering pieces, chunky knits and an ultra sleek double-faced coat. Patmos went to the next level with travel-friendly accessories, including "a pocket scarf that rolls up into a little neck pillow" and warm, comfy socks for that cold, shoe-less walk through airport security.
Patmos' fall/winter collection is currently out, along with her fourth collaboration with Club Monaco. Considering the designer is continually growing in an organic type of way, she does have her sights set on next steps. "We made some things [in the fall/winter collection] that could be on your couch or on your body," she said with a smile. "I have this idea of doing more lifestyle home things." And since "I loved doing menswear and I get so many requests for menswear," Patmos added, "it feels like it's a good time for menswear now. There's so much happening. So much of my stuff is menswear-inspired anyway."
We're excited to see what the prolific designer does next. And note to anyone who's reading: this is a time I actually want a pair of socks for the holidays.