Approaching the end of a rainy morning, we arrived at the studio of one of the most important and exciting Portuguese designers of the moment, Alexandra Moura. Welcoming us with a smile, she begins to tell us about the journey of carrying her brand from national to international levels. We quickly understand that this is not a typical journey, but one that travels through time and space navigating costume, streetwear, handmade, workwear and beyond to all the other universes yet to be explored. Romantism is clearly her fuel, and the tank won’t run dry anytime soon.
MM: What is happening right now, in your studio?
AM: Our next winter collection is completely drawn up and much of the pattern making has already been sent to production. We’re working on the men’s and women’s collections simultaneously because in January we have two presentations, the men’s will be shown in Paris and at White in Milan, where we’re also taking the men’s collection and a women’s preview.
At the moment the team is spread out, one went to the North to follow the production, while others are working on the pattern making and Diogo is taking care of everything needed for the showrooms.
We also just received a commission for uniforms and since I’ve finished drawing the collection, I’m free to start working the conceptual and creative part of the uniforms.
So that’s it, we’re pretty much in a working chaos, but it’s a good chaos.
We are very recent in the international market, still, curiosity is installed and people are looking forward to have a first contact with our work.
MM: What about the feedback you’ve been receiving, from your last show?
AM: The feedback has been really great, matter of fact it has been gradual and mainly coming from London. The decision to start presenting internationally, was a very important leap for us.
All of this has made us strive to build a better structure, like associate ourselves with PR agencies so that the press requests can be covered more easily.
The brand is no longer completely unknown. Of course we’re talking about a universe filled with brands, and we are very recent in the international market, still, curiosity is installed and people are looking forward to make first contact with our work.
MM: Can you tell me a little bit about you last Summer collection? From the conceptualization, to its final works.
AM: The theme was the old and deteriorated Portuguese buildings from the 18th century. I was also inspired by costume details of that time... we created our garments pretty much from the inside out, actually, the insides are similar to the exteriors.
Linens and cottons were the chosen materials, because they make a beautiful shredded effect. Also, in the past, there was no such thing as synthetic fabrics, its was all from natural sources.
Since I got into Fashion, that I thought that one day, I had to make a show in a London chapel.
The footwear was also developed in the same way, but with some improvisation.
We used shoes from past seasons and customised them: I painted and wrote all over them including facts about the 18th century, wishes, words that mean a lot to me and I even drew the blueprints of some palaces. It turned out to be a very personal element in the collection.
Our hair and make-up was created right at the beginning of the concept. The hair consisted of deconstructed men’s wigs from the 19th century which resulted in very feminine hairstyles.
The makeup was a response to the century, but in a completely reinvented way.
I wanted the skin to be completely matte, just like porcelain and the lips and the eyes to have a crystallised effect, like glass.
For the music in the show, we worked with our long-time soundtrack partner, producer Miguel Cardona. It’s very important for me that the input comes from both sides, so I can have different kinds of things happening inside my universe. I shared my ideas about Bach, deconstruction, decadence, a century of ostentation. He ended up doing a piece called “Bach’s Deconstruction” where he blended and deconstructed some scores and sounds.
The space we used in London, was the fulfilment of a long held personal desire. Ever since I started in fashion, I thought one day I have to have a show in a London chapel. All of my teenage influences were leading to this: the London rock underground scene, my big passion for The Smiths and their music videos... these were all references that made sense to me. When we found that little deteriorated chapel, it was just one of those special moments!
MM: As your brand keeps growing, is there any challenge that keeps on coming, season after season?
AM: Absolutely, we’ve reached the threshold where we don’t work with small quantities anymore, but we also don’t work with the 240 metres required by manufacturers. So, the current challenge is to match our circumstances with those of our factories.
Contrastingly, there is an increasing international notion that the culture of less quantity, but higher quality is a niche market which is broadening. It’s important that our industry starts offering more solutions for projects of this nature.
MM: And either if it’s a project of small or big proportions, the fabric story is the starting point of any collection...
AM: Completely, we had to change a series of elements in order to adapt to the new terms. Still, I think it has been for the better, because the work has improved a lot. I believe that things happen for a reason, so when a door closes, another two or three open, you just need to be aware of which one you want to choose next.
MM: Since you already work in an international environment, do you already feel the force of the fashion rhythm in its entirety?
AM: Yes, we can totally say that we feel part of the international rhythm, feeling the pressure to keep all platforms updated, working with collection timings and showroom presentations. We end up working in a contrasting environment because our surroundings tend to be a lot calmer than our studio.
MM: And what about Portugal, can you already recognise some changes in the way that national fashion operates?
AM: Definitely, I think it has changed a lot. Brands are more active and focused on design innovation. It’s also clear that we work with a more international language which has helped a lot to improve fashion in Portugal.
MM: What do you think can still be improved? What needs more investment?
AM: As Portugal is trending so much and the feedback that we receive is always so positive, I think it’s a waste, if we don’t start thinking about joining more efforts together. If our creatives and industry could work more closely together, our capacity of response, our product and its quality would be able to face the harshness of the fashion world. We would surely be much stronger.
Establishing and having a brand in Portugal is hard work, every day. I congratulate everyone that keeps working in fashion, because it takes a very strong will.Having a brand established in Portugal, is a hard, daily work...either way, I congratulate everyone that keeps working inside, because it takes a lot of strong will.
MM: And we’re talking about working in a small country.
AM: It’s a really small space, I would even say claustrophobic. But I can tell you that the amount of small companies in Portugal is growing. People still can’t make a living from their businesses, but the fact that they can work in the industry in their own country, is a good sign. Anyone that thinks that it’s all fun, is completely delusional.
This is an area that messes with you in all levels, from your self–esteem, power of will, perseverance... it gives you a lot of skills as a human being.
MM: But that’s the image that people take from fashion.
AM: Totally! You can even feel that idea among younger generations, when they apply for fashion courses. They get too star-struck, thinking that it’s only about drawing pretty clothes. This is an area that messes with you at all levels, from your self-esteem, will power, perseverance, altruism… it gives you a lot of skills as a human being.
MM: Probably, this increasing interest in fashion, comes from its democratisation and more access to information than ever before. The curiosity also increases and people start to have their initial contact with the industry in trying to learn more about it. I think that can help to fight the stigma.
AM: Yes, but it’s taking too long...
MM: In the matter of factory production, do they allow you some space for experimentation?
AM: Our production is not industrialised in that way. We work with partners, in kind of mini-industries, because they seek this type of “more quality, less quantity” work too. So it’s easier for us to keep being committed to everything that we design.
MM: Moments ago, we talked about the Portuguese design stigma within Portugal. What can you say about Portuguese design from the outside perspective?
AM: From my own experience, the international market is very aware of our industry: they are very curious about our design and they want to get to know us better. I feel this by the information requests we receive. Clearly there are stores and buyers, that are trying to get know the brand and me, as a Portuguese designer.
MM: That’s really good. So at this moment, you have stockists in England, as well as in the Asian market, is that correct?
AM: Yes, however, London has turned out to be more of a “window presentation”, almost like a statement. It’s not exactly a place for sales, it can happen, but it’s not very common. The stockists or buyers have the first contact with our collection in London, where they also ask for information about the brand and the showrooms we work with. From there, they make appointments in Paris to visit the spaces. And it is then that things are distributed from Paris to other parts of the world. But without a doubt, the presence in London has been vital to the visibility of the brand, it’s an important part of the whole process.
I started the brand with a more experimental and conceptual vibe, I just wanted to create and establish myself as a creative.
MM: I would like for us to go back a little bit in time, to when it all started. What defines your brand today and what defined it in the past?
AM: I started the brand with a more experimental and conceptual mindset, because I wasn’t concerned about selling, I just wanted to create and establish myself as a creative. Those were the years where I built the brand’s DNA. But what I always kept, was the idea of creating a strong concept, that allowed me to carry out equally strong research. Each garment has its reason to exist, so that all together the look can communicate a contemporary and urban aesthetic with very peculiar artisanal details. Without ever stopping to edit, so I could strike a balance between the good and bad.
I know that the people who follow the brand, look for a detail that draws them in, so it’s very important that I don’t lose that aspect.
With time and the growing pace of the brand, so too came the concern to make my work blossom. I started to work more closely with the ideas of concept, functionality, wearability and comfort. All of this without loosing the core of the brand, that is founded on textures, volume and strong concepts.
MM: And in the moment of designing, do you have the client’s expectations in mind? Your DNA is more consistent than ever, but the evolution also comes from the introduction of new ideas.
AM: In the moment that I’m drawing, I don’t think about anything or anyone. I just want to put things that make sense to me on paper, so that I can tell the story properly. It is after that, when we need to stabilise and edit, that I start to make choices. Every brand has an awareness that if there is a silhouette or some detail that sells, they have to keep on working on it. There is always a “rule” that runs through all the looks, that’s what we can call a signature image.
I used to say that, when I start creating, I go completely out of myself and when we finish a collection or the show ends, the next day always has this strange feeling in the air. Just like coming back from vacation and our home and surroundings feel odd. That’s the way I feel.
MM: When did you decide that you wanted to study fashion, was there any turning point that made you take that path?
AM: I would never have said that I would end up pursuing fashion in my life. When I was younger, I was completely focused on science, animal biology and astronomy, but I already had the consciousness that I could communicate through my way of dressing.
So during a trip to London, in my teenage years, I happened to pick up a fashion book that introduced me to the work and aesthetic of Comme Des Garçons. All of that made so much sense to me, because it was just the way that I think: the way to see the body, women, what is sexy and what is not, what builds and deconstructs our image... I shared all these same ideas about people. Finding this way thinking in another person was just amazing to me.
MM: Had your education had already started in Portugal?
AM: Yes, I studied in IADE, but this moment was way before I started my course. So this trip was essential for me and an encounter with a mind like hers (Rei Kawakubo), was major. When I got back to Portugal, the fashion course in IADE had just started and I stopped thinking about science. I wasn’t very sure about my decision, I only had this feeling that I wanted to do it.
It was quite a shock for my family, but they quickly understood that I was happy and they accepted it completely. I can say it was a relaxed process.
MM: Can you see some of Rey Kawakubo’s values in your own work? Since she was the one that gave you the “click”, do you think that she influenced your work in some way?
AM: Yes, I already thought that I was a weird thinker and she just came into my life to reinforce that. I came to understand at a young age, that a girl doesn’t have to only wear tight clothes, that some volume in the body is beautiful and a texture can say more to me than a pattern. Those were some of the aspects that influenced my point of view. Not that it reflects on my work right now, but it did on me, as a person.
MM: Is the conceptual phase something that you work on throughout the whole collection? Where you start? Do you go straight ahead in a linear way or “drive” through some twists and turns?
AM: I do a lot of twists and turns and go back if needed, but I always follow the guide which is my research. I spend a lot of time in this phase, because it’s where I settle on the collection’s path.
MM: And then there’s the tendency for two paths to crash and create contrasts.
AM: Yes of course, that’s why I need to consider many different paths, so that I can later understand what makes sense to blend together.
Sometimes, it’s in the middle of chaos or plain emptiness, that I get my ideias: from a person, a picture, a shadow, anything can give me a starting point.
Research is really my happy moment, it’s “THE” moment.
MM: Do you invoke the same set of references frequently?
AM: Yes, I do think we always go back to those places that we feel to be our references. Whether it is to validate what we are developing or to question our ideas.
On the creative level, I just let it go. Sometimes, it’s in the middle of chaos or plain emptiness, that I get my ideas: from a person, a picture, a shadow, anything can give me a starting point.
MM: I think it’s very important, that designers have that capacity. Inspiration really comes from anywhere. In your creative process, what is the moment that makes you the happiest?
AM: Definitely research. Whilst everything is still in my mind, everything is always possible, so of course it’s the best moment. Research is my happy moment, it’s “THE” moment.
MM: Can you tell us about your brand’s signature garments? The ones that you keep bringing back and redesign from scratch?
AM: We have the dress, which is clearly a very important staple. Coats are another garment which are always reworked. The trench coat is a piece from which I can easily transport some of its elements to other garments... and the shirt is a piece that I study a lot and love to design.
MM: I would like to know a little bit more about the logistics of your studio. How many people make up your team, what are their functions, how is your work environment managed?
AM: Our core team consists of four people: me, Cristina Laíns, our senior designer who connects me with our creative office, where our interns work; Diogo Sousa, who runs the studio and looks after the commercial aspects of the brand and Luís Rosa, who works on new business areas, as well as the marketing plan.
We try to ensure that everyone’s tasks are well defined, so that we can work in a more organised way.
In the studio, everything related to the creative concept of a collection as well as the prototypes and patterns is planned and defined, so that everything can be sent to production.
MM: What role do your interns play in the studio dynamics?
AM: It’s important that they have a very active role. We always try to pass the mindset to them, that because we’re a very small company everyone ends up being involved in pretty much everything. Even if it means we take a moment from our tasks (pattern making, line sheets, etc) to reunite to talk about our current projects and share opinions on the developments.
I think it’s a good environment for them, because they have the opportunity to experience all the work levels.
My biggest challenge is to pass my experience and daily work as a designer on to my students.
MM: In addition to your work as fashion designer, you also teach Fashion Design in ESART. What are your biggest challenges when balancing the work in your brand and your role as a teacher?
AM: My biggest challenge is to pass my experience and daily work as a designer on to my students. It’s very important for me to share my struggles, good news and not so good news. Also to explain to them how we overcome such situations so they can understand the complexity of this type of work.
Another equally large challenge is to always give my students 100% of myself. Each one of them has their unique concept, unique aesthetic, unique idea. Everything changes from one to student to the next and I need to have the capacity of being able to jump from one to another. It’s a very intense work and I can never make compromises with my feedback or advice.
MM: How long have you been teaching?
AM: Fifteen years.
MM: What feedback do you receive from your students about their plans for the future?
AM: Most of them want to work on their own brands. I always tell them that the market is completely saturated with more newcomers every year, which makes creating a new brand a big challenge, particularly because they don’t have the resilience and fighting spirit that is needed. I always advise that they should try to get into an already established business.
MM: Of course and to contribute to what already exists.
AM: If I was in their place right now, finishing my course, I would probably choose to contribute to something bigger. Either way, I think that more than ever, these generations should be prepared to think about this idea of contributing.
MM: Besides, new fashion roles are starting to appear due to technological improvements, sustainability and new platforms of communication.
AM: Of course. There are students that are great at illustration, others with amazing talent for creative writing and also great technicians... this area is not limited to fashion designers.
The legitimacy and uniqueness are very important in the development of your own work.
Research is essential, just like the search for what we really are. The path to create impact, goes right through there.
MM: Despite this feeling, do you think the new generations have the capacity to take advantage of their tools?
AM: Of course they do, even in comparison with past generations.
MM: The challenge is for them to realise it, because they take these skills for granted.
AM: With some students you can easily see that they do it for love and really want to be there. They explore and fight as they try to understand what they want for their future.
MM: What advice can you give to recent fashion design graduates and also to those who are just beginning their projects on platforms for new talent?
AM: You need to think about what you really like to do and how far you are willing to go to follow those dreams. For the ones that have already started, legitimacy and uniqueness are very important in your own work: the way that you develop it and communicate is essential to make you stand out. Obviously there are many references, almost everything has already been invented, but let those reinterpretations come from within you and don’t just create another hype product. Research is essential, just like the search for what we really are. The path to create impact, goes right through there. ♥
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