Susana Bettencourt was born and grew up in São Miguel, the largest of theAzores Islands, amidst bobbins of string and knitwear masters. So it was no surprise that she was inspired to become one herself. With the passion for the traditions of her childhood in her heart, she gained a bachelor’s degree in fashion knitwear followed by a master’s degree in digital fashion, both completed with distinction at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.
Much more than addressing its origins, Susana Bettencourt’s mission is to learn hands-on within the textile industry, making her own contribution to the breakthrough of a technique that was gradually being lost.
In February 2011 the fashion designer presented her first collection at London Fashion Week, then at Tranoi in Paris and Portugal Fashion. Susana Bettencourt's detailed hand-crafted knitwear and luxury digital high-tech jacquards didn’t go unnoticed. They received high praise and recognition from international fashion critics. Her ambition burned strongly and her creative journey had the long-awaited continuation in her home country, Portugal.
In the fashion designer’s own words, Portugal is a country unique in the world. It is culturally rich in textile development, internationally well known for its know-how, traditions and advanced technology. Thus, much more than addressing its origins, Susana Bettencourt’s mission is to learn hands-on within the textile industry, making her own contribution to the breakthrough of a technique that was gradually being lost.
Almost 10 years after the launch of her eponymous brand, the textile artist and fashion designer takes an honest look at her professional career and shares her thoughts on the future of designer brands.
Nowadays, I feel that I have earned respect, both from my colleagues and from the industry. If before I could not find partnerships, customers, or even suppliers easily, today partnerships and work opportunities flow more and more naturally.
Portugal Fashion has just turned 25 years old and Bloom, the platform for presenting young designers, 10 years old. Even though you weren’t part of the very first group of designers to present at Bloom, you joined it shortly after. So, by my count, you’re almost celebrating your 10 year career as well.
SB: Yes, that’s true.
How do you analyse your path, taking into account training at an international school, returning to Portugal, your transition from Bloom to the main platform of Portugal Fashion and the fact that you are still on the schedule today?
SB: Looking back, and trying to be positive and not too self-critical, as I normally would do, I feel immense pride in the perseverance. Not only mine but from the entire team that was involved in this process. My international training has made me very demanding with my process and with very high expectations. But I think that all my decisions have had immeasurable results, both professionally and personally. I wouldn’t change a thing.
What difficulties existed in the past that do not exist today or vice versa?
SB: In the past, I had very few contacts in the Portuguese textile and fashion world. Bloom opened the door for me. Nowadays, I feel that I have earned respect, both from my colleagues and from the industry. If before I could not find partnerships, customers, or even suppliers easily, today partnerships and work opportunities flow more and more naturally.
But I have other difficulties, absolutely. As the company grows, I have bigger obligations, higher financial goals, as well as commitments and people who rely on me. The biggest difficulty I feel today when managing an independent brand is the financial management and sales strategy. When I created the brand, in 2011, there was no Instagram yet. The world and the ways of selling have changed a lot. I feel that the wholesale selling system for multi-brands is at risk and, we designers, have to be creative in our own communication in order to reach our customer directly.
I have the dream of opening my school/factory/studio one day, so I can pass on my testament to ancient techniques and the programming and technology knowledge that I have acquired.
You have a strong connection to the industry in knitwear development. How does the Portuguese industry respond to this type of product?
SB: The Portuguese knitwear sector is a very strong one. It is not easy to find a good knitwear factory in foreign countries. Despite the difficulties, we keep a considerable number of specialised factories in operation and we are increasingly improving the manufacture of the product in a manner that enhances its value. That should always be the focus of the ‘Made in Portugal’ brand.
Portugal is not a big country and does not have the capacity to produce on a very large scale. It is impossible to compete with foreign counties in mass production segments. But our tradition and our know-how are very valuable and must be preserved. So, I have the dream of opening my school/factory/studio one day, so I can pass on my testament to ancient techniques and the programming and technology knowledge that I have acquired.
What about the domestic and international markets?
SB: The Portuguese market has been very generous to me in recent years. My knits are available in multi-brand concept stores, such as Scar-Id, Panamar, The Feeting Room, My Lisbon and Philosophy. However, one of my goals is to reach the consumer more directly, either face to face or online. This year, I intend to open my Creative Store in Guimarães, in the North of Portugal. I expect that, after all this pandemic chaos, we will have the well-deserved inauguration.
What is your work process from the start until you arrive at the runway or showroom?
SB: The creative process of a fashion designer is a very extensive one. We haven't finished a collection yet and we already have lots of ideas for the next one. Lately, I’ve been changing my work methods a lot. I am testing a new strategy: a strong concept as a guiding thread for three collections.
The collections “F/W2019–20 Stop the Clock”, “F/W2019–20 Time to Change” and “S/S2020 Super Human” are the first examples. The first collection was created with total freedom of format and techniques and with the strongest concept, so in the second and third we work more with the commercial objective. In the sampling process, we have already advanced a lot of the production and there is some financial leeway to risk more.
I decided to start with this strategy because the public’s interest is the highest at the time of the runway presentations and fairs. But there is a delay of six months until the clothes arrive in stores, causing the consumer's interest to be lost and sales to decrease. In addition, my sampling process entailed a huge financial loss, due to the minimum of yarn, production timing and the small scale of the collections.
After this strategic planning is done, I start my research. Then, I finish the concept, mood boards and choose the materials. This is followed by all the graphic and technical work, testing of techniques, the raw materials and the stitches, jacquards, prints and graphics. While the testing process is going on, we think about our collection designs. I already have bestsellers such as kimonos, cardigans, sweaters and giant scarves that my customers love, which I keep season by season.
My collections are mostly cut and assembled in our studio and go on to a knits master seamstress afterwords. Then, they come back to be finished. When the collection is complete, we create the concept for the fashion editorial and look-book, the merchandising material for international fairs, the newsletters for our buyers and we start the preparation for the big day at Portugal Fashion.
My process is unique, but it is very difficult to convey that message in a runway format. This was, therefore, a collection in which we decided to give time to the process and time to test techniques.
When you presented your Fall/Winter 2020-21 collection, you shared the work beyond the clothes. You brought your team and your machines and dressed the models in real-time. Why was it important to show your process?
SB: Whenever I present a collection, I feel that I don’t really communicate and justify the value of the clothes and the process. With fast fashion brands practising inhumane prices, the general public is less and less aware of the price and value of our garments. Therefore, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate the process, explaining that a collection is not just about presenting new clothes. There’s a team, a story as well asknowledge that I want to preserve and pass on.
My work goes far beyond the collections presented in fashion shows.Since these are the weapons I have, I decided to test a more effective way of using them. My process is unique, but it is very difficult to convey that message in a runway format. This was, therefore, a collection in which we decided to give time to the process and time to test techniques. The final objective is to launch a capsule collection in September, inspired by these “little monsters” that I presented in March and will be exclusively sold online.
Do you think the consumer wants to know where the products come from and who makes them?
SB: Maybe not the general public yet, but I think we are headed in that direction. This pandemic took away our freedom, but it gave us time. The time I asked for in the “F/W2019–20 Stop the Clock” collection. This time can give many people some perspective about their priorities, or so I hope.
Do you think that transparency should be part of a brand’s sustainable future?
SB: Completely, I see no other way to change the notion of value. We have to be transparent, we have to communicate the process and make the public see what they are buying and what the meaning beyond it is.
I love the process of discovering how to materialise our design in knitwear. So as well as creating my brand collections, I would like to help other small brands that want to present knitwear clothes in their collections, using both manual and machine techniques.
How does your brand position itself in terms of sustainability?
SB: My brand cannot be considered 100% sustainable (with the required certificates), but my textile and manufacturing partners are. We have sustainability in my mind when creating raw materials with Fifitex. This Portuguese factory uses organic cotton and recycled polyester and reduces its water consumption to a minimum. In addition, our clothes assembly process has minimal thread and knitting waste. The thread that enters the machine is completely used for the final piece. We also place a lot of importance on work conditions, we are a fair trade brand.
What do you expect the brand to bring you in the future and what do you expect the future to bring the brand?
SB: I hope it brings me the opportunity to open my school/factory/atelier. I love to pass on my knowledge and I feel so fulfilled after an intense day teaching techniques. Having grown up among knitwear masters, it is very important for me to feel that I am passing on their legacy. I already feel super lucky to receive interns from all over the world. This only happens because those who like knit design do not have many places like mine in the world to learn.
I love the process of discovering how to materialise our design in knitwear. So as well as creating my brand collections, I would like to help other small brands that want to present knitwear clothes in their collections, using both manual and machine techniques. This project could be both a school, training people for the industry, as well as a solution to the production of prototypes (since most factories hate to make them because they block their production).
It could also be a place where our most experienced knitwear masters taught the youngest curious. It’s a dream, but you never know. Truth be told, I just lack the financial part ... the knowledge and passion I already have to spare. ♥
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