When the Portuguese pair Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida showed their first collection at their Central Saint Martins MA degree show in 2011, they wanted to focus on youth codes and interpret them using only distressed denim. It was a convincing debut. Opening Ceremony began to stock Marques’Almeida; Lulu Kennedy brought it under her Fashion East wing; NEWGEN sponsorship arrived. So, for a few seasons, frayed denim was Marques’Almeida’s modus operandi. In 2013, they showed their SS14 collection solo on London Fashion Week’s main schedule and proved they were worth the acclaim – lime-green satin bandeaux had never looked so good – but there were lingering questions. How many times can jeans be unravelled? Could this duo grow up with their 1990s girl? In Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this February, the answers came. Show-goers gathered, most wearing Marques’Almeida from seasons past, and as the lights came up and the opening look entered – ankle-flared jeans with matching belted coat, velvet kitten heels and wild backcombed curls – a ripple of excitement ran round the hall; the air crackled. Out came banana-yellow jumpers with ostrich feathers poking out like wispy threads, models swaddled in great lumps of faux fur, low-slung trousers, silky pyjamas and matching tops and bottoms in acid-washed velvet.
”I think we only realised what happened after the show, when we finally went home and watched the video,” says Almeida, sitting in his studio, clutching a cup of tea and running a hand over his buzz cut. “That’s when it hit us. Basically, everyone started crying; it was really cheesy!” adds Marques, laughing and mimicking sobs. “We realised people were not just paying attention to it, but finally understanding it. I remember the first couple of seasons we had this kind of niche cult following that understood us, but the mainstream people were very confused. Now those people are looking at us and waiting for something.”
Last winter Almeida unearthed the South Bank Show’s 1996 documentary that followed John Galliano from his Givenchy haute couture days through to his appointment at Dior. The extravagance of Galliano’s work was the opposite of their ripped denim, but nonetheless the theatrics sparked something for them. At the same time Marques began reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids and became fixated on the Chelsea Hotel in its heyday. You can trace it in the collection: the bold colours, the furs mimicking once-luxurious rugs, the silk pyjama sets and pointed heels, ladylike yet still dishevelled. The velvet two-pieces looked as though they had been left crumpled in a suitcase in a hotel lobby. “We always said it’s for a real girl – it’s just a T-shirt and jeans, which is still the essence of it,” says Almeida. “But it was super fun actually going through this fantasy and then bringing the collection back to how we see it.”
Galliano was an offbeat detour for Marques and Almeida, who make no secret of their admiration for the master of emotion, Helmut Lang. In fact, you might say that they design by following what the Austrian designer told i-D in December 1993: “Fashion designers must give a social reflection of the things going on. Fashion is a kind of communication. It’s language without words. Fashion is about attitude, not hemlines.” The previous recession ended in Britain around that time and it’s tempting to connect the rise of Marques’Almeida, aside from their talent, to a modern-day, recession-weary customer looking for clothes without unnecessary artifice, clothes that are simple and assured.
The two met nine years ago when they both started a fashion BA in their native Portugal. They began dating three months into the course and have been together ever since. Marques is now 27 and the talker of the two. She laughs readily, throwing her hands around expressively. She grew up in Porto with her engineer father, kindergarten-teacher mother and two sisters. Almeida, 28, is endearingly shy, nervous even when talking about himself and happy to let Marques fill in the blanks. Home life provided the initial inspiration for their brand – growing up, they watched their older siblings, immersed in the grunge scene, throw parties in garages. But they admit that Portugal didn’t expose them to what was happening in fashion internationally. “We used to feel that was a handicap,” says Marques, “but then realised it might be a good thing because it meant that we’d never seen all those collections, like the past Gucci collections or the Cleopatra Galliano collection. We have no connection to them, no bond to them, so they’re genuinely new.”
As they mature in the industry, riffling through fashion’s back catalogues, they’re feeling growing pains. “We’re going to be sitting here when we are 60 saying, ‘This needs to be hip and everything’s going to be torn apart.’ That’s slightly scary to think about, so we just strive for something that takes us out of our comfort zone,” says Marques. “But with everything in fashion being so insanely quick, as it is now, you feel under pressure. They’re telling you, ‘It’s your time. You feeling it? OK, go!’”
All clothes by Marques'AlmeidaArt direction Mate Moro, Aron FilkeyCreative direction Nora GyengeStyling assistant Harry Doncaster