MILAN — Francesca Monaco and Salar Bicheranloo accidentally found out through a press report on a sunny July morning that they were among the finalists of the Sustainable Fashion Awards of the Italian Chamber of Fashion.
The founders of Themoirè – a Milanese accessories brand committed to minimizing the impact on the environment – are in the running for the Bicester Collection Award for Emerging Designers, one of 12 awards presented here at La Scala Theater will be awarded in a ceremony hosted by Rossy de Palma on Sunday.
In the category, the duo will compete with sustainable brand Nkwo and fashion house Torlowei – both from Nigeria – for a mentorship opportunity, as well as production and distribution opportunities.
“The fact that finalists could be selected in all categories and not just accessories makes me even prouder,” said Monaco.
But all the awards hype only plays a small part in marking a special edition of Milan Fashion Week for the brand. This season, the founders will expand their range of eco-friendly handbags to launch their first footwear collection via a capsule collection to be unveiled at Themoirè’s Spring 2023 presentation, taking place on Wednesday at the city’s Galleria Riviera.
While it’s not the first time the brand has released a capsule collection – in the past it’s made them for categories like trench coats and jewelry – Monaco says Themoirè shoes are here to stay.
The first footwear collection will feature three styles, each available in two variants, from platform mules made from polyurethane leather and recycled cork to options made from straw.
The range will reflect the founders’ approach to bags, working with natural, recycled or alternative materials for all aspects of the product, from lining and threads to labels and packaging.
“But it’s much more difficult to make shoes: there are many different components, you need the right partner and suppliers have very high minimum order quantities,” noted Monaco, who said the pair have been working on the project for a year. She also stressed the importance of maintaining the brand’s approachable positioning, revealing that shoes will be priced between around €250 and €550.
To balance all these aspects, the duo could not find the right partner in Italy, instead relying on a manufacturer in Greece for shoes. “We’re saddened by this because we would have liked to keep everything in Italy, but we just couldn’t find the right value for money here,” said Monaco.
“The truth is that it’s very easy to make an expensive product, but combining quality, an environmentally conscious approach, design and a good price is a completely different story,” repeated Bicheranloo.
Bicheranloo, a Mexican designer with 15 years of handbag design experience, founded his first brand, Salar, in 2009. More trend-oriented and still active, the Salar label “takes a different path, with four collections presented each year”.
“But in 2019 we asked ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ and questioned the pace of this industry,” recalls Monaco. “We wanted to get involved with a project that is responsible for the planet and communities and not defined as sustainable because that’s impossible. We didn’t want to impose those ideas on the brand we had because it would have looked more like a marketing move, so we decided to do a side project,” Monaco said.
Themoirè’s first collection immediately caught the attention of shoppers, who confirmed orders even when the first shipment coincided with the COVID-19 outbreak in February 2020. “You could already sense that there was a shift among retailers and consumers,” Monaco noted in reference to the rising interest in eco-friendly brands.
While Monaco and Bicheranloo focus on timeless designs, opting for vintage-style clutches and geometric tote bags that could stay longer in customers’ wardrobes, they are constantly exploring new materials, which is the most challenging part of their work.
So far, Themoirè uses four main categories of materials: natural ones like cork, cotton, raffia, wood and straw; recycled options like nylon threads, post-consumer denim, and eco-fur; water-based polyurethane leather and innovative alternatives including fabrics made from nopal cactus, pineapple leaf, apple waste and orange peel to name a few.
“Suppliers are experimenting so much, they’re really trying to make new things, but sometimes they just aren’t ready for the market,” Monaco said. “Moreover, not everything can work and meet our requirements. Many options are suitable for clothing, others for the automotive industry,” she added, calling the fabric obtained from apple waste insufficient for the development of shoes, for example.
“The research is the hardest part, partly because it’s a circle. The more we use these alternatives, the more money the providers have to invest and optimize,” says Bicheranloo. “But it also all depends on consumers. For one, there’s a mushroom-based material that’s great, but costs more than leather. I can make a bag out of it, but will people ever understand its price?”
Another challenge is balancing what is available with their creative drive. “Typically, these materials come in a limited range of colors, so coming up with a different collection isn’t an easy task either,” confirms Monaco.
Still, the sleek aesthetic and brand communication helped improve the perception of the product. Although the average price for a bag is around 270 euros, Themoirè is available at 230 points of sale worldwide in the high-end positioning, including Rinascente and LuisaViaRoma in Italy and Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman in the USA, where the brand was launched last year.
Italy is still the main market, followed by the rest of Europe and the US. The Middle East is catching up thanks to key wholesalers placing big orders in Dubai, while Monaco has been particularly impressed with the brand’s performance in Greece.
In 2021, the brand achieved a turnover of 2 million euros, doubling the turnover of the previous year.
“A standalone store can wait,” Bicheranloo said when asked about future distribution plans. “We work with a limited stock and having a store would mean also developing a strategy to compensate our activities from an ecological point of view … It would be in Milan, but it would be more of a communication tool than a key to sales. But if that’s its purpose, it’s too big an investment, we prefer to communicate the brand in other ways,” he said.
The couple’s alternative approach includes social initiatives. First, during Milan Fashion Week, the company will unveil the second chapter of Together by Themoirè, a series of projects designed to create dialogue between artisan communities and the brand, as well as shine a spotlight on vulnerable minorities.
After partnering with a Mexican community in Oxchuc, Chiapas, the founders headed to Madagascar for the second iteration of the project. Here, together with local artisans, they created raffia bags, honoring their traditional techniques and filming a special campaign on site to raise awareness of their personal stories. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the capsule collection will be donated to a local charity.
In general, Themoirè donates a percentage of its profits to organizations also working on climate change and, in partnership with TreeNation, plants a tree for every bag sold.