The founder of fashion brand m0851 on ‘selling his crooked nose’
In an industry as cutthroat as fashion it’s all too easy to slip into the role of follower, chasing the tail of those calling out this year’s trends. Yet following means the best you can ever be is boring. This is the story of how one visionary designer built an empire on going his own way. He calls it, “selling your crooked nose”.
A decade ago, when I first came to Montreal, I remember waiting outside my wife’s office for her to finish work and seeing a store across the street that looked like no other I’d seen before.
That store was m0851—a local, handmade leather goods company. I don’t know exactly what it was that attracted me. Maybe it was the use of soft, natural lighting or the way in which the layout seemed to mirror the product itself: clean and simple, yet with a certain quality that drew you in and held you.
And while the impression of seeing that m0851 store remained imprinted in my memory, it wouldn’t be until years later that I’d learn the deeper story behind the brand.
Behind the curtain of the sterile-sounding m0851 is a man, his children, and a team that acts as a family. Many of m0851’s team members have never left the company or even worked anywhere else.
Since opening in 1987, m0851 has expanded to 20-plus locations around the world—from Vancouver to New York to Tokyo—almost solely on word-of-mouth.
m0851 doesn’t offer many new styles, avant garde designs, or cheaper products (in fact, their bags and clothing often costs many times more than their competitors). Instead, the company lives and thrives on trusting in a founder that creates for himself and approaches every day and every new project as if he knew nothing.
Before the interview, I was told that Frederic Mamarbachi, the father of the m0851 family, prefers not to be photographed—a request I definitely respect, but one that only served to add to the excitement and intrigue as I entered their Montreal HQ.
Scanning the large, open-plan office, I immediately picked him out. While the space is uniform—large desks with no real discernable hierarchy to them—Frederic himself is hard to miss. Dressed in black, he exudes a calmness and balance that is the human embodiment of the feeling I had when I first stumbled upon their Montreal store.
Talking to him is like speaking with a modern day philosopher. He is quiet and soft spoken, yet behind his eyes you can feel the deep sense of purpose and energy that bubbles up from the relative calmness on the surface…
m0851 started almost as a rebellion against the trend-focused fashion industry of the 80s. Was there a specific moment that sent you down this path?
Before m0851 I ran another company that sold in every single store across Canada and the USA. It was quite commercial and we were selling to buyers who were buying from us to sell in their own stores, so in order to maintain volumes you become obliged to these buyers. And buyers go by the rules and buy only bestsellers and what’s most hot today.
So m0851 was a way to say let’s earn a living in the best, most fun way possible. Meaning we wanted to just do what we wanted.
So we started that first season with things that were completely against what the market had. This was in that period in ‘87 where everybody had these very small bags and we came up with huge, very heavy, very expensive bags. They weren’t practical—you’d lose your things in them because it was just a huge bag. Still, that first season they were a huge success. Every kid needed to have one. If you didn’t have one you weren’t in. It was fun.
We weren’t selling in all the stores. Only where we wanted to. So when a client came, we’d say let’s see whether we will sell to you or not. For example, Aldo was refused. Simple. We were in New York a few years later selling in Barneys, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Until I got too bored from wholesale. Because with wholesale you still need to follow the rules. You need to follow dates. You need to follow the right color of the season.
It’s very, very boring. Especially dates. You need to finish a design by this date, but what if I’m not finished?
So the business grew from your own values, even though they didn’t naturally align with how the industry normally works?
That’s the kind of person I am. Usually when it’s finished, it’s not finished. Because if it’s actually finished, it’s boring. Whatever you finish is boring. You need to continue.
So I opened the first store on Saint Laurent (in Montreal) and this is where it all started. Now we can do everything. We manufacture the product from A to Z and we retail it directly to the public. And we’ve actually found that our bestsellers are the ones that no buyer would have bought.
“My mentality is that if the product is good, other people will come.”
That’s why we exist today, because we are slightly different from the mainstream which gives you an incredible product for the most intelligent price. Our bestseller is a bag that is incredibly expensive. It has no lining. It’s very heavy. It doesn’t close. And has zero compartments! Against all the rules. But every young girl wants this horse-feeding bag. Why? It’s all made with very, very fine quality products. The leather is excellent. The hooks we buy are the best there is.
Because if you buy one thing and you’re happy with it probably 50 people will know that from you. But this was 27–28 years ago. Today, it’s changing. If you don’t make some noise people will forget you. So what’s happening is that we’re telling the same story but we’ve become better entertainers.
If you don’t have something that will make people want to come to you for a reason, whether it’s architecture or products or whatever, then they won’t come. There used to be 80% of us who did well and 20% who did badly and disappeared. Today, I’d say there is 80% who are doing poorly and will disappear in a few years. So if you’re not among the 10 best, forget it.
So it comes down to the quality of your product—a standard, I assume, that came from you?
When we do a product here it’s actually all made here, in Canada, from A to Z except for the actual materials. Because there’s none of that in Canada. So for a bag, the leather and ornaments come from Italy and the the zipper from Japan in general.
Honestly though, it doesn’t matter where you make it. I’ve always produced so I like to have the kitchen next to me. And I like to go to the kitchen because I’m not a designer. I’ve been designing things for 45 years, but I still don’t see myself as a designer.
I see myself more as an idea person. I come up with an idea that is exciting and we develop a product from it. There’s hardly too much styling in our products. It’s mostly just fine materials. All you need is fine materials.
We want to go backwards—to find simplicity in things. I prefer to design tables and space more than designing products, yet in order to earn a living you have to design what sells. But still, I cannot design as a professional. Meaning if you ask me ‘please can you do my house?’ I’ll say there’s no way.
I can do it for me, but I can’t do it for others.
So when we design here I do it for me, really. It’s not for others. We are happy that people like it because most of the things we make are not necessary… so why would you buy this? You buy it for its charm. And charm is stronger than anything. It’s stronger than beauty. The beauty will come and go but charm will always stay.
This search for simplicity in all that you do, was there some moment or event that inspired that philosophy?
Maybe a lack of knowledge forces you to be simple! Or your philosophy, as well. A mix of many things. When you produce in Canada, you cannot produce a very complex product because labor is so expensive. So for a while I was buying the best hides possible and selling a beautiful material. But I didn’t need to do a style.
I also used to design tables at the age of 14. I love designing tables because a table is easy. All you need is four legs. Simplicity was always part of the look. I prefer the buoyant state of being where you’re not hooked to anything. You don’t need much. It’s the least complicated possible.
Was it difficult, or scary to start a new business where you’re going against every traditional business adage out there? What was it like when you first started?
“It’s good to have experience but most of the time it is a prison.”
The beginning was very easy actually. The beginning was just go for it. Sell what you want. Have fun. Don’t go through the regular ways. It’s about not knowing.
I like not knowing. The childish way of being is my favourite way of being. It’s good to know in order not to fall or hurt yourself, but maybe it’s good to fall or hurt yourself and learn and so on. So yes, if we didn’t do it the normal way it was a lack of knowing what is the normal way. And I’m glad I don’t know what is the normal way.
The best things we did were against every rule. We opened New York when everybody was going bankrupt in NY and we were too small to open there. Normally business-wise they would tell you to grow in your own market and then go. It’s good we didn’t know it was bad because today New York is the best place to be.
This is why I prefer the childish mind that doesn’t know, rather than those who think they know. Most old people become fine and experienced, yet in many ways they are afraid of anything they failed doing and maybe to do it differently you wouldn’t be afraid. It’s good to have experience but most of the time it is a prison.
I get this myself as a first-time founder where people are always saying ‘why don’t you hire someone who knows what they’re doing’…
It can make things easier. But is having things easier better? Is life easy? Imagine you had millions and you didn’t need to work. In general you would be one of the most miserable people.
It’s not because it’s easy that it’s more interesting. Sometimes hard periods are the most interesting periods you can go through. Not only to learn. It’s more to know. Life is not just about dancing and playing. Life is tough. Everyone around you will die eventually or fall sick. So don’t make it harder. Enjoy it and have fun.
I feel this creativity and energy everywhere around you, in all the people working here and in the fabric of the store and the brand itself. But with 20+ locations now, how do you find that balance between creativity and art, and revenue and growth?
Probably you see me here talking like a child or being free, but at the same time I’m very lucky to have both sides of my brain working. I’m very mathematical, which I have to be or else we wouldn’t be alive 27 years later. Of course, we needed to hire more people as we grew. I hardly ever sit with people from the outside to chat. So we need people to do that. I don’t go to our other stores, so someone has to do that as well. I hardly know where my bank is not how much I have in it! Honestly. I don’t like to take care of my things. I don’t know why. I’m lucky to not be able to have to do it.
Even when it’s so easy and I can say let’s see how much, something something stops me and I don’t know what. All this is because I’m very lucky to have fallen into a period where I can be whoever I am. It’s harder. Much harder to be this way. It’s easier to know, and to have experience and to put yourself in a box. And it’s definitely much safer to live in a box than to live outside of it.
How would you describe good design?
You come here and there is no design. It’s not about design—it’s about creating a healthy space. Don’t put too much and don’t put anything too ugly and that’s it. So design is really taking away what hurts the mental state.
Most designers are hired and they have to perform. I don’t need to perform. That’s the difference. If you’re an architect working for a firm you need to show your muscles of how incredibly good you are by doing stairs that go this way and that way. We don’t need that. Even beautiful Italian furniture you buy for $25k, is it really nicer than this old thing we designed 20-years ago? I don’t know. I don’t say that our way is good. I say this is what we do and there is no problem. You do it the way you feel it. And I’m lucky we have managed to earn a living this way.
Is there anyone who inspired this way of thinking?
Of course at a younger age you are more impressed by some people who made it. Today, I think we’re all poor human beings. I know nothing and I’m very afraid of those who think they know.
We are all born and raised in a way that makes us almost robots. And we follow and we don’t think. So it’s very hard to say ok here is this human I will follow. I follow myself, really. No one else. And I know it’s not the right person to follow, but if I follow anybody else I would not be happy.
I prefer to make my own mistakes than to make somebody else’s mistakes.
I was reading Siddhartha recently, where he followed Buddha for 2–3 years to gain his knowledge. And one day he discovers only Buddha walks on water. No one else. So none of the followers can reach the person they follow. You have to follow yourself.
Can you leave us with one piece of advice for someone looking to start a business today?
I don’t trust in advice really. Because each one, it’s like today’s medicine. We’re not the same. We’re each one different and each one must live the way he’s capable.
If I tell someone to leave the box, they’ll be totally lost. You leave the box the moment you’re ready to leave the box.