Self-Expression for the “Free Man”: An Interview with AZAT MARD
AZAT MARD is a contemporary menswear brand specialising in luxury, urban-inspired clothing for the modern man. With self-expression, quality craftsmanship and Armenian heritage at its heart, this young brand has been making waves in the world of menswear since its launch in 2018. At Accent, we love all that AZAT MARD represents and are proud to be stockists of the brand’s innovative and exciting menswear collections.
We caught up with founders Garen Tchobanian and Neil Malhotra to learn more about the story behind AZAT MARD, gain an insight into their design process and find out what it’s been like to see big-name celebrities like Cristiano Ronaldo step out in their pieces.
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Accent: We’d love to know a bit about the background behind AZAT MARD and how the two of you came together to launch a fashion brand. Where did that journey start?
Garen: We met about four years ago now. Neil had recently finished university.
Neil: I studied Fashion Management at Istituto Marangoni, where there’s a big focus on the business side of fashion. I did a year in Milan as part of my course and was taught by specialist tutors in the luxury fashion division. When I graduated in 2018, I moved back home to Manchester and bumped into Garen — he’d just moved here, and he basically messaged saying, “I’d love to set up a menswear brand, can we meet for a coffee?”.
Garen: We’d met previously a few times, and it just seemed right. I’d just finished playing football at the time, and setting up a brand was something I’d always wanted to do. I always had the name ready, it was just about waiting to meet the right person, and that was Neil. We got on really well, and it all slotted into place when we met up and talked about what we wanted to do. We had the same vision, so that was how it all started.
Accent: Neil, when you finished university, was it always your aim to set up a brand?
Neil: No. Originally I got a job offer for Tank Magazine, which is an editorial magazine, one of those coffee table mags. But the magazine industry was kind of dying, and everything was going more digital. I wanted to stay in London once I graduated, but that never happened. I moved back home. I started working for my family business, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I was looking to move back to London, but then during that period, I met with Garen, and we were on the same page — excited about the idea of setting up something together. AZAT MARD was born.
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Accent: Garen, you were a professional footballer before starting AZAT MARD. What was it that made you take that leap from football to fashion?
Garen: There wasn’t really one thing. I used to play up until I was 23, for Armenia Under-21s and then Blackpool. I went to Sweden and didn’t really enjoy it — I had a few problems with injury and took a year out. When you’re younger, and you’re with the older footballers, and they all have a cool dress sense, you aspire to wear the clothes that they wear. I always remember when I got my first wage — the first thing I did was go and buy a pair of Dsquared2 jeans, for example. I always wanted to look the coolest or dress the best out of everybody. And then, as soon as I had that year out, it kind of made me think. As strange as it was, there was this small space of time when I met Neil, and it was as if it was meant to happen. I’d only had maybe six months out, but this all happened really quickly and completely changed what I was doing. In hindsight, it was a great thing.
Accent: And Neil, you mentioned your family business. That’s in fashion?
Neil: Yes, in womenswear.
Accent: Even if you didn’t want to work in that side of fashion, would you say that background influenced your own path?
Neil: Yes — from a young age, I’ve been surrounded by the fashion industry. When I was younger, I used to go to trade shows with my parents. When we used to go on holidays, we’d make out we were going on a family holiday, but we were actually going to a factory in China. So I’ve literally been surrounded by fashion. I studied fashion; it’s embedded in who I am. But it’s more the business side of fashion that I’m really interested in.
Accent: Did you get a lot of guidance from your family when you started out?
Neil: We did get advice from my parents, but the womenswear industry is very different to menswear, so it was still a new challenge.
Garen: What can work for a women’s brand doesn’t necessarily work for menswear. With menswear, once a guy buys into the product, he’ll repurchase — whereas, with womenswear, customers often don’t like wearing things twice. I mean, we wear the same jeans every time we go out, but no one will notice that. So it’s important for us to get the product right and the quality top-notch — the right fabric, shape and weight.
Neil: Even with marketing strategies, it’s different. If you put a womenswear piece on an influencer or celebrity, it’s guaranteed to sell out and make an impact. But in the male influencer world, you put it on bloggers, and guys don’t instantly buy it — it’s more of a considered purchase.
Garen: With social media, what we’ve found is that — unless it’s Ronaldo — it doesn’t really have an effect. People want to go to a store like Accent and feel the clothes, try them on, they want to be more involved with the product and see if they like it. With high-end menswear, the customer really looks into detail, and they want to make sure the quality is there. So that’s what we’ve pushed forward with in the last year or so.
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Accent: So would you say it’s all about pieces that are more timeless than trend-driven?
Garen: Yeah, we have a lot of core products like sweaters, hoodies and joggers, and those are timeless pieces. Even our denim is timeless. A lot of the collection we do call Core, and that’s because we can wear the same tracksuit for the next two or three years and it won’t go out of fashion.
Neil: There are elements of fashionable and seasonal pieces in our collections, like the graphic tees. They freshen up the wardrobe throughout the season.
Accent: You’ve had a lot of celebrities wearing AZAT MARD, with Ronaldo most recently spotted in some of your pieces. What does it mean to you when you get that level of recognition?
Neil: It’s the icing on the cake, Ronaldo wearing our hoodie, because we’ve not paid him to wear it — he’s wearing it because he wants to wear it.
Garen: It makes you proud.
Neil: We’ve had Anthony Joshua wear AZAT MARD, too.
Garen: Most of the Man City players wear the brand, and as Neil says, it’s because they want to wear it. We’re not paying anybody to wear it; we’ve never paid anybody to wear it. And we don’t really want to. We want them to wear it because they want to, and that’s something we’re seeing happening. A lot of the footballers actually buy our product in-store; we don’t even gift it to them.
Garen: Yeah, the first time we hear about it is when they get pictured going into training or when we see them out and about in Manchester, and we think, “Oh, that’s our hat he’s wearing!”. It’s quite a cool thing. It’s more exciting when it happens like that.
Neil: There was one instance when me and Garen went out, and we saw a City player wearing one of our AZAT MARD t-shirts, and I got really excited. I was like, “Should I go over to him and say something?”
Garen: And I was nudging him like, “Mate, no, you can’t. Play it cool.” But yeah, it’s more exciting when you don’t know they’re going to wear it — more satisfying. This weekend when all the orders came through [after Ronaldo was pictured], it gave us that excitement and inspiration to go again into a new season and to keep working towards new goals.
Accent: What about your international success — has that taken you by surprise?
Neil: No, because I think both of us dress with a kind of European aesthetic. Even when we were first gaining inspiration, we used to go to Pitti Uomo in Florence and trade shows in Milan. We got a lot of inspiration from that more international aesthetic.
Garen: There are hubs in New York, Los Angeles and the South of France where our clothes do really well.
Neil: We’re actually setting the trends in the States at the moment. There are areas that are heavily Armenian populated, like Glendale, where AZAT MARD is popular. We sell more to the US, so it’s a big market for us, and if we can get that right, it’ll trickle down to the UK and elsewhere in the world.
Accent: The first few years after launch is a crucial time for any fashion brand, but you’ve also had the pandemic and everything that comes with it to contend with. What have been your biggest challenges since you took that first step?
Garen: I think the lockdown was the hardest thing for us.
Neil: We held our nerve, didn’t we?
Garen: Yeah, and to be honest with you, we gave ourselves a pat on the back because not many businesses came out of lockdown and did as well as we did. We actually launched a complete new season collection and then went straight into lockdown, so something that we worked a full six months on went down the drain. But we put a strategy in place, and when we came out of lockdown, we launched it again. It was a tough time, but we managed to get through it. In terms of live product and in-store launches, we’ve only been going for two years, and one full year has been in lockdown. So to see what we’ve actually achieved, I think we’ve done really well so far.
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Accent: AZAT MARD means 'Free Man' in Armenian. Could you tell us a bit more about what that means to you and how it relates to your brand?
Garen: Every man needs his freedom. It’s about not being afraid to express yourself or wear what you want to wear. A lot of our designs are quite loud — we do have the subtle things, but we play really big on the graphic side of it. AZAT MARD is about self-expression for every man.
Neil: It’s having the confidence to go out and wear what you want. Also, the name is important to us because it has an authentic meaning behind it, and when Armenian people recognise the name, they get excited about the brand.
Garen: There are a lot of communities around the world that are really proud to wear the brand.
Accent: Did you know when you started the brand that quality and fabrics would be a big focus for you?
Garen: I’ll be honest, we didn’t really know as such. We went to a lot of factories sampling, but you learn along the way. When we first started, we said, “Oh, this is a great fabric”, then when it came, it was like, “Oh my god, it’s meant to be a t-shirt — this fabric is like a sweater.” It’s hard to tell how good a fabric is when you’re working with a little square sample. But it’s a learning curve.
Neil: With fits, too.
Garen: Fits are really tough because you want a great factory that understands your fit and can get it right first time. We must have sampled so much to get it perfect. But now, we pride ourselves on the quality of the product — we do really well in stores because people can touch it, feel it.
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Accent: Your collections are very cool, contemporary and bold — where do you look for creative inspiration?
Neil: We always want to add a bit of Armenian heritage into the product.
Garen: And we like our graphics to tell a story. There’s a meaning behind everything. We’ve got a boxing tee that’s a homage to Kirk Kerkorian, we did an eagle t-shirt, which represents the freedom of Armenia, and we’re about to drop a graphic tee that features the coat of arms of Armenia as well.
Neil: We don’t blast it out everywhere, it’s done tastefully, but if people ask, we can tell them the story behind everything. We add a bit of our own personality into the brand as well. We’ve got a t-shirt called Tequila Boys Club, which is more lifestyle inspired.
Garen: We keep things fresh each season — a lot of our autumn/winter collection is inspired by Prada. A bit more subtle — more combats in there, more satin pockets, more metalwork. And for SS23, we’re looking into a couple of “out-there” prints for our swimwear, but still with a meaning behind them. For example, I was looking at Armenian carpets or prints inspired by Dolce and Gabbana and old-school Italian style.
Neil: Like we used to wear when we were younger.
Accent: Which AZAT MARD products are your favourites at the moment?
Garen: I’d like to say everything! The t-shirts are doing really well, but we love the denim jeans too. They’re more of a statement piece and have got a great fit. Every piece is individual and really great quality.
Neil: My favourite products at the moment are the Core sets. Because of lockdown, I’ve been living in the joggers; they’re so comfortable. I think they’re better than any tracksuit I’ve ever tried on. Another product we’re really proud of is the combat pants. There was a transition period where, after lockdown, no one wanted to go back to wearing jeans straight away.
Garen: We had a smart trouser, but after lockdown, people weren’t really wearing smart things or denim, so we tried to put elements of our smart trouser into what’s almost a tracksuit pant - except it’s not. It’s almost an outerwear, tracksuit material, but with our trouser design on. We both wear them out all the time. They look really smart, but they’re so comfortable. Probably the most comfortable thing we’ve got.
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Accent: Finally, is there any advice you’d give to budding designers or entrepreneurs who would love to launch their own fashion brand?
Garen: Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown because you can always learn along the way.
Neil: My advice is just to be patient. We’ve been patient for a few years now, and it’s going well — everything will fall into place, slow and steady.