Margo Mars on Turning New Liefs
Deriving its name from a Dutch word meaning ‘treasured and even cute’, the production company Lief is rather cuddly. Its founder Margo Mars has a mission to create a family of creators who’ll share their visions and take fashion film to the next level.
As the old adage goes, ‘it’s not what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it’. Style is so much more than just the clothes you put on; it’s about attitude. Which is why, speaking with Lief founder Margo Mars as she’s curled up in an armchair basking in the heat of the fire at London’s Soho House, playing girlishly with her neckerchief, I can’t help but recall the last line of the Gwen Stefani song Harajuku Girls, “Girl, you’ve got style.” It’s so applicable.
The fact that style appears to be at the heart of everything Mars does is, she claims, purely accidental and just how things have panned out. She’s even surprised that we chose to profile her new venture, Lief, for our fashion-focussed issue. “I find it interesting that Lief has only recently launched and yet you’ve looked at our output and our brand and asked us if we specialise in fashion,” says Mars. “The answer is ‘no’ but you do recognise that we specialise in style. Everything we do has a sense of style.”
Launching with a stylishly-curated roster and a few fashion-branded pieces was perhaps inevitable, given Mars’ interest in the industry and previous experience working on fashion campaigns. Since Lief opened its doors in November last year, she’s secured four leading directors to her roster – Danny Sangra, Free The Bid founder Alma Ha’rel, Natasha Khan and Eva Michon. Having worked with and befriended most of them (or initially admired them from afar as in the case of Sangra), Mars pulled together this stellar directorial line-up to tackle “the transformation of the content market” and give a new slant to the usual production model. One that allows her to be more playful with people that share her outlook. Rather than respond solely to creative briefs, Mars encourages her directors to continue expressing themselves and working as artists.
Danny Sangra working with Burberry
The company also includes NEW Lief, which offers emerging directors a chance to build their reels and experiment with different styles, and LOVE Lief, a roster made up of artists from different disciplines; photographers, painters, illustrators and the like.
There’s no one characteristic that defines a Lief director, or a Lief ‘creature’ as Mars more affectionally calls them, “it’s about uniqueness, having a really clear voice, being a bit of a badass, but also being really open, honest and humble,” she says. Nurturing talent and playing the matriarchal role in the development of her directors’ careers is all part of the Lief mandate, after all the company name means ‘sweet and kind’ in her mother tongue, Dutch. “I asked my mum how she would describe me,” says Mars. “She just texted back one word: ‘lief’. I instantly liked it; it’s short and many people don’t know what it means. But, I don’t always want to be lief, as in sweet, so that’s how the badass lioness logo came about.”
Lief's lioness logo
Lief’s logo is symbolic of Mars’ emphasis on artistic endeavour, it was a chance to experiment, have fun and most importantly, collaborate. The lioness symbolises her company’s emphasis on female empowerment; the wings, the flight of creative inspiration – it was a labour of love between Mars’ partner Dave Cooke, director Danny Sangra and DIZZY ZEBRA, the motion graphics creatives who are signed to LOVE Lief.
The roles are intentionally blurred at Lief, as Mars encourages as much collaboration between the different artists as possible. “It’s not a one-way street, it’s something that we go into together,” she says, describing their shared approach to taking on work. She says Alma Ha’rel is an inspiration, a friend, confidante and motivational force. Personality is what counts for Mars when she gathers her Lief creatures around her.
How a mutant brain led the way
Jobs have poured in since Lief’s launch, some just arriving on Mars’ doorstep thanks to her existing connections. She recently produced The Greatest Luxury, a film for Selfridges directed by Kathryn Ferguson, which focusses on modern definitions of luxury. “Kathryn approached me when she was starting to write it to see if I wanted to produce it with her.” She says it was a one-off collaboration but such ventures will doubtless lead to other projects for Lief.
The Greatest Luxury directed by Kathryn Ferguson
Mars is reluctant to be boxed in by the fashion genre however. She feels that while fashion film has undeniably developed as an art form, its transformation has been slow and it’s been seen by some in the past as nothing more than moving look books. However, she’s confident that the genre is heading in the right direction and cites Spike Jonze’s 2016 film for Kenzo, My Mutant Brain, as having sparked a change in how the medium was perceived. With its curious choreography that broke fashion norms and exhibited character beyond the clothes, it provided hope for the tastemakers of film: “Kenzo really helped to pave the way creatively. It was cutting-edge, narratively driven and totally bonkers.”
Spike Jonze's My Mutant Brain
She’s well-versed in fashion’s iconic film moments and says she has been inspired by such pivotal films as Basic Black, which was created by William Claxton back in 1967 for fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, and is considered to be the first fashion film. She also references the late Bruce Conner’s avant-garde Breakaway – the 1966 film of singer and choreographer Toni Basil dancing, dressed and undressed – as a work that inspires her goal to take on non-commercial film projects.
Mars is proud of Lief’s “multi-disciplinary” artists for their ability to draw on a range of creative references acquired from their different skills. Natasha Khan, better known as singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Bat For Lashes, is a perfect example, having just created a stunning short, Light Beings, for DITA eyewear, which included a soundtrack that she also wrote. “She’s a great filmmaker,” says Mars. “Because she’s got all this in her library – the music and visual stories. Similarly, Alma Har’el is an great writer and photographer, so she elevates the scripts that come her way. And Danny Sangra is a really funny illustrator so a lot of his films are fucking comic.”
Light Beings by Natasha Khan
Constant flow of content
Perhaps Lief’s greatest advantage is recognising the current appetite for non-traditional advertising; the craving for wilder, more poetic aesthetics and the thirst for content. Fashion houses are struggling to create content to keep up with the rate at which it’s being consumed. Shows are being live streamed, collections shared on social and designers are expected to turn new lines out quarterly. But the biggest surprise, Mars notes, is that print is still the main medium for showcasing new designs; though she feels that that is gradually changing and that film will become the dominant medium. “Fashion has always relied heavily on print ... But it’s video content that people [are starting to] want; that’s where the industry has to go. Most of the budget still goes to print, but [the fashion industry] is learning how to value film.”
“Fashion has always relied heavily on print ... But its video content that people [are starting to] want; that’s where the industry has to go. Most of the budget still goes to print,”
This change is not before time. Not only are most sales made online, but it’s also where young people look for trends – an ideal marketplace thinks Mars. “You’ve got to make stuff that cuts through and stands out, especially on social,” she says. “To be visible you’ve got to make something that’s not perfect. Traditional marketing is perfect. Think of a 30-second spot for a bank or a food store; every frame is perfection; it’s classic advertising. But if you’re making a fashion film, it should be like poetry. It can be more narrative-led. It’s not a commodity anymore. It should [offer a chance for] the director to show off their art.”
Marrying the fashion designer’s vision with that of the director is possible but trust is required. Mars is optimistic that this union is possible, so long as it’s seen as an artistic collaboration that will bring the collection’s story to life.
Part of the challenge is being clear in a company’s offering and knowing what client needs need to be met. Mars believes that she’s cracked the formula and that we’re now entering a new era of creation. Lief stands out from more traditional shops by offering its talents a space to co-exist, rather than compete. Cross collaborations between artists are actively encouraged as Mars believes good ideas never die; they can be recycled and reinterpreted. Alma Ha’rel’s 2017 short, JellyWolf, for The Fifth Sense has set a precedent, after comic book artist Jamaica Dyer transformed Ha’rel’s cinematography into a graphic novel, leading her to join the LOVE Lief roster.
Alma Ha’rel's Jellywolf
“We are ultimately a filmmaker-led company that is inventively making great productions,” says Mars. “The end goal is film. But when you release a film like JellyWolf, there are many options. We could always do a JellyWolf theatre performance, or an album with the soundtrack. You can reinterpret a film in so many different ways. It’s about solving a need, too. People are so strapped for time that after five seconds of watching something they’re already scrolling on for more. So, it’s about offering more than just the film.”
“It’s about solving a need, too; people are so strapped for time that after five seconds of watching something, they are already scrolling on for more. So it’s about offering more than just the film.”
Mars prefers to leave Lief’s future open and very much undefined. This way, Lief can remain flexible and adapt as and when things come up. Social media plays a huge part in sourcing talent. For Mars’ shots portrait artwork, she commissioned Russian illustrator, Dmitry Chaika, after finding him on Instagram. “I literally saw one of his drawings, DM-ed him and asked if we could try something,” she says. “It was very casual and evolved organically. Within one Instagram post or direct message, I extended the family. Everybody starts talking and creating, completely without hesitation. There’s never any talk about what this specifically has to be or any need to hand over a set outcome.”
Portrait from Dmitry Chaika's Ink Project, 2014
If the success of the Lief collective’s collaborations so far are anything to go by, then it seems like the time is right to take a risk and pursue artistically-led advertising, or poetry as Mars calls it. Lief is expanding its pride of lionesses and Mars is keen for artists to come forward and join her in the wild. The only criteria? That you have a sense of style.
WHAT INSPIRES MARGO MARS
What product could you not live without?
What are your thoughts on social media?
A wonderful addiction, I love it, especially Instagram.
How do you relieve stress during a shoot?
I make sure I understand why there is stress, and then take a moment out to brainstorm solutions. Even if there is ‘no’ time, you have to ‘take’ time. Plus, knowing from experience, that it will all be OK, gives me an outside calm appearance that seems to do the trick!
What’s the last film you watched and was it any good?
I watched My Beautiful Broken Brain last night by the incredible Lotje Sodderland. I am obsessing over amazing documentaries at the moment (I’m working on a documentary project with The Guardian).
What’s your favourite piece of tech?
What fictitious character do you most relate to?
If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be?
An amazing chef feeding people with effortless, delicious happiness.