The fashion designer Marine Serre says the word “relevant” a lot during our 45-minute Zoom call – 11 times in fact. Which is totally fair. Because from Beyoncé’s Black Is King (which she helped costume) to face masks (which have been a key feature of her collections since 2016) to her commitment to addressing fashion’s environmental footprint, it’s pretty hard to think of another fashion designer who has captured our strange zeitgeist better than Serre.
Her sleek clothes – with their nods to military, utilitarian silhouettes and sci-fi, hi-vis anxiety – speak to many horrors of the modern age: the climate crisis, privacy and lack of connection, wrapped up in an athleisure-meets-couture bow. Into this she weaves in witchy truths about the “divine feminine” – the sacred realm beyond the known represented by the moon crescent logo, a print which has been worn by so many celebrities, making it one of the most distinctive looks of the year.
They include Queen Bey, who wore the moon catsuit in Black Is King. And Adele (who posted a photograph of herself fangirling out to Black Is King dressed in … the catsuit). And Kylie Jenner (who took a selfie twinning with her daughter Stormi in matching moon-crescent catsuits).
How close is she to them, I ask. “It’s not like they’re my best friends,” she says with a laugh, “because I’m working all the time, so I don’t have the time.” But more than the associated fame these alliances have bought Serre and her label, she loves that the more famous of her clients connect directly with her designs. “The most important thing to me is that they recognise themselves in the aesthetic and spirit of the label,” she says, “and feel more themselves when they wear the clothes.”
Serre is transcending the world of fashion, making potent cultural statements – such as the questioning of identity through her use of face coverings – which are on a par with the most important creative soothsayers of our time. I ask her why her work chimes so well with the zeitgeist. “You can answer that better than me,” she replies, smiling against a Zoom background of luscious potted fern plants. When pushed, Serre who, with her black hair slicked back resembles Pedro Almodóvar’s muse Rossy de Palma, says: “I’m speaking about what we’re living through … [my work] starts with something grounded, that’s what makes it relatable.”
She first came up with the idea to put face masks into her collections in 2016 when she was biking around Paris, super-aware of the levels of pollution in the city. “The challenge was how to make something beautiful out of something you see in the street every day,” she says. Four years ago, her debut show featured a fringed facial covering. Subsequent collections have featured block colour neck gaiters, zentai suits and N-95 style masks accessorised with berets and belly chains and moon crescent hijabs (which had some asking if it was cultural appropriation) long before face coverings became an everyday, medical necessity. “The mask has stayed [in every collection] because pollution levels weren’t going down,” she says.
I ask about the idea of connection between human beings during a time when emotions are hidden behind masks and Zoom screens. “The main theme is connection and everything is built around that. It takes different forms: sometimes it’s more aggressive and destructive, sometimes it’s caring.” She speaks about her work speaking to “what we’re feeling today”, during the pandemic, “vulnerable [and] trying to connect”.
Environmentalism is a cornerstone of the Marine Serre label. She says when she began, she wanted to diffuse any perceived arrogance (from having a namesake fashion label) by focusing on what was significant to her and this was sustainability. “The most important thing was trying to figure out the problematic production process. With fashion, you don’t know where your T-shirt is made, you don’t know who makes it and then at some point you stop caring.”
Using deadstock and repurposing old materials, she has attempted to change the narrative on clothing production. Now up to half of her collections are produced through upcycling methods using old carpets, tea towels and tablecloths. “We’re communicating through our regeneration process,” she says. “We are consuming so much.” Serre says she’s clocked consumers’ changing attitudes towards the methods. “We felt the enthusiasm about the regenerated garments. People are like: ‘I could wear a skirt made out of carpet, I don’t think it’s that weird,’” she says. “The goal of all of this is to make a better world.”
Her love of the elemental world is summed up in her trademark logo: the crescent moon. The motif, which appears on Beyoncé’s catsuit, has been likened to Gucci’s G and Versace’s medusa: a simple yet unforgettable “earworm” logo. It’s been associated with her since her debut collection A Radical Call for Love in 2016. Serre tells me that she loves the fact you can’t pin down one meaning to it. “You could interpret it in different ways depending on what era of the world you’re in. I find this fascinating. The mystery around it makes it powerful.” Despite loving the elusiveness of it, Serre does namecheck various things associated with the symbol: Islam, the goddess Artemis, the female and astrology. She says she enjoys that the symbol is so flexible, changeable over time. “I like that it’s linked to me in 2020, but it will be linked to someone else in 2040.”
Although Serre is definitely capturing the moment we live in, her fashion label is still an independent business at a time when fashion is experiencing a massive recession. “After our last show in February it was difficult. Sales went down and you end up questioning yourself.” Serre says she tried to concentrate on improving their website (“because people aren’t going to shops”). “When the pandemic happened, we just thought: ‘OK, we have to deal with it.’”
And she’s coming out victorious. Her digital film Amor Fati which is a stand in for a physical show at the largely socially distanced Paris fashion week, is one of the strongest I’ve seen. It combines a surreal but strong narrative and is crisply shot. Evoking Luc Besson, Tarsem Singh’s The Cell and Marilyn Manson, it marks Serre out as a strong visual presence whose themes work beyond the catwalk. “In a show, I have 10 minutes to show everything. With a movie you can go deeper: you have that same intimate feeling but a bigger audience.”
With Beyoncé already part of that audience, the reach of Serre and her innate ability to tap into where we sit as humans has only just begun. “I feel the enthusiasm of the people around us,” she says with an unmistakable buzz that’s absolutely infectious.