Trusting your instinct, getting back to the quintessential things in life and what makes a great brand story
It all starts with Yolanda Edwards' answer to our now classic "Who would like to read in a next issue of our Style talks?" question. Maria Lemos, she said. Obviously already familiar with Maria's achievements, we only knew her by reputation so asked Yolanda if she could give us a little introduction.
Fast forward, we receive the most gentle email from Maria saying how honoured she would be of being featured in our Style talk series. Very flattering, but let's set things straight here. The honour is clearly for US being able to have this conversation with such a prominent figure in the industry, who contributed to the success of most talented designers such as JW Anderson or, more recently, Gerardo Cavaliere and Margherita Cardelli from Giuliva Heritage.
With the most humble approach to what she's achieved, Maria looks back over her journey from 80s Paris scene to the launch of London concept store Mouki Mou, her deep, quintessential love for Greece and the simple life to her passion for Japanese craft in all its form and her minimalist, colour-centric approach to style.
Maria Lemos is in the Journal. Right Now.
Hello Maria, as we were just saying, we're really happy and honoured to have the opportunity to chat with you today. Thank YOU so much for the honour!
Let's get back to the very beginning. You're from Greek descent, a culture we obviously love, and not just for its pristine, remote islands and food. What memories do you keep from the time you spent there? I was born in London to Greek parents. We then moved back to Athens with my mother when my parents divorced. My childhood was spent between the two countries, England and Greece, and we were formed by both. My mother used to drive us to England every summer, and we would spend a couple of weeks discovering different European countries on the journey. And then we would spend the month of August in Chios, where my father’s family is from. Greece for me comes alive in summer, and I just cannot imagine any summer without Greece in it: freedom, a return to primitive living, the essentials of life. The sea is a huge part of this. Our repeated summer memories in Chios, variations on a theme in a way, is what creates this memory bank that becomes the quintessential summertime picture book of mind. From Chios, I discovered Mykonos, where as a teenager and young adult I spent all my summers. I met my husband there, got married by the sea, and spent our early family holidays with our closest friends. Mykonos changed, and we moved to Patmos, an island I fell in love with when we first visited more than ten years ago. Since then, Patmos is our haven. We visit every year, as a family, with friends and colleagues. It feels that we rebalance in Greece, understanding what is important in our lives and how little we need to be happy.
Love that idea of getting back to the quintessential things of life, by the sea and surrounded by loved ones. It is really something that we feel aligned with. Following on your journey, you studied French and classics at Oxford, then went to Paris to work in fashion. Where does your love for fashion come from? I discovered fashion as a teenager in the 80s. The Face, Vogue, ID, the music scene at the time. Fashion as self expression. I was obsessed with the visual identity put forward by John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan and the Japanese, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garcons. I studied French and Classics at Oxford because I loved litterature. I did not study to get a job, I studied what I liked. And then my understanding of French culture allowed me to move to Paris, where my mother lived, and start a career in Fashion.
Why do you think fashion has become one of the most visible and sought after thing today? I think fashion has changed a lot since I started working in it. Back then, fashion was closer to art, now I think it is closer to commerce. The big groups did not exist then, and many independent brands survived without support. There was no internet, magazines were so important in shaping our style and fashion shows were small and intimate affairs for a closed circle. In a way fashion now is more democratic. In another way, fashion now feels less special.
What would you say is the main difference between Italians, Japanese, French and American in the way they approach fashion and, more broadly, the way they dress? What is beautiful about fashion still, is the individuality it allows to express. Italians, Japanese, French and Americans all dress totally differently. Fashion is an expression of society. I am currently more interested in the way people dress in countries that are not westernized and not as homogenized: Africa, India, South America.
You're a great admirer of all-things Japan, as we do. What fascinates you the most about it? The Japanese inspire me in the love of beauty and the way they consider life. And their love of minimalism, taking away the superfluous. You see that in everything they do. From ikebana and their gardens, to the way they eat, their love of pottery, glass, craft, and also textiles. I have recently also discovered Korea, from Sugjin who works alongside me at Mouki Mou, and am beginning to fall in love with Korean culture and way of life too.
You're known for your very natural, instinctive talent to spot the next big designer before anyone else - JW Anderson, Peter Pilotto or Erdem among others - and make it a commercially viable brand. How do you assess the potential of a young, emerging brand? I trust my instinct. As you grow older, experience comes into play. Having met a lot of designers in my 25 years in the fashion world, one learns to assess what makes a talented designer able to survive in a world that is increasingly competitive. Design talent is only a part of what is needed to succeed. The ability to lead a team, drive, focus, business sense, originality in thinking, good communication skills. I would rate all these as essential.
You're the founder and director of showroom and PR company Rainbowwave, where you work with brands as diverse as Giuliva Heritage Collection, Ancient Greek Sandals, Raquel Allegra or Birkenstock. What makes a great alchemy in a showroom/PR brand assortment? Our showroom is diverse, encompassing all categories, ready to wear, accessories, fine jewellery. To quote a friend who described what we are about, Rainbowwave is an eclectic mix of brands, curated in a “boutique” kind of way. Not thinking only of profitability but moreover of brand alignment and how everything works together. What stores and journalists like about our mix, is the curation. I have an incredible team, led by Bianca Fincham on PR, and Lucia Restelli on Sales, and we work closely on picking talent.
What makes a great brand story to you? A great brand story is a true one. I am thinking of Ancient Greek Sandals and how they started. A super talented Greek designer, Christina Martini, returns to Corfu to live after a life in Paris working for Balenciaga and LV as a shoe designer. She meets a business partner and decides to start a greek shoe brand, made entirely in Greece. They pick a name which goes back to Ancient storytelling. Et voila. 7 years later, sold in over 300 stores worldwide, with their one beautiful shop in Athens which opened last year. That is indeed a great brand story.
We're in the middle of a global crisis that questions so many things in the way we live. What do you think will be the first and immediate consequences of this crisis on the fashion industry? The pandemic has changed the way we live, and we have moved even more online. Fashion has definitely shifted to a stronger online presence, and that will continue. We will not stop expressing ourselves through fashion, and face masks I suppose are one example of how everyone is choosing an individual approach on an item of necessity.
What will it change in the way you approach your work as the director of a showroom/PR company? We started our digital showroom in June and it was an incredible experience for me. I had to relook at everything we did and why and how we did it. The learning process has been really invigorating as it made me reassess a lot. I understood what I loved about what I do, and think of creative ways to survive. It brought our team closely together and enabled us to spend more focused time with each other. Collections became smaller and more meaningful, and we want to continue looking at how we do not create more than is needed. I think the future will be in two collections a year rather than four, no markdowns, realigning an industry that had lost its way because of a pursuit of profit only. As the company founder, I want us to survive, adapt and improve.
What will be the impact on how people relate to the whole industry? I do not know what the impact will be on the industry, but I do know that fashion has a place in our future world. We all need to express ourselves through our way of dressing. I hope it will make us more creative, less wasteful, more conscious. Perhaps going back to where we started, understanding what fashion is really about, is the first step in really changing what was wrong in the fashion cycle.
How would you say brands will respond to it? I think what is killing fashion is the short cycle of clothes on shop floor. Markdowns and sales are not controlled and the customers constantly shop for bargains, with no understanding of how clothes are made. The big groups, LVMH and Kering, and the big brands, are really responsible for what happens in the marketplace. They need to lead by example. Create less, waste less and be more responsible. Nurture the young independents and support them, as they are essential to the diversity of fashion.
Beyond Rainbowwave, you've also founded Mouki Mou, a London intimate concept store where you present a selection of objects you love. What makes a curation relevant and inspiring to you? At Mouki Mou, I have created a very personal world. It is a small store of things I like, that speak to similarly minded customers. It is very difficult for me to explain that, I suppose the curation evolves as I evolve.
How would you define your own style? Less is more is definitely my mantra. I like the saying of look at yourself in the mirror daily and take one thing away.
What's your relation to colours? I love colour. And I like what people consider difficult in clothes: lilac, moss green, terracotta, yellow. How colours interact with each other is key. We change our visual merchandising every three weeks and colour is the starting point. Similarly with our monthly newsletter, the colour chosen is the driver of our edit. And then Rainbowwave was chosen as a name for our company because of our love of colours.
What's your relation to scarves? I love scarves, and particularly in summer. I find them one of the most useful items in a wardrobe, because they are so versatile. Love headscarves. Love neckties a la française, not sure if this counts as scarves though...Also love men in scarves….
How would you describe LBH in 3 words? Beautifully made. Timeless. Chic.
Who would you like to read in our next Style talk series? Caroline Issa.
Thank you so much Maria, it has been lovely. My pleasure.