“One of the biggest shows we ever did no one saw,” says Max Pearmain in something of a paradoxical claim. The stylist, one half of the fashion duo Symonds Pearmain (the other is designer Anthony Symonds – who has worked under such creatives as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano), is talking about the brand’s trajectory to date, which when one traces it back, is nothing if not a little on the elusive side.
Launched in 2016, they were the talk of London Fashion Week for those in the know; joined the Fashion East line-up for one season only circa Autumn/Winter 2018; teamed up with retailer Matchesfashion.com last season for an exclusive salon show at its Carlos Place location; and this season decamped to London art fair Frieze (once again supported by Matchesfashion.com), for a showcase that took place last week.
In the middle of the Standard Auditorium, a pile of miscellaneous objects was all taped up (a motif that would reappear on the shoe-and-sock combinations) and covered, office-move-style, to create a mountain of stuff around which the models walked, before stepping onto a stage, posing, and finishing their lap. Bows in their hair, their make-up was vivid, suitably artful.
“It felt right to do. The Frieze crowd and the fashion week crowd are so interchangeable,” reasons Pearmain, who speaks passionately and eloquently about a “labour of love” hinged upon clothes people can wear and buy.
It’s a move that makes sense because of the brand’s foothold in the art world – the label’s literature always refers to a dialogue and dilemma between fashion and art and, on their part, a bid to solve it. Appropriately, said “biggest” show was at an art weekend during Berlin Fashion Week and, among their earlier collections, pieces were sold in numbered editions through art galleries.
Highly exclusive and highly elusive, it seemed hard then to track this pair down; their offering by comparison, however, is far less complicated: workwear-inspired denims and shirting, jumpsuits and pocket dresses; lovely stuff, made well and easy to wear.
“I think we tried to push towards something more minimal and, obviously, this word is dangerous to use but we’ve also started talking about ‘cool.’ We’re trying to put forward something a lot more kind of quiet in a way but then I think it speaks louder in a fashion sense,” explains Pearmain of this season, inspired by mythical style rules. See rain mac updates, short little skirts, a make-do-and-mend 1940s feel, ruffled necklines and skirt tails.
“I feel like it’s very authoritative as opposed to relying on something that’s maybe a bit more camp or [that has] humour, I suppose.” Which is why the brand has found all the right industry faces at its shows, when it deigns to have them.
Because where other brands’ use of guerrilla style presentations obviously implies an avant-garde offering, Symonds Pearmain opts for more unexpectedly accessible, and dare I say, nice clothes. “That’s refreshing to hear,” says Pearmain, who references Katharine Hamnett and The Row as being brands he has a particular admiration for, those that “seemingly exist on their own landscape,” he points out.
“It [the brand] was always done as a very impulsive, instinctive kind of personal gesture,” he continues. “We’re trying to catch the line between making it progressive and instinctive but also making sure we don’t lose control of the train at the same time. We want to manage it, but we want to grow it.”
Which brings us to the crux of the whole thing. Longevity. While from a business perspective, one could view this all as a self-indulgent practice, it’s Symonds Pearmain’s unique point of view that separates them from a fashion industry that makes other designers beholden to an unsustainable cycle. Symonds formerly had his own label and it’s from that the pair are all too aware of hype and the demands of the industry that can see a label rapidly crumble. “If you extend yourself too heavily,” says Pearmain.
The team-up with Matchesfashion.com has helped them dip a foot further into more commercial waters – a word he says they’re not afraid of at all. Again, it’s just about scale. “Obviously, there’s a difference between catwalk and what Matchesfashion.com buys.”
For them, it’s about going slow and steady, along with a personal strategy about when it is and isn’t the right time to show collections à la Alaïa.
It also lends itself a sense of desire and anticipation, something that has been quietly lost as we rush our way through the 21st century, scrolling and clicking, with everything immediate. “I quite want to feel that energy, rather than everything being so instant,” he says, noting the idea of a digital platform to be a struggle.
Natalie Kingham, fashion buying director at Matchesfashion.com, is inclined to agree: “Symonds Pearmain’s collection is to be discovered and enjoyed; their way of working collaboratively brings a freshness and a unique point of view that is elevated and relevant.”
Eschewing the limelight, moving at their own pace is helping them to build a business that will last – and it’s their exclusivity that stimulates their desire and desirability.