Raising a Brand

Montreal-based designers Eran Elfassy and Elisa Dahan of Mackage discuss innovating the fitted silhouette for outerwear, their design process and staying relevant.



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So let’s start at the beginning. You created Mackage around the belief that outerwear is more than just an element of fashion – that it can become the outfit itself. What specifically drew you towards creating an outerwear brand?

Eran / First of all, when we were young, there was no cool outerwear. When people were wearing their coats, they put it on, they just took it off when they got to their destination. There was nothing special about it. Especially here in Canada, we have very cold winters and it sucks to walk around for five months of the year in an ugly coat. We wanted to do something different.

So that was your initial motivation?

Elisa / Yes, back then there was nothing leather that was also a contemporary fit, it was all very commercial.

Eran / And if that contemporary fit existed, it came from one designer and there was only one product and it was not affordable. When we started showing our designs and our products, everyone asked us “who is going to buy a jacket that’s so small and so fitted?” – we told them, “I will, and she will and hundreds of other girls that we know will.”

What was the early reaction like to the brand, to your point of view?

Eran / I almost quit after a year because our silhouette just wasn’t accepted. I was so sure that it was exactly what was needed in the market, but nobody wanted to buy it. Buyers were apprehensive because they thought, you know, you can’t move in it, it’s so tight, it’s uncomfortable, you can’t wear a sweater underneath – they didn’t understand. We told them, that’s the look. Finally, we got our first order and they sold out in a week.

How did that feel?

Eran / Amazing. That was what pulled us back in.

Elisa / And more than that... we fought for what we believed in and it paid off, it worked. That’s been an important lesson, to always stay true to yourself and what you believe in.

It must have been a difficult challenge to overcome.

Eran / The beginning is hard. Often, people won’t get it until they see it on someone else. Especially when you come out with something new and innovative, people don’t understand until you know, a superstar is wearing it. The important thing is not to quit. And when you’re bringing something new to the market, it’s so hard.

What were your early inspirations?

Elisa / I don’t want to sound shallow, but I think we inspire ourselves. We couldn’t find the perfect jacket that we wanted, so we designed it ourselves. In every project, people see a demand or a need that they need to fill, and in our case, that need came from us. I didn’t want to be embarrassed to wear a winter coat anymore. Until we started doing puffers and heavy wool pieces, I was wearing a leather jacket in winter, in Montreal.

Eran / In the beginning, the line was for us. And we still design for us. Sometimes we look at pieces we designed thirteen years ago, and we’re like “what were we thinking?”. There’s things we’ve done well and things we haven’t. We designed for us and for people like us. So the line has matured in the same way we have.

How would describe the evolution of Mackage, that maturation?

Eran / Early on, as we mentioned, it was fitted, it was beautiful but now as we get older we want something that’s going to be comfortable. There’s a lot of things we’re doing differently, and we’re trying to pay attention to the details. Now, it’s still fitted but it’s different. In the early days, for example, the jackets had no hips.

Elisa / But back then, when that lady was twenty, she didn’t have hips. [laughs]

So, what was the first piece you designed together as Mackage?

Elisa / The FS-100! That blazer! [laughs]

Eran / It was a three-quarter sleeve, fitted leather jacket that was constructed like a blazer, with two pockets.

Elisa / It was all about the fit. The thinking was that just because it’s cold out, doesn’t mean you have to go outside looking like the Michelin man.

Eran / Back then, having a fitted [leather] piece did not exist. The silhouette was a-line, it had big shoulders, it was loose – it didn’t fit.

How do you start your design process, what are the first steps?

Elisa / One of our trademarks when we’re designing, especially in the early stages, is to sit with our line sheets from the past five or six seasons, looking through them and deciding what elements or ideas could be applied in a fresh way for the coming season. Our archive goes back to 2004, and we look back every season. It’s like a déjà vu moment but it helps us stay consistent and keep heading in the same direction.

Prior to founding the brand, you spent time sketching designs together, brainstorming ideas and planning for the future – is that social aspect still part of your process today?

Elisa / Yes!

Eran / We talk too much and we’re not designing enough!

Elisa / We are always talking about “what is still missing in your closet” – what do you still need, what do I still need?

Eran / We bounce ideas off each other, and it just comes together naturally.

Elisa / What we love to do is play with fabrics, as well. We’ll find a material that we like and try putting another material on top of that, cutting out pieces, seeing how it all fits together.

So a very tactile process, it was how we designed this season’s exclusive Mackage for SSENSE jacket – placing the fabrics and testing combinations.

Elisa / Yes - we love to work with our hands. Sometimes we sketch, but it’s rough sketches, so you know – good luck. [laughs] But we are the kind of people who love to touch and feel and put it together.

So you are already thinking about technicalities at this point, fabrics, weight, colour palette etc?

Elisa / We’re always thinking about technicalities, even after the design part is over. We’ll change our color palette completely sometimes, too. That’s the biggest flaw of being so creative, that you see evolution even when there’s no more time left to evolve. That’s one of the hardest things, knowing when to stop. The more you work at something, the more you perfect it, and it can always be better. But you need to stop at one point or you’re never going to have a finished product. That’s why after thirteen years, we’ve seen such an improvement and such progression because we have had so much time to learn. But, we still don’t always have enough time.

Eran / We’ll change our color palette sometimes, two or three times. You’ll look at the palette and it’s too green, so we change it and then we get the new ones, and it’s like, no, let’s go back to the old one, [laughs] our team wants to kill us!

Elisa / The design team has put up this sign in the design room – because during the Fall season it’s hardest to deal with us, there’s so much change – and there’s a circle and it says, “For stress relief: bang your head here.” [laughs]

Because your design process is so hands on, and there’s so much interaction between the two of you, and your team, do you find it difficult to have your time divided between Montreal and New York, for instance?

Elisa / We do all of our design work here, so we don’t necessarily have that problem. We try to plan so that we complete all of that before we start our travels.

Eran / Traveling helps you design a lot, too, in terms of inspiration. Just seeing people and places...

Eran / When you go to the [fashion] shows, you see the rest of the industry, and there’s so much diversity and so many different styles. It’s very inspiring.

Elisa / These people are from all over the world, and they’re in fashion and they all have unique styles. It’s fun, it’s so inspiring, you get a bit of everything all in one place.

Eran / Seeing all these different people, I think, is much more inspiring than seeing the shows themselves. Even the architecture or the landscapes of the cities you visit, that’s inspiring too.

Elisa / The heart of our trips, when we travel for inspiration, is always people-watching. Last time we were in Tokyo, and just watching people in the streets and their interpretation of fashion. Just crossing that famous, crazy [Shinjuku] street, taking all of it in, the energy… it’s so inspiring.

Mackage’s heritage is in leather, but do you have other favourite materials you work with?

Elisa / Generally, more than a fabric, we love combining fabrics. Even in our campaigns, we love using that juxtaposition or contrast – the shine of the leather against the matte of the wool.

Eran / We’ve been doing leather detail for years and years and years. At least twelve years. Leather detailing has become very, very in. Back then, that’s something people would really question us about... There was this one store, and the buyer was asking “leather on wool? Are you crazy?” [laughs] He asked us to compromise, and we said, “no, this is us, this is our idea, this is what we like.”Finally, they bought from us. But it was hard in the beginning and now it’s become easier.

Tell us about the unique way in which you name your jackets.

Eran / When we design, we often try to think of a person. It could be someone we know or an actress or a friend or someone we think is very beautiful. We started off naming them after the people we imagined in wearing our designs or friends that suit the style of a particular jacket - this one is perfect for Claudia, this one for Jess. But soon, we ran out of friends to name the jackets after, so we’ve started looking in name books or asking people who are close to us to choose a name.

So, the name was very much the personification of what kind of person would wear the jacket?

Elisa / Definitely. At one point, we named a jacket for my boyfriend at the time, and when we finally released it, we were broken up at the time. It was our best seller and I was so pissed! [laughs] But we ended up getting married so it all worked out, and that jacket is still part of our collections today!

Will you always continue naming your jackets?

Elisa / I think we will. We’ve used up all our friends names, but I think it’s something we’ll continue doing.

Eran / Sometimes when we ask people to come up with a name for one of our jackets, it just ends up being so wrong, it doesn’t fit. We had someone call one of our winter jackets Diego – that’s a Latin American name! That doesn’t fit with winter. It was too late to change it now, so the Diego jacket actually exists.

Elisa / It’s fun to name our jackets after people because... it’s like, they’re people to us. It gives them a personality.

Eran / It’s also easier to remember than a SKU or a style number.

Elisa / Especially with social media now, our customers talk about them like they’re people. “I need to have the Beau” or “I need to have the Cheyenne” – it’s very accessible, people learn the Mackage language and those who have followed Mackage for a number of seasons, know who Natalie is because we reproduce it every season in different colours or with different features. People have adopted it, they understand it, and it has become part of who Mackage is.

How long does your creative process take?

Eran / While we design Spring, we get ideas for Fall. We are constantly thinking but we actually start in July or August.

Elisa / And in a perfect world, the collections are designed by December. And then production is finished by July, so it’s almost a year-long process from paper to product.

Eran / The process for each season overlaps so much that we don’t even know the reaction of the line we’ve just released, and we’re already designing the next season.

How does sampling impact your designs?

Eran / Putting the sample together is hard. Certain looks only look good on certain body types – a lot of the samples we try out only look good because they’re worn by a six foot three model – everything is nice on a six foot three model. You have to keep in mind the average girl, as well. It has to be a good fit for everyone. The reality of the fashion show and the reality is very different.

So wearability is definitely one of your strongest values as a brand?

Eran / Definitely. If a model comes in and tries something that looks great, we always try it on someone else because it has to look great on everyone.

Elisa / It has to be relatable. We don’t want customers to see the jackets on the runway and think, “Wow, that’s beautiful” but not be able to see themselves in or relate to it at all. She has to have the feeling that this is for her.

You mentioned that as designers, what you value is evolving as you age, essentially, so that will be cause for future innovation as well?

Elisa / We’re still young at heart. We said we would pause at thirty and even though now we’re 33 – we’re going to design in a 30 year old mindset.

Does that worry you, though?

Eran / I think we’re in a good age bracket now, who knows what will happen when we’re older. When we first started, we had to evolve to think in a more mature mindset.

Elisa / The core of who we are developed in time with us, but it’s still been there for a long time, even since the beginning. The essence of who we are will stay who we are. I think that we are improving and maturing to the sense of... it was crazy not to be able to hail a taxi in our coat, just because we wanted a girl to look slim. And we realized that very quickly. Is it because we’re mature? Probably, but we had to go through these trials and errors to get to where we are today. Karl Lagerfeld is not a young man, for instance, but he knows how to stay relevant.

How do you, personally, ensure that your designs remain relevant?

Elisa / Me, when I choose my jackets for the season, I always choose what is new, I choose the most innovative designs. And I think that speaks to our customers as well, because some, like me, want what is new – the new, the new, the new - and some are Mackage customers that love our classic pieces that we release every season, the Mackage that we are at our core. As long as we have that balance, I don’t think staying relevant will be a problem.

Earlier, we mentioned our work together on the Mackage for SSENSE jacket for Fall 12. What is collaborating like for you as designers?

Eran / It’s interesting. We’ve probably designed more coats than any other designer, but you’ll also have a designer who has produced more pants than anyone out there. Everyone has their specialty or a strength, so when you put those together, you create something amazing.

How do you choose who you collaborate with? What values do you look for?

Elisa / To us, it’s like our child. Would you put your child in the wrong situation? No, you protect it, and that’s what we do with Mackage. I think if we partner with someone, it’s because we share a certain aesthetic or style. Collaborating is really fun, we only collaborate with brands that we admire. I’m not impressed with collaborations that are purely money-based. I think it’s important to choose collaborations you believe in.

Eran / People have offered us collaborations that, in a business sense, would be great – but it’s not us. So we don’t do it.

So, what advice would you give your younger selves, if you could sit down with them?

Elisa / I would tell myself something that I still stand by today, it would be to stay true to who you are, and whatever you do, don’t compromise. That’s the most important thing to know when you’re younger. This industry is not all glamour – and that’s fine, but it’s important to know that when you’re younger. We’re so close to the brand because we worked so hard to let it shine and make it what it is, that we’ll never give it less.

Eran / Being a designer, it’s hard because buyers will want to talk to you and try to manipulate you to change your designs into something they’re not, or something you’re not. “I like it but can you change this or remove this” – and it’s like, No! As designers, it’s easy to let them get into your head a bit. I would tell myself to stay focused and do what you want to do. You have to do what you love and love what you do.