"What I also learnt is that there isn't just one way. There's only your way," says Damir Doma of his time at Raf Simons' atelier before he came into his own in 2007. More than 10 years ago, a young, fashion graduate would get into his car and ride to Antwerp, a bold move that brought about a reality check he describes as "a slap in his face", but also, the birth of a raw, gender fluid label that spoke to a cult following once it found its outlet. Fashion tackled androgyny with a sledgehammer back then. Yves Saint Laurent's Le Smoking gave women the sartorial power they craved and Jean Paul Gaultier's man skirt handed males the statement they needed to make. While two of fashion's greatest designers set the pace for such cross-pollination, it was the young and "naïve" Doma that paved his own way.
"My man is someone that is very creative and intellectual and my woman is very individualistic and strong. I think the creation of a strong woman and sensitive man brings them closer together than they would be in a classic way." If man skirts were Miley Cyrus twerking in your face, then Doma was Birdy — powerful but understated, with a quiet beauty that would make you sit up straight. And so the Fédération Française de la Couture did, and were quick to pencil him in on the Paris schedule after a glimpse of his clothing just three years in.
"We started to have a lot of women who followed the brand and bought the mens collection. This was then when we began designing womenswear. As such, there is a very nautral dynamic between both these collections for me and it made absolute sense to put them together," he continues, explaining the thought process behind the brand's recent SS17 show — one which merged both their men's and women's lines into a singular presentation — years after he had already traced the thread that bound the tight-knit Doma man and woman. "When we tried the same thing a few seasons ago, it was a big disaster. The bigger media outlets didn't know how to handle or report on a show that has men's and women's in one."
Perhaps he was ahead of his time, or perhaps the rest of us just didn't see what an introspective individual knew all along. But as he celebrates the brand's 10th year anniversary with a collection of his finest work from the last decade — titled, Past.Present.Future — in collaboration with e-tailer Farfetch.com, here, get to know the Doma you never knew.
How did growing up in your mother's atelier influence your work today?
I think until today it's what defines the way I work. I'm very used to having an atelier, fabrics and patternmakers around me since young and it's an environment that I enjoy very much. It's also one that I still try to reproduce, whether it's in Paris — or Milan, now that I've moved — I think it's important for me to be close to the creation of the garments; the sewing and making of it which I'm very interested in. Our work is a lot about image creation and I think part of the job I still enjoy the most is the creation, the literal making of the garments. We make collages and drapings of most of the pieces that we do, and nobody here is afraid of fabric. It sounds really crazy but I have the feeling that people can be afraid of taking material and creating something with their bare hands. With the way I work, you can see it in the garments.
Could you share more about what your mother used to do?
The last five or six years of her work, she was working with me and basically ran my complete atelier of 14 people and they did all my patternmaking and prototyping. Unfortunately we're not working together anymore today as my mother retired to focus more on her private life, but I'm very thankful for the experience to work with family. My sister is a jewellery maker and for a very long time she's been creating all the accessories for my collections. I think it's just a fantastic opportunity for me personally to be able to have such close links to my co-workers and I think that the whole atmosphere in the company is very family like. We have people here from all over the world. I'm very conscious about that as it's important for the collection.
To give a different perspective to what you do?
Exactly. When you look at it, you can't say the collection is French, Italian or Asian. This is also how I see myself. I was originally born in Croatia, went to high school in Germany and after that Antwerp, Paris and now Milan. I don't really feel like I necessarily belong to any one of these places and that's why I'm very free and take my references from everywhere.
With your move from Paris to Milan, how did that change your production process for your label?
The thing is, we decided to move to Milan in order to change the production process; the whole motivation behind it was to improve the collaboration between design and creation —the atelier. When I spoke to you earlier about how my mother's atelier created all my pieces, that got a bit lost the moment we started to have a production partner in Milan. Everything got very much industrialised, and this is a feeling in my work that I don't like. We decided to go to Milan to be able to be closer to the atelier and the product. I think it's really paying back. For me personally, the last three to four collections is coming back to a certain refinement and attention to detail that you can only do when you're very deeply involved in the development. We are not a company selling accessories — we're selling clothes, and it's important to give all the attention to it. You have incredible possibilities for production being in Italy in terms of pattern and fit — for me this is crucial. I don't want people to masquerade in my clothes. It's needs to feel great and not just look great in photos. I think that's something we can get here.
Speaking of clothing production, what did you think of the whole 'see now, buy now' movement that really kickstarted this season? Do you feel pressure to keep up with it?
I think what's happening is that the fashion system is finally trying to adjust to the reality of things. It's a very old system that worked really well in the '50s to the '80s where you'd do a fashion show and show it to the editors. They'll then take four months to produce the content and the pictures would come out the moment the clothes are delivered. And that made sense. Now obviously, media has completely changed and you know that being online, I think that the media is disconnected from the brands and production and even, the shops. The main problem is that basically we show a colleciton and penetrate our followers for days and weeks with the new product and at the same time, we're trying to sell them the older product — it's completely senseless.
I think what's most important now is that firstly, there is an awareness of the problem and second, an acceptance for individual solutions. Every brand is now trying to find their own solution — there isn't a right or wrong way anymore. Generally, for small or independent brands, the 'see now, buy now' solution is not working a 100%. We're not Burberry — we don't have our own stores and we're selling to multi-brand places and we have to know what they will like before we can produce it. At the same time, I think there might be some customised and more individual solutions for brands like us and we can find our own way; something in between perhaps. For example, we are going to offer certain pieces immediately at the show and they're going to be limited in numbers. This season, we basically unified our mens and womens collections into one and it was a big success but, when we tried the same thing a few seasons ago, it was a big disaster. The bigger media outlets didn't know how to handle or report on a show that has men's and women's in one. If you think of platforms such as Vogue Runway or WWD, they wouldn't know where to put this show. Today, they start to understand that they have to be more flexible.
What was the thought process behind merging your men's and women's collections?
Two years ago, we used to do 10 collections a year including our diffusion line Silent, and I think it's something we thought we had to do six to seven years ago. We then found out that it's the wrong way to go for us as creation — and being creative — is really what we can offer as an independent brand. The big brands offer luxury but there's so much marketing behind it and that's not luxury — it's mass production. In any case, we decided that we needed to come down to a pace that made sense for us, and we essentially went from 10 collections to four a year. We went from four shows a year to two and we came down to something more realistic for us. We have much more time now to develop new ideas and for example, because we didn't do the [women's] show in September, we already started to work on the new collection around June, and you'll see that there's a different input of creativity in the new season because there was time. In reality, we need time to do new things — they don't come quick.
At the same time, my menswear was born out of womenswear when I started 10 years ago. All my inspiration and everything I liked came from womenswear and my menswear was known as soft tailoring and I think it was something that didn't really exist before and it was very brave. Consequently, what happened was that we started to have a lot of women who followed the brand and bought the men's collection. We even had shops who would buy stuff from our men's showroom for their female customers. This was when we began designing womenswear. As such, there is a very nautral dynamic between both these collections for me and it made absolute sense to put them together, and to also work and develop them together design wise.
In that sense, was it because what you designed for men and women appealed to both genders anyway?
My man is someone that is very creative and intellectual and my woman is very individualistic and strong. I think the creation of a strong woman and sensitive man brings them closer together than they would be in a classic way. At the same time, they're not the same. I don't believe in unisex clothing. The woman's body is very different from the man's body and of course, that needs to be considered, but sometimes there are men's pieces that go into womenswear and the other way around as well. It's a very exciting way to work and it took me awhile to be free and confident enough to do this.
Taking on the project with Farfetch.com to release designs from your archive of 10 years, how was it like going over a decade of work and memories?
This project is absolutely amazing and I'm not even thinking about what I get out of it as a creative. Besides the fact that I think it's great in terms of communication, sales revenues and possibilities to talk to people through this project, it's just amazing to look back at what I've done the last 10 years. Strangely enough, we're working in a business where the wheel is turning so quickly and there are so many things that happened in the last decade. I moved to Paris and did a men's show and had great feedback, started womenswear amongst many other things and there's never time to just sit down and do a recap; to look at what you've created and achieved. To be honest, it's the first time we've done this in 10 years. It's wonderful to be able to look through these archives as behind every piece, there is a memory. It sounds very romantic but it's indeed true. Behind every piece there is the person who made the garment and behind every piece there is a story.
I was just reliving these great moments and that's why the project is called Past.Present.Future, which means it's also a big opportunity to look into the next 10 years. This season, I can already see us using pieces from the archives and reinventing them. It's also an opportunity to show our young followers what we're about because as I think that there's so much information online that we're losing a bit of memories in general — people would've already forgotten what happened three seasons ago. It's just a great way to reconnect with what we used to do and what we'll do in the future.
What was your favourite memory?
There are so many but the first show we did in Paris was really one of the most special ones. I was 25 or 26 back then with little experience as a designer in Antwerp, but then I started the brand and didn't know how to produce a show. I had my first meeting with the the president of the Fédération Française de la Couture and they immediately accepted me as a member after seeing my work. At that time, I was the youngest member and they put me on the calendar without any doubts. For me, coming from fashion school, that was something I was excited about; being on the Paris calendar amongst all these brands that I admired. But, we basically didn't have any budget to produce the show.
There was this beautiful location in Paris in the Marais — a chapel — and I really fell in love with it. I hand wrote letters to the priest and he didn't reply the first two. After the third, he invited me to introduce myself so I went over and did just that. He ended up giving us the location for free. We arrived on the day of the show and only then, started thinking about hair and makeup. I remember one of my co-workers had face powder and he basically put some on the faces of the boys. Some of them came with horrible hair and we sent them to the hair dresser — we paid like, 20 euros per boy and then the first photographers started arriving. We didn't have lights, so I called a guy I met back in Antwerp that produced Raf Simons' shows and he brought a big lamp for me free of charge. This is how it all started. The feedback was fantastic and there was immediately a great following especially in Japan and Asia, and I was very excited after that show.
As a designer, how do you see yourself growing in the future. What do you think you can push on a personal level and for the brand?
For the brand, it's important that we refine the message of merging our men's and women's collections and refine even more who our man and woman are. For me as a creative, I want to speak to the people who like what I do and I want to speak to the people who I like. Today, it's not important anymore for me to be in Vogue like it was eight to 10 years ago. It's important for me to talk to my final customer and to the media that like what I do. I think we've come to a point where we have so much of everything and at every level of our life, we have to select what we like and what we don't.
What would you like to see more of in the future of fashion?
I hope we will reach a point where creativity will be key more than marketing and advertisements. I hope that creation will be the real value in our business again.
Shop Past.Present.Future on Farfetch.com.