If Marine Serre hadn’t adopted a crescent moon as her signature, a crystal ball would be apposite. When Fashion Week shows were still possible, she had her models walk on what looked like toxic black streams from an oil spill. The 29-year-old self-titled “ecofuturist” has always unsettled her audience and, somewhat prophetically, she saw it all coming: Extinction Rebellion riots, dystopian chaos and a tectonic shift in the fashion industry.
Her spring/summer 2021 collection was presented via a film that channelled the clinical horror of David Cronenberg alongside apocalyptic, tribal and sci-fi motifs: a team of surgeons clad in immaculate crescent-covered uniforms and face shields surround a patient, reaching for instruments that could be jewellery or tools for body modification. At one point an eyeball is pierced by a needle. Florals for spring this is not.
“When the world collapsed last year, I kept thinking . . . these are the messages that have been a part of every show since I started,” says Paris-based Serre of her prescience. “I was already creating masks for fall 2019, as a response to urban pollution. Suddenly, they became something else, something essential.” She says she sees fashion as “a tool to speak and connect with people”.
Her work is distinctive. Eveningwear has lopsided proportions, while slightly sinister-looking athleisure wear comprises stretch bodysuits in clashing prints decorated with tiny moons. Utility jackets for AW21 have pockets just the right size for hand sanitiser. Yet there’s romance amid Serre’s survivalist attire, including frilly dresses pieced together from old tablecloths and bed linen, as if scavenged from Paris’s Clignancourt flea market; upcycling has become a key part of her practice.
Adrian Joffe, chief executive of Comme des Garçons and Dover Street Market, which stocks Serre’s designs, thinks sustainability is part of the appeal to customers: “The story she tells brings weight and authenticity, and people are getting that more and more,” he says. “It is a positive, planet-sensitive way forward.”
Serre grew up in a small village in south-west France, where the local art school shifted her attention from tennis towards design. She went on to graduate from La Cambre-Mode(s) in Belgium in 2016 and took a womenswear designer role at Balenciaga, later winning the LVMH Prize for emerging talent. There were commercial stumbles. She was bought by Dover Street Market and Joyce, but much of her uncompromising aesthetic ended up discounted at the end of the season. “I take risks with everything,” she says. “It’s not about money, I do things for love and change. I am stubborn.”
But that all changed when Beyoncé wore a crescent-covered catsuit in last year’s Black Is King “visual album”. It exposed Serre to millions — the film was one of the 15 most streamed of 2020. Shoppers snapped up her £220 moon tops. Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the brand experienced significant growth last year. Online sales were up 824 per cent, with direct sales increasing from €130,000 in 2019 to €1m. Total global sales including wholesale grew 81 per cent to €9.5m.
Lower-priced customers are driving the brand. “Right now, we sell a lot of those entry-level moon tops, and also make money from the top-end couture line, but the stuff in between doesn’t sell so much yet,” says Serre candidly. An upcycled denim jacket from this mid-range costs a steep £1,185. “We shift around 800 units from those mid-ranges a season. The regenerated pieces cost six times the price of a crescent moon top because of the work that goes into them. We are working hard to address that. There’s no point working as we do, unless it is accessible and out on the street.”
The finished product of her top-line pieces can be commercially challenging. Take the silhouette of her “Menina” dress — it’s crafted from a white duvet-type fabric, with Elizabethan bustle-style hips and undulating puffed sleeves offset by a micro-length hemline. But Serre acknowledges it’s not for everyone. “We sell particularly well in Korea, where I think they appreciate the weirdness and sharpness, the futuristic sci-fi vision.”
Serre is uncompromising, and independence is crucial to her approach. She shaped her 60-strong company after numerous intern positions: “I was at McQueen after Alexander had gone, and it had become a huge brand. Their way of working didn’t suit me. At Margiela, it was like a family and we knew the names of everyone, including our manufacturers. At Balenciaga and Dior I got to see how a whole fashion company worked, from pattern-making to communications. Today, at my studio, everyone is equal.”
Independence allows for swift change and a certain level of risk-taking. “I don’t really want to grow the company too much,” she says. “When the pandemic hit last February, we were able to be flexible and stay working. I don’t want to focus on profits — I’d rather we develop to become more affordable and less niche.”
It’s ironic that to create work from what would otherwise be landfill is so expensive. About 50 per cent of her work uses regenerated materials. “It’s not about deadstock textiles. It’s about taking pieces that were already finished and consumed, and creating our fabrics from them, whether that’s a silk scarf or a pair of jeans,” Serre says. “We go to a huge warehouse where they have amassed piles of similar old garments, buy them by the kilo, then create a patchwork from them. We put that on a roll, and that’s our fabric.”
“It’s taken time to be able to do what we do,” she continues. “In the last year it’s become trendy to be ecological, but three years ago it was a nightmare.”
Serre thinks the pandemic has only heightened the urgent need to address climate change. “What has been predicted with the environment is going to happen, and it’s going to be bad,” she says. “What has occurred in the last year has influenced the way I work, but [my ethos] is fundamentally the same. I am not designing from a perspective of fear and panic. We have one life,” she says. “So let’s try and do the best we can.”