'A GIFT FROM ABOVE' | Our Interview with THEO the Label's Designer

[this interview has been edited for clarity]

YMANI MENDOZA: I understand Theo is a personal creation of yours, a testament to your talent and creativity. After having worked in the fashion industry for 25+ years with various roles of global head of sales, then showroom owner to now designer, when did that aha moment start of, I need to start my own brand come true? And had you been working on this the whole time that you were working your various other roles?

MARCO LEBEL: Oh God, that's a great question. Thank you so much for all the kind things that you just said. You know, yeah, you said 25 plus years. So it's actually, THEO has really been a 30-year kind of full cycle moment for me. I studied fashion design in Montreal. I’m French Canadian, so I grew up in Canada and I left my parents when I was 16 years old to go study in the big city. I went to study in Montreal, I studied fashion design and marketing, and every single job I've held over the 30 years has been a culmination of this project - the THEO the label project, which I'm so excited and proud of because I was able to really put all my experience and heart into it.

After fashion design school, I did some internships with local designers in Quebec and I'd really decided to pursue something different because I saw how difficult and struggling they were. And so I went and worked for Holt Renfrew, which is kind of like the Neiman Marcus/Barneys - the best department stores in Canada. They hired me as a temp worker to help put up Christmas.

Fast forward two and a half years later, I was one of the visual presentation managers for the store and lead stylist for the Montreal location. I worked under an amazing French stylist. She worked in Paris for Madame Figaro, Elle, and all those things. She taught me so many things on how to style. And I also did styling in Quebec for French celebrities like Lara Fabian, who was kind of the runner-up for Celine at the time.

And so all those little things have brought me to where I am today, starting in a fashion wholesale industry, just doing customer service. I didn't speak English at the time.

YMANI: Your English is impeccable.

LEBEL: Well, there's a little accent there, but it's kind of part of me, right? So for me launching THEO, you know, I put that dream aside for a long time. I didn't even think it was going to be possible after working in industry and wholesale. Especially when the majority of my career was in sales and managing sales and brand building, because I've had my multi-line showroom for about nine years now. It was really a passion of mine to take emerging designers from not only the US, but also my focus was bringing international emerging contemporary designers to the US to give them a platform and teach them and take them under my wing to help them develop the business and coach them on how the US market works.

So after doing that for nine years, I said, well, I'm telling everybody what to do. I couldn't find a contemporary brand that I really wanted to get behind at that point. And then that's when I decided to say, well, let's just do my own thing and bank on myself. If I don't try it, I'll never know.

So that's really kind of how the moments happened. I was lucky enough that I met the right partners and agents in Turkey, because we manufacture everything in Istanbul, to bring the highest quality possible to the end consumer. This was my business model for Lebel Group, which has really prepared me for THEO the Label in that sense. My motto was always to bring the best value proposition to the consumer. Better fabric, better design, not made in Asia. It was made in Europe or in Greece or in Brazil or in Italy or in Spain, Portugal. So they were always higher manufacturing, higher-end products, but at a competitive price point. 

And this is exactly what I'm doing for THEO because I feel like today the consumer is so savvy. They shop, they research, they see everything. When they see something that they truly feel has value, they don't hesitate, right?

YMANI: Yes, exactly.

LEBEL: It's challenging at times because of the language, the culture. But I'm lucky enough that I found the right people to work with, the right partners. We work a lot with sustainable factories as well and sustainable fabrics. So again, a value proposition. It's good for the consumer, the planet, and also, like, just better quality overall, you know, manufacturing and process. So this was always very important for me, so I'm happy to be able to have the opportunity to do that.

YMANI: Yeah, that's amazing. And I could tell when we had your clothes here for a trunk show and we had your brand and your full collection, you could not compare your collection to another collection. It was vastly different just in the ways of fabric and structure and style. 

It was really beautiful reading about your mission statement and your story and reading about THEO’s birth. It was cool because our clients hadn't known that part yet, but you could feel it through your designs. And when they would put everything on, there was just a different way in their stance and how they would carry themselves. Even today, the clients that came to our trunk show and are wearing the designs that they purchased, it's so fun to see them style differently, or to see them branch out because they felt so confident in what you had provided for them. So that's fun to hear you say that. To hear your mission statement and then to also see that as a testimony in and of itself.

LEBEL: That's amazing. I love to hear that. At the end of the day, it's really about empowering and confidence, self-confidence and really making, you know, the THEO women feel empowered and beautiful. The early adaptation to the brand for me was so humbling and exciting. It really made me emotional because you never know. You could design, produce, and ship, but at the end of the day, the woman, the consumer, is in the driver's seat. She either loves it or doesn't. 

The fact that you guys did so well for the event and we've had consecutive events after that with some of our partners as well was exciting. Seeing the women coming out of the dressing room and feeling incredible is definitely the most important part. Because at the end of the day, we're not a museum. I always say that. People have to love the clothes. They have to buy them and wear them. If they love how it makes them feel, they'll come back. And it's important and it's timeless. That's what I love. Timelessness is always a key for THEO because trends and things like that are, of course, important and always going to be there. 

But there's a way of interpreting it and also a way that you could continue wearing it after the season, which is also part of sustainability, right? So, you really want to feel like you're buying the jacket you have on, for example, that you could style today one way and then still wear it next year over a dress or something else where it's going to be a key part of your wardrobe. If you love it today, then maybe next season you'll look for it in a different color or fabric. This is really at the roots of the brand.

YMANI: Your designs are named after Greek goddesses so that the wearer is empowered with confidence and elegance. Like we had talked about, I am wearing your Demeter cropped denim blazer. With this sense of my poise and grace being emitted in such a different way. I am a mother of three girls. 

LEBEL: Oh my God. Congratulations. Three girls. You don't look a day older than 22. 

YMANI: I'm 25. So thank you. 

LEBEL: And you have three babies. Congrats.

YMANI: Thank you. But when I wear this jacket, I notice the shift in the way my husband and kids look at me. They're like, okay, we're getting ready for the day. Mommy has her jacket on. It's this feeling that I don't necessarily come to sometimes when I'm wearing other garments. But this definitely helps me strike that pose and have that confidence. 

Why Greek goddesses? This duality of feminine and masculine grace to these collections.

LEBEL: Well, I think for me, like you said earlier, it's really about strong women and empowering women and women feeling confident and strong. And to me, that's what the Greek goddesses represented. They ruled the Greek empire at the time and challenged and owned their power. Theo, the name Theo comes from the Greek word for a gift from above, God's gift. So I wanted to have that correlation between the name, the spirit of Theo, and how we named the styles. There was a bit of a point of difference. You could always google the name, what it means, and which goddess it was and what kind of power it gave you that day.

YMANI: I'm a Virgo. I don't know if you're into zodiac signs at all, but Demeter is the ruling goddess of the Virgo house. When I got this jacket, I was like, perfect. This makes sense. I love it. 

What does that meaning hold for you? As beautiful as it is, I see there's so much depth in the name and even the way you spoke about it, that quality of how it pertains to Greek goddesses and God and that gift from above, God's gift. What does that do for you? Where does that stem from for you? Where does that depth come from?

LEBEL: Well, you know, as you get older, you evolve and think about what spirituality is.

 As a creative person, I've always felt that you want to leave something behind that's meaningful. And for me, my kids were always kind of my professional babies. Everything I worked on, every designer, every business that I launched or developed and coached over the years was kind of like a personal baby project. And so for me, to kind of continue the name and legacy, and the women who wear the product, to me, I think that's the most important. 

I love to hear the story of how you wear your jacket, how it makes you feel. That is everything. That's really what we're all about. Yes, it has to look beautiful on the hanger, in the store, and the fit has to be amazing. The manufacturing, the quality, and everything else. But if you don't feel that emotion when you wear it, then I haven't done my job. I always say that. The feedback has been great.

The brand is still very young. We're in our third season now. We've been lucky that it's really been a hit from the beginning. But for me, it's really about continuing and evolving that and reaching more women and making them feel special. It's a treat. When they put it on, they feel like it's a special thing. Like you said, it’s not just a piece of clothing; it makes you feel empowered and special.

YMANI: That emotion shows through the designs. For me, like I said earlier, when I had your whole collection here, it was so beautiful because each piece, you could feel the depth of the creation and just the design of the structure. They truly told a story. I know there is such a difference between what is sold online and what is sold in stores. 

What does the future of Theo look like in the digital world of e-commerce? 

LEBEL: I think for me, it was kind of a difficult decision, obviously, because of COVID. Everything is digital, and people are ordering and buying things that they haven't even touched, which to me is difficult because we spend so much time with the fabrics, the fit, the construction, and the details that are harder to translate online. However, it's the reality, and we're lucky enough that we launched the digital platform last season. So we're actually in our second season on our digital platform. 

I think it's a nice support to what we're doing with our specialty stores, department stores, and retail partners because they carry a selection of the collection, but maybe not everything. Sometimes women come in and say, 'I love this, but I want it in a different color. I want it in a different fabric.' 

Or, you know, they buy something and they love it. They want to see what else is out there. So I think it's really a nice complement to have both. The digital world is definitely here to stay. I think it's about finding that balance and really making sure that you're telling the story online. It's easier to tell the story when you're in person. You have that connection with the consumer directly. Online, we have to find ways to kind of convey that emotion. So we did a lot of videos, storytelling, and content creation around the brand to try and communicate that online as well. 

YMANI: I can tell. You know, you have done a fabulous job. I'm not sure how much you're allowed to tell us, but what is next for Theo? 

Do you see yourself opening a showroom or having a pop-up shop in New York? What's the next step?

LEBEL: I think pop-ups are great because it allows us to connect with the end consumer directly, which is important for me. We have a showroom in New York where we do all our wholesale business and our press, but having a pop-up where the actual end consumer can come and experience the brand is definitely something we are looking into. It's great for us to get that direct feedback and see how women interact with the product. We did a few trunk shows and events that were really successful. So I think continuing to do those types of events is in the plan. 

Also, expanding into different categories is exciting. We're looking into accessories, footwear, and possibly even homeware in the future. I think the THEO woman is multifaceted, and we want to cater to all aspects of her life, making sure she feels empowered and stylish in every situation.

YMANI: That sounds amazing. For young designers who are inspired by your journey and want to start their own brand, what advice would you give them?

LEBEL: I think the most important thing is to trust yourself and the process. It's a long road, and there will be challenges, but stay true to your vision and your brand's identity. Learn as much as you can from every job and experience. Don't be afraid to ask for help and surround yourself with people who support and believe in your vision. Passion and dedication are key. If you love what you do, it will show in your work, and others will believe in it too.

YMANI: Thank you so much, Marco. Your journey and insights are incredibly inspiring. It's been a pleasure speaking with you and learning more about Theo.

LEBEL: Thank you, Ymani. It's been great talking to you. I appreciate your time and support. Looking forward to future collaborations.

YMANI: Absolutely! Looking forward to it. Bye, Marco.