On a recent quiet and sunny day, we visited our founder, Marcia Patmos, at her Boerum Hill home to catch up on all that is new with the M.PATMOS brand and revisit her journey as a designer. Seated amidst the work that follows any small business owner home — pots and mordants used for indigo dyeing, idle softbox stands for website photography, racks of clothes — we were able to squeeze in a conversation before an afternoon model fitting.
It's like a workshop in here! It really feels like a designer's space. Do you remember what first drew you to design?
Marcia: You know, ever since I was a kid, it always was just what I liked to do. I've always been making things with my hands, little ceramics, etc. As soon as I could, I learned how to sew, but before I was allowed to have needles, I was only allowed to have tape to make little doll clothes. But yeah, I was always sewing, tie dyeing — my dad had a woodshop in the basement and he would do projects with us.
And definitely in high school, I loved art class. I was one of the few kids who was even interested in being in art class; it was a required thing. I wasn't throwing spitballs at the ceiling or whatever, I actually liked it. I would go in after school and work on my portfolio and they would help me and, you know, it was great.
What led you from art to fashion?
Marcia: Honestly it was almost a flip of a coin. When you start applying to schools, you have to decide. I could have probably applied to medical school and gotten in — and probably my father would have been happier — but I had these amazing art teachers in my high school upstate and they used to live in New York, one of them used to work for Harper's Bazaar, they had lived here and knew what was needed to get into schools.
I decided to apply early decision to RISD, and I got in. When I went to visit there, I completely fell in love and that's why I wanted to go. I do remember coming also to FIT and Pratt and then — because my parents would have been much happier for me to go to a liberal arts college — I did visit Syracuse but, I knew I didn’t want to go there. So, I went to RISD and it was great. It was a small school, it's still small, but it was quite small at that time.
My parents were not in the design world at all. My dad was an engineer, a physicist, you know, they were not in the design world at all. I had no exposure to anything outside of normal types of careers. And so when I picked my major, I picked fashion design because I knew what it was and I had always been making myself clothes. Maybe a year into my major, I discovered industrial design through my friends and I was blown away. I wanted to switch and sometimes I still... I mean, I’m a little old at this point to start over but, industrial design is incredible. It's anything: Forks and knives, cars and sneakers, medical devices and furniture. But at that age, having to go back a whole year is like a lifetime when you're however old, 18 or 19 or something like that. Not to mention the amount of money that school costs, or any school costs, it's cuckoo.
So, I stuck with my decision and although I almost went back to school, to Pratt or something to switch to industrial design, something always kept me going on my path. So here I am, still doing it.
And how did you make your way into the industry once you got to New York?
Marcia: I did do internships. When I was in school we would all come to New York for winter session, which was a six week period between semesters where they had different concentrated classes, or it was a good time to do internships. So, I came to New York, did internships and knew I liked it here and started to make connections — I was too young to even know the word networking, but that's what you're doing, you're meeting people.
I did meet someone who was hiring an assistant, and she hired me. And so, literally three days after I graduated I just came here, found an apartment, and started working. I started working before I even had my Con Edison turned on; I remember I couldn’t make coffee or anything for a couple of days. But, yeah, I just came right here and I've been here ever since. That was in 1991, so, it's a long time. I think I'm officially a New Yorker now.
Anyone who ran a business in this city during the pandemic is definitely a New Yorker. When did you first start a business of your own?
Marcia: My first company, Lutz & Patmos, I started in 2000 and I had that until 2010 and that was started by myself and another woman, Tina Lutz — we used to work together for Barneys back in the day.
Rest in peace, Barneys.
Marcia: I mean, really, there's nothing like it that's ever come again, to New York at least. This brand, M.PATMOS, I was incorporated in October of 2010. I started showing buyers the pre-spring 2011 line, which is the holiday delivery of the following year. And so yeah, so it's been a long time now. It's kind of crazy. Our biggest customer was Barneys — we were in nine stores, plus online, plus Barneys Japan. So, it was a change for them to close.
Is that around the time you opened your own shop?
Marcia: I opened the shop almost five years ago now, in October of 2018. It's something I had wanted to do for a long time. And it really was solidified by a project that I had done — I was part of the CFDA + Lexus Fashion* Initiative, it was almost like getting a master's degree in sustainability. So, we were in the second cohort of that program. The first one, I think, had Maria Cornejo and, I’m not sure, Phillip Lim, a few other people. And then we were in the second one. It was us and Studio 189, there were five or six designers and we spent 18 months together, like grad school, it was kind of great.
We had a grant and we did all these different projects. We worked with kids from NYU Stern business school. And your thesis was something called your Blueprint for the Future, it was a five year plan. It was different than a business plan, it was actually super helpful for me because it was a more creative way of doing a business plan. Part of it was to increase the margins on our sales because we were, especially at that time with Barneys, our wholesale margins to direct to consumer margins were flipped. So my goal was to flip the margins basically.
Also, I wanted to have a more direct connection with my customer because when you sell wholesale, it's more abstract. Sometimes I would do trunk shows at Barneys, or at another store somewhere, and there you get to meet the people that are coming to buy your things and see them trying it on. But you know, it's way different having your own store. So, I did find my first shop — now we’re in our second shop down the street. But I found it after I had been looking for a long time.
I've lived in this neighborhood for a really long time, I feel really comfortable here. I know who's around, who comes here, etc. I had previously been looking, and even tried different popups in the West Village and Soho. I lived downtown forever before I came to Brooklyn, but it's still a different crowd and not to mention, so expensive. I just felt more comfortable with the idea of it here. So, we did start in 2018.
Why is making a more sustainable brand important for you?
Marcia: Tina Lutz and I both worked in the corporate world before. We had different jobs at GAP and The Limited where we went all over the world. But then you see this crazy, crazy mass production cycle in real life. I went to factories in China and you see like a football field-sized room with hundreds of people in there working on one style. I was in charge of knits and sweaters — imagine how many they make of their key item, a ribbed turtleneck or something, and you just see these mounds... I had never seen that much clothing. Just this crazy scale and the fast turn, you know, like monthly deliveries and sales cycles and it just became overwhelming and I didn't want to be a part of it anymore.
When I was there, I did try to get them to incorporate better practices, like using organic cotton, or anything. Of course, none of those things ever passed higher up. Anyway, I just burned out there and I felt like I wanted to do something else, either gardening or bartending or, something that I really cared about.
The first idea was to do the perfect wardrobe — long lasting staple items that you would keep forever and you wouldn’t need to always replenish or could pass down. I did a lot of research and actually, Tina was at the same point in her other job. We narrowed it further and further into just cashmere sweaters, because at that time, there was cashmere, of course, but it was very stuffy. And it was before Pringle of Scotland got revamped, and before J.Crew had thousands of colors, or Uniqlo came to the United States. We felt like there was this niche missing of cool cashmere sweaters that were a great fit, nice colors, good styles.
With my own line when I started it, the knits are still a big part because that's my love. It really is, I love the knits. However, I also wear everything else, pants and shirts, etc., and I do really enjoy designing those. I have always thought about clothing in a really functional way and you know, I'm a busy woman who knows how it is to wear things and I see other people wearing things and I always want the designs to be super functional, really high quality, multi-purpose, and as useful as possible. This is just part of my personal ethos: a seasonless wardrobe.
Is it a challenge to source fabrics and materials that are made responsibly?
Marica: I've tried to source materials that are as close to the producers as possible, so we're not flying things all over the world. You know, there is amazing fabric in Japan, but then flying it to New York to sew it... I've tried a lot of things and we've honed it down. I have a tiny team and when you’re communicating with, let's say, five places all over the world — it's a lot of time zones.
We work in Peru with amazing suppliers that do cotton sweaters and alpaca sweaters and some wool sweaters because those fibers are readily available right there in Peru. I will mention that the issues of the world come into play — Peru's in a state of emergency right now because of their political unrest. I'm praying that everyone’s fine, first of all, that no one gets harmed that we work with, but also, that they don't lock down the country and stop trade or who knows what could happen. But, I love working with them.
Also, we do work with a number of yarns that are undyed. Cotton can be grown in different shades, there’s a pretty camel color, a sea green, and we also work with natural dyers in Peru, which is cool. Some of the sweaters we have in the shop, they're hand indigo dyed or dyed with cochineal, etc. It does add to the cost, all of these things add to the cost.
Then, we do all of our cashmere in Nepal with a small family-owned women's collective, and it's all handmade. They have a beautiful studio set up in their house in the outskirts of Kathmandu. Nepal's a place with a caste system, similar but different to India, and women who are widowed or divorced are sometimes not treated so well and sometimes cast away from their family. These kinds of trades are things they can do to support themselves and also their kids.
Nepal is a landlocked country that doesn't really have a lot of natural resources, which in some ways, it doesn't make sense to do production there. But upon going there and really seeing them and meeting them and working with them, you know, everyone's very happy there. It's just a nice situation. And we work with them with low minimums that we can manage and it's just a nice relationship. I do change things each year to a certain extent, but then there are certain core styles we always keep, you know, maybe we just change the colors.
And then we do our wovens in India in a small family-owned factory outside of Delhi in a place called Noida. The factory we work with is a small, well-lit place and instead of having an assembly line, like in a big giant factory, they have each person make the whole garment. They refer to them as tailors as opposed to just sewers or line workers, so each person maybe has more pride in what they're doing. We do small batches, we try to keep things simple. We have some core fabrics and some core cuts and then we do add on styles but, if something is working, we repeat it and make it in new colors or just run it again.
What do you learn from working with customers directly in the store?
Marcia: I learn a lot. I mean, I can see exactly what people are going for in the store. You know, you can see everyone's going to the green rack or the blue rack, or the certain color of yellow everyone's gravitating towards. I can see exactly who's coming in, what age they are, what size they are, you know everything, what style they are. And we have a wide range of people coming in and it's interesting to see a lot of the styles, which is my goal, to appeal to a wide range of people. In general, I would say creative thinking professionals are the people who come in.
People do care about sustainability. Not every single person — some people couldn't care less — but overall, more people do care. And I have noticed in the last couple of years since the pandemic, there's more interest and care about where it's made, what it's made of, etc.
I can also see exactly how these pants that we make fit on all of these different body shapes. I can also see what's missing. Actually recently, we've extended our pants from 0 to 14, which is more sizes for more people. Of course there's more sizes, like you could probably have double zero and 16 and 18. But for right now, we're doing increments and we are adding XL in the dresses and tops. At this point, I’ve become friends really with a lot of the customers — there are such nice customers that come back semi-frequently. A lot of them live nearby, or visit when they come to town from L.A., and so some customers in particular I've been working with to develop larger sizes. It's fun. It's a fun and informative project.
Any advice for up-and-coming physical shop owners in the eCommerce era?
Marcia: I think it's important to trust your gut and do what you really like because it's not like there's a lack of merchandise out there. So really it's important to be yourself and do what you like and you're going to attract the people who like what you do. I think Instagram, because of the way it just flashes in front of you, they might peruse online first, then they come in and say, Oh, I saw this thing on Instagram, or I saw this on your website, can you show it to me or do you still have it? The ones that are interested will be curious to come in the shop.
But a lot of people just like to come in and see how it fits. Myself and my staff, we all love helping style people, because a lot of people need a little guidance or just get in a rut in how they're dressing and need a little lift. It's nice to show them things to pair together or different ways to even tuck in a shirt and it changes the whole silhouette of what you're wearing or, you know, how you feel. People like that.