Step into Maryam Nassir Zadeh's ever-expanding universe
The designer's SS21 collection and menswear debut is inspired by skaters, summer in Bodrum and a dream that's been on the back burner for ages.
Photography Esther Theaker.
When it comes to New York fashion, nowadays, there are few designers whose sartorial influence is so visibly — and spiritually — felt in the streets like that of Maryam Nassir Zadeh. For years, the Iranian-born designer’s eponymous Lower East Side store, with its oversized windows and canvas-like walls, has displayed her minimalist bags and boots alongside glass jewels and ceramic vases as if in a museum case, bringing highly-curated fashion and design inspiration to the knowledgeable few. Emerging designers are just as welcome here in Maryam’s world as the feminine pieces and signature silhouettes from her own namesake womenswear label, which she’s built upon year after year since 2012. This season, however, the Maryam Nassir Zadeh universe is expanding into previously uncharted territory — menswear.
The idea came about almost three years ago, when Maryam was in Paris and began dating a skater. As much as his style inspired and excited her because it was so different from her own, it was trying on his clothes — large, cozy sweaters and baggy jeans — and incorporating men’s pieces into her own wardrobe that really set the wheels turning. The wrapped up feeling of wearing a loved one’s garments, not dissimilar to putting on one of her treasured hand me downs from her Dad, pushed Maryam to make her dream of designing menswear a reality. And with the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, and the fashion industry’s uncertain future, the designer decided that there was no better time than the present.
“When everything changed in March, it made me realize like, everything could change,” Maryam said over the phone from New York. “I had to embrace the things that are really important to me, not just things that I wanted to do, but even on a personal level of how I wanted to live my life. I realized I really have to be meaningful with every decision and make sure that everything I design represents me.”
Alongside her spring/summer 21 collection, Maryam launched a menswear capsule of classic button-ups, pleated trousers and rich knits, designed with men in mind, but really for any and everyone. The clothes were photographed by Esther Theaker, not on models, in typical Maryam fashion, but on an Istanbul-based collective of skaters in Bodrum, Turkey, and styled by Thistle Brown, who helped conceptualize the venture from the start. With their versatility and feminine flourish, let’s just say these pieces won’t stay on the proverbial shelves for long.
Here, Maryam walks us through her vision for menswear, the inspiration behind her latest collection and tells us all about those cute Turkish skaters that feature in her lookbook.
What sort of mindset were you in when you started designing your spring/summer 21 collection?
Well, I felt that so many things were changing and I realized that I wanted to feel more connected to my work and make it more meaningful. I just wanted to narrow things down because I feel there were so many seasons where we had been wanting to go back to where we started with design — making a lot less and a lot more simple. I also knew that I had a lot of financial restraints and I was trying to think of how I can make a collection that feels sincere to how I feel, how I want to dress, as well as with fabrics and styles that feel curated. I didn't feel I could afford an extra launch for mens, so we carved the mens within womenswear. It ended up being just like a percentage of how much we normally designed, but we thought it would also be interesting because women could still approach it.
What were some of your inspirations and reference points, things that you were just thinking about design-wise?
Three years ago, when I was in Paris, I started seeing this boy that was a skateboarder. That relationship inspired me a lot because he had very different style than my ex-husband that I was with for a decade, and I loved his style, but it was really refreshing. I used to work with my ex-husband and love and creativity are very close to me. And so, he really struck me and he happened to have been really into clothes. We talked about being creative together and doing menswear together. It was also the first time I actually started trying on a boyfriend's clothes or a partner's clothes, and that was really exciting because I never thought of dressing in that way. I think I'm kind of fast at these things and I started to transition in my designs and in my style. I was always more feminine and colorful. I always had to still be me, but it just opened up this scope of me thinking about shapes differently, and also having a more casual approach. You know how boys wear the same stuff, like for years? The things that they love. I'm a big collector, but I love the things that, to me, are really meaningful, that I've had for a long time. A lot of them are hand me downs from people that are really significant to me. Three of the pieces that are my favorites are from my Dad. His style is so different from mine, but the fact that it came from him, it feels so close to my sensibility. They’re so precious to me because I look up to him as a person so much.
[Making menswear] was a vision that I had. You know, when you just always want to do something and you're curious, but you're like, this is kind of far-fetched? I'm not a menswear designer, like, how could I do this? My dear friend Thistle Brown, who has been a collaborator, as a stylist and photographer, was talking with me and that boy around that time. Each season I talked about it with my team and they were sort of skeptical. It was one of those dreams that I had that was on the back burner, but should be possible. Like it's not that crazy. When everything changed in March, it made me realize like, everything could change. I had to embrace the things that are really important to me, not just things that I want to do, but even on a personal level of how I wanted to live my life. I realized I really have to be meaningful with every decision and make sure that everything I design represents me. The timing was right, but the inspiration very much started through that relationship.
I started looking at shapes and what fascinates me so much is how men's wardrobes are so edited. I think for women, it's hard to be that way. But it's specific: what is the perfect button down? What is a pant shape that hasn't happened that's unique for men, but could look good on a man and a woman? What are the essentials and what is the perfect shape in them? A lot of it came from the feeling of wearing someone's clothes that you love, whether it's a best friend or ex-husband or lover or boyfriend. And then also the comfort, just how everyone is like, it's really hard to wear jeans these days. The vibe just doesn't feel right anymore. Even my daughters feel the same way. So, it's more of a mood.
You were starting to incorporate menswear years ago and we’re seeing this a lot now, and just this idea of being more thoughtful with dressing, consuming and choosing to wear these essential items. I feel like part of it is for comfort and the way that our lives are changing, but it's also bigger ideas that are clicking. Like do I really need all of these things? Which things do I really love and attach a sense of meaning to?
I love the idea of newness, for me back then it was such a new feeling of wearing a hoodie or these baggy jeans or a sweater vest. It was just so different from me. I've never worn such baggy clothes, but it wasn't because I would have never picked something huge, oversized, it was more because it was someone else's size. And seeing that proportion on a woman felt really new. For now, it's practicality and what's fresh, but what makes me so excited is that boys are really loving what was created. I'm so grateful for that because if the right boys relate, that's so positive and encouraging to keep going.
In the lookbook the clothes are styled unisex, did you always envision it that way?
Yes, I worked really closely with Thistle and he and I sort of did this collection. It was a collaboration between us and we have very similar style. We see each other's things and we get inspired by them. But then some of my girlfriends that wouldn't necessarily dress in menswear, I wanted to inspire them. If a guy would be open to something a little more feminine and wild, Thistle could go there. It's totally menswear, but I wanted it to be clothes for everyone. I still have the integrity of clothes that are like a little lacy, bright orange, kind of flirty, a fun dress or something that's more textured.
I'm really excited that I finally realized the vision and let it evolve into its own thing. And I'm really excited for what we're working on now for fall to expand it. I don't want to go crazy with it, but now I feel like there's a place for it. People were like, “Oh my god, this really does look like your brand for a guy.” That happened naturally, so I'm trying not to think about it too much.
Tell me about the casting for your lookbook.
I was in Turkey and I got really inspired. In the past, I always travelled to the same places. I love Spain. I go to Formentera or Mallorca. This summer I couldn't, obviously, and I was like, I need some Mediterranean. I feel like it's not the same without it. I've been to Turkey a few times, and it's close to my culture. I'm Persian and it's the closest I've ever been to feeling like I'm in Iran because a lot of the words are the same, the food is the same, the gestures, mannerisms and kindness is the same. I spent time in Bodrum and it's kind of like a Mediterranean Los Angeles. I hadn't made this collection yet because I was there in August, but it was about to be finished. I was like, how crazy would it be if we shot here, but it's probably unrealistic.
My friends were like, we'll just do it for no money because we really want to make this happen. We would rather make really beautiful work and have that backdrop. And so we cast in Turkey. The boys I didn't know, but Turkish friends pointed us in the right direction through Instagram. We obviously are friends with skaters, the first boy that inspired me was a skater and these boys ended up being skaters.
I always get inspired by real people in my work, whether they're friends or people that I have a relationship with, so it's difficult for me to work with models. When I came across these boys, Thistle and I were so excited about them. They were good friends, and they have this skate crew called Yillar Ziyan in Turkey, where there's like 40 people part of their crew. When we met them they really had the vibe and they had this ease about them. They were the perfect blend of smart and raw, rough, but then with really big hearts and good manners. It was really special because we brought together this group of boys to do something that they don't normally do. We ended up getting along so well and I feel really inspired by them. They're really passionate about Istanbul and Turkey, and they're all artists, graphic designers, photographers or musicians, but skating is their main thing. Having them in [the lookbook] really made it because they're not models. They're just so cool.
Skaters tend to have this effortless way of dressing and even though the style is totally different, there's something about that that does feel pretty MNZ and like it can fit within your world.
I didn't think it could fit, but they really love the clothes. What's really cool is, of course, we did pick out the clothes and try to style them but you can feel their own personal style in it. When you said that's very MNZ, that's kind of what I love. I like people to have their own style and that's what I was so inspired by back in the day when I had my girl muses that I love so much. It was more about who they are as people than me. That's what I was excited about with these boys because when people have a strong artful character and a vibe, it really comes out. When you have a personal connection, you're hanging out and getting to know people that adds so much warmth and depth to the work.