New York label Tome comes clean with a white shirt for anti-slavery charity Freedom For All. By Alyx Gorman.

Fashion label Tome’s White Shirt Project

Tome's White Shirt Project
Credit: Jordan Graham
Technically, Tome is not an Australian label. But Ramon Martin and Ryan Lobo – based in New York – met in Sydney in 1988 when both were studying fashion at the University of Technology.

It took a combined 26 years of fashion industry experience – Martin working for Alberta Ferretti and Jean Paul Gaultier haute couture atelier; Lobo as a buyer for the Belinda boutiques and later a fashion stylist and editor – before they were ready to launch their label together, three years ago. A string of high-profile successes have followed, the latest of which has a charitable bent.  

In the White Shirt Project, Tome has custom designed a shirt for anti-slavery organisation Freedom For All. The garment was produced to accompany its debut resort collection and the proceeds from its sale go directly to the charity.

The pair were already affiliated with Freedom For All founder Katie Ford long before the project came to fruition. The relationship drew the pair’s attention to
a story that would strike them profoundly. 

“We were at an event for Freedom For All and there were some emancipated women speaking,” Martin explains from the pair’s studio. “One of them had been tricked or enticed into sex trafficking with the promise of a career in modelling. Someone approached her and told her she was very good looking and offered her a big career. They persuaded her to run away from home and she ended up in a very dark place.”

Lobo adds: “Katie Ford, as the ex-CEO of Ford Models, has tremendous stories of good people in the industry and very bad people in the industry. After we did our homework we were amazed to discover that trafficking doesn’t happen ‘over there’, it doesn’t happen ‘elsewhere’. It happens in America in a huge, systematic way.” 

When the first iteration – a wide-sleeved, collarless shirt with oversized front pockets – hit Net-A-Porter in late June it sold out within days with a $560 price tag. The roaring success of the project means Tome is already considering turning the White Shirt Project into a capsule range, alongside its next pre-collection. There has even been talk of a vertically integrated factory, employing formerly trafficked women. 

Net-A-Porter was certainly satisfied with the finished product. “We know our customers will love this relaxed, oversized and effortlessly cool piece. Tome really has used the wardrobe staple as a metaphor for a clean slate,” says Candice Fragis, a senior buyer for the online retail giant. 

Lobo is more cautious when describing his approach to creating a garment for such a serious cause. “There was the mandate that it had to really be a shirt that was, for want of a better term, ‘every woman’. We needed it to accommodate a range of shapes and sizes. It had to be able to be worn in a variety of ways.”

While the White Shirt Project sprang from their relationship with Ford, you can tell the Tome designers also view it, in some ways, as a form of penitence for working in an industry that often hides its ugly side. “Obviously the people that we work with are much more ethical,” Lobo says. “But there’s a front out there that people are putting on, promising fashion careers, modelling careers, beauty careers. And that really struck us.” 

The degree of consideration that has gone into this single shirt is emblematic of the way Martin and Lobo run their three-year-old brand. In a short time they’ve achieved more than most of their fellow graduates could have hoped for. Tome’s path to success has been short on missteps and long on leg-ups from very high places. The label seems to be building with speed and precision towards very big things. 

Already Tome has won the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation award, which gave the pair the money to launch their first runway presentation early last year, and it has been a finalist for the Council of Fashion Designers of America and Vogue Fashion Fund, which led to mentoring from the likes of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. 

Lately, their list of buyers has swollen to include Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as Myer back at home, alongside major online stores such as Moda Operandi and The Corner. With big buyers come big collections, and Martin admits he finds the pace of the fashion cycle “relentless”. 

Resort wear was an exception to this. “It was a nice moment of respite.” 

Resort collections land in stores midway through the northern hemisphere winter. Light, unchallenging and designed to be packed on holiday to warmer climes, resort is considered the most commercial collection of the four-season fashion cycle. 

For Tome, this meant a chance to design a greatest hits range, incorporating the house’s shirting, voluminous trousers and minimal slip fine evening wear. “All of the Tome signatures are still there. We didn’t compromise. It was nice to reflect on the strengths of the brand and take stock,” says Martin.

Although Tome’s heart is in New York, the pair still have ties to their home country, in the form of very supportive buyers. Their first order was from Australian online retailer My Chameleon, and those early relationships remain valuable to the brand. This makes a resort collection especially crucial, since mid-winter in the US is high summer back home. Resort has proved to be a very lucrative niche for Australian designers, with well-established brands such as Zimmermann focusing strongly on the collection. 

“As Australians, I think we’re at an advantage when it comes to designing clothes for hot weather,” Lobo explains. 

Injecting an entire extra collection into your production cycle does pose some problems, however. “We haven’t grown that much internally. But our business has grown,” says Martin. “It’s challenging. What we do has to be sustainable. All areas could be expanded, but you have to pick and choose.” 

As the brand grows, these choices will get increasingly difficult, but the pair insist that the dialogue between them is the most central element of the business. “I’m still the buyer,” Lobo explains. “I hate to hear myself do it, but I’m always the one asking ‘who is going to buy that?’ I think I’ve become even more conservative now that it’s my own business.”

On a regular day in Tome’s Hell’s Kitchen office, there are about half-a-dozen people working away. This number will swell several times in September, when Tome prepares to show its Spring/Summer collection, a range the pair have just started working on.

“When we moved here a year ago, it felt like a palace,” says Martin. “But when it’s all hands on deck, suddenly, it seems very cramped.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Sewing new hope".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.