Skye Parrott: Can you tell me a little about your background? How did you grow up, what were your parents like?
Maryam Nassir Zadeh: My parents grew up in London and met in the ’60s; they fell in love in their early twenties while on a blind date. They wanted to raise a family of their own in Tehran, Iran, where they were both born. They moved there but it was only a few years later that suddenly the Revolution began, so they quickly moved to the U.S. for an independent and liberal life. I was only three months old when they immigrated to San Diego, California. They spent their entire savings on opening a restaurant with my dad’s sister and her husband, who had also immigrated. By the time I was three, we moved to L.A. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in a rural area near the beach, surrounded by rolling hills and rocky canyons. It was beautiful, natural and suburban. My parents both worked in real estate. My mom sold houses and my dad had his own firm as a mortgage broker giving loans for houses. At that time, in the late ’80s through early ’90s, the real estate market was hot.
Skye: What are your earliest fashion memories? As a child, did you care about clothes and the space around you, or did it come to be important to you later?
Maryam: My earliest fashion memory dates back to the Esprit de Corp days in the ’80s. I remember opening my closet at age seven and being mesmerized by the beauty of plaid and staring at the pattern. Years later I remember begging my parents to take me shopping at the Esprit outlet in San Francisco. It was the most exciting experience – I can easily compare it to the joy of visiting the Prada outlet in Tuscany in my early twenties! My eyes were always attracted to color and pattern and I felt an immediate connection and appreciation for textiles.
I felt creative at a young age and I had a strong group of female friends in middle school and through high school who had a deep love for fashion and aesthetics. We were always hunting for things we loved. In middle school, we would save up money and go to Venice on the weekends and go buy tons of crafty treats, like Guatemalan handwork, Rasta gear and vintage clothing. We would always borrow each others’ clothes and get dressed up and do photo shoots – not even anything really out there, it was more everyday dressing – but we would style outfits and take tons of photos of each other. It was very teenybopper style. I remained close to this group of friends and we got into a major Grateful Dead phase, where we got deep into hippie gear and we were always searching for old 1970s cotton floral caftans from India. It was then that I felt inspired to sew my own clothes and make jewelry.
I’ve always cared about the space around me, I was always making art in high school and reading lots of magazines. I would fill my walls with paintings and drawings I did in art class, and I was obsessed with magazines. I would pull pages and collage my doors and walls with them. The artwork I made was more landscape and portrait based but all the magazine tears were about fashion.
My girlfriends and I were obsessed with furniture and re-arranging our bedrooms and re-decorating. Looking back, it was very cute that we were so young and cared that much about interior decorating.
My grandma had a boutique in Tehran in the ’70s called MIMI. She made hats as well as shopped in Europe to import merchandise. It was a very forward space for the time and still her style is an inspiration to me. It was amazing to have her as a role model—my whole life she was making custom clothing and accessories for her clients. During my hippie phase, I spent a summer with her in London and she taught me how to make clothing. I will never forget the thrill of scouring fabric stores for material and spending the day into the middle of the night obsessed with sewing on a mission to finish the clothing. I couldn’t wait to wear everything.
By early college I was over that hippie phase but I was just as inspired by clothing and art and I was searching for my place and how I fit within my interests. I went to RISD for undergrad and I studied metalsmithing/jewelry and textiles. The style of my work was not clearly art or fashion; I was making textiles that were on the edge of either realm. I was weaving wall hangings and knitting fabric for clothes and printing on fabric, which could have been considered a wall hanging or painting or fabric for a dress… I knew I loved it all, so it was hard for me to choose. In college I was influenced by Susan Cianciolo, Miuccia Prada, David Hockney, Eva Hesse and Jean Arp; all of whom are still huge inspirations for me.
Skye: Tell me a little about how you came to open your store. What was your background going into it?
Maryam: After graduating RISD at 22, I started my namesake clothing line back in LA. I started an experimental project where I would collage and dye vintage lace and embroidered cottons, and make these embellished one-of-a-kind t-shirts. I showed Barneys and they became my first account. Before I knew it, I was selling to some of the best stores around the world: Maxfield, Ikram, Liberties… I was so young and clueless, but I had a vision. By 2005, I knew that I needed to step back from my work in order to learn more technically and even more about business, in order to come back to designing again. I was consulting for fashion brands afterwards and began assisting stylists.
I moved to NYC in 2006 to take an intensive course at Parsons in fashion studies. Months after moving here, I met my husband, Uday Kak, in the Lower East Side, where I had moved. I walked up to him and asked him directions, and we became boyfriend and girlfriend instantly. Two years later, when I finished my program, the idea of our store was born. I was working at one of my dear friend’s boutiques, Narnia, and I was struggling to find my next move. I was debating if I was going to work as a designer or assist more stylists and begin my own work… The last thing I was thinking about was opening my own business again. It seemed like the most unrealistic thing. Uday would visit me at Narnia and, seeing me in that environment, he told me I needed my own store and really kept encouraging the idea. There were so many “For Rent” signs in the neighborhood in Spring of 2008 and we started randomly checking out spaces. We thought how beautiful it could be to create a space to act as a backdrop for each of us, to express ourselves through this open-ended space. Our intention was to have a family business and lifestyle/community location that was not only about fashion but a more personal space, serving as a window into one’s aesthetic sensibility in a variety of realms. We wrote a business plan and applied for financing from the SBA. It was really surreal how fast everything came together. The idea was born in April and we signed a lease on a space by June. We spent the summer building the space and by the end of September we opened. The economic crisis was in October 2008, so our timing to open a business was less than ideal but what was amazing was if we had waited a few months with our idea we would have never been able to get a loan to pull it off.
Skye: After opening the store, you expanded to opening a showroom and then to making your own line. Was each of those pieces part of your plan going into it, or has it evolved organically?
Maryam: Everything has happened organically. Some things in my path have been unexpected ideas, like opening a store or opening a showroom, but I’ve wanted to pursue fashion design since was I was kid. Especially after I stopped designing my namesake in 2005, I was dreaming of the opportunity to be able to design again.
We opened the showroom very organically because the economy was so terrible just months after we opened the store; we were trying to be resourceful as to how to generate side income. We built the showroom in our store’s basement. I had great relationships with designers who were undiscovered and whose businesses I wanted to help grow, since I was once in their position with my clothing line. I think my plan was always to have the opportunity to design again because that has always been my ideal way to spend my time, yet I knew I had to be patient and be detached from the idea of designing while starting the store and the showroom. Actually, I felt so much fulfillment with being on the other side, appreciating design from a buyer’s and wholesaler’s perspectives. I was actually experiencing and seeing work that was so inspirational that I got fulfillment from editing buys, merchandising or consulting designers about their work. It was very expressive for me and at times I related so much to what people were making. Eventually though I felt a void and I missed using my hands in that way, but I really had to be patient for when the time was right to design again.
Skye: How do you manage the different needs of each part of your business?
Maryam: I manage the different needs of my business by taking turns focusing on all of them. I focus on certain areas more during certain months of the year and also depending on deadlines. I’m pretty good at managing many balls in the air as well as diving into one area fully, or ignoring the rest. The good thing is everything I do (buying, merchandising, styling, designing, consulting) perfectly compliments one another under the fashion umbrella. I always say all I can do is work a full week from 9-6 daily, and I can’t work more that that because of my children, so what doesn’t get done in one day has to happen the next. I can only do so much work in order to feel balanced. I feel lucky to have great support from our team at MNZ, so it takes some pressure off.
Skye: Where do you see it going next?
Maryam: Where I would love to see things going next is an LA store. We have just spent 10 months there during which my daughter Lune was born. We were trying to transition there in hopes to live there and start another store. We were close to pulling it off but we felt our energy was needed in New York so we had to postpone the project. We really feel strong about our vision on the West Coast and eventually we would love to open a store in Paris as well. My goal is for the collection to keep consistent and keep evolving, and for it to have a following. It would be pure joy to have my designs appreciated and out in the word for people to use and enjoy.
Skye: Tell me a little about the process of starting your own line. Where have you drawn inspiration from? How has the collection come to take shape?
Maryam: Last November, after having the store for four years, I finally felt that it was the time to start my collection. I had been feeling like the timing was right and then this beautiful girl came into my life, Melisa Denizeri, who wanted to be my design assistant. It was amazing timing to meet her because my gut was feeling the time was right but it was through her assistance and support I was able to get the collection off the ground. Melisa really understood my vision and we shared the same aesthetic and the love for clothing, shoes and styling. Designing the line came very naturally through all the years of working with clothes. I became clear about my style, the shapes and finishing I was most attracted to. I began to gather images, shoes and clothing that had inspired me along the years while envisioning my perfect wardrobe. I knew I had an eye for shapes that were missing in the market and I wanted to make designs that would have longevity and serve as timeless pieces one would want to collect and keep for years. We thought of building a wardrobe that mimics the store in the sense that it feels eclectic and like parts coming together, some are intricate, some are simple, but it is the mix of color and texture that makes for the story the clothes tell. I wanted the collection to feel curated and edited, like the store, so I bought hand-woven fabric from India and Japan, from family owned mills, that felt unique and special. We produced shoes in Italy, Turkey and Mexico, hoping that the collection would feel like an eclectic mix of timeless pieces from different places merging into wearable, edited collectables. The idea of the collection is for it to feel like an extension of the store and embody the atmosphere and style of the brand. We don’t want to feel pressured to crank anything out and the only way the collection became possible is because we take out time and really go at our own pace, otherwise it would be stressful and that is the opposite of the intention of expression for me. Although I have the showroom, I don’t have any plans to wholesale and really grow the brand; I would rather keep the collection exclusive to the store and keep it small and special.
Skye: You have two little girls. Has having daughters affected how you see fashion? How do they respond to clothing?
Maryam: Yes, having daughters has affected the way I see fashion, absolutely. In many ways I feel like I can be more experimental with them because there is less limitation with little girls. They haven’t begun deciding what they wear so I can style them and experiment. It feels spontaneous and free in a different way than my own wardrobe habits. Another simple example is [that] many women dress in a way that flatters their figure, and my girls they have such little tiny bodies I am styling them in ways I wish I could dress and living vicariously throughout them. My oldest daughter, Anais, is beginning to slip her feet into all my shoes and march around our apartment. She is already grabbing my lipstick and trying on my jewelry, throwing on my cardigans. I think she is interested in experiencing what is Mommy’s and I can really tell she enjoys it. It’s so cute; I can feel her getting really happy and getting into it. Lune, my seven-month-old, has a way to go before she realizes, but it is the best feeling recycling Anais’s clothes on her and getting an opportunity to enjoy them again. I never cared about children’s clothes, but now I find it really inspiring. The other day I bought some kids’ clothing my dear friend Susan Cianciolo designed, and we spoke about how beautiful it could be if we opened a kids’ store together.
Skye: What is your favorite aspect of what you do?
Maryam: My favorite aspect is working many amazing and inspiring people. I love our community and our network so much. I feel very fulfilled and thankful for the opportunity to work and express and even if I could even do one thing instead of a three I would still be so happy—I really love what I do.