Fátima Lopes has presented two shows at the Eiffel Tower, unveiled a diamond bikini and told many stories about female freedom, all the while never losing her Portuguese quintessence. It’s true that 30 years of Fátima Lopes won’t fit on these pages, but never has a retrospective of the most recognised woman Portuguese fashion designer been so necessary.
PRINÇIPAL What is happening at the moment?
We are in the middle of developing the collection, but also organising the show to mark the 30th anniversary of Fátima Lopes, in a year that has proven to be particularly good and bubbly. After the last two years with almost everything being on standby, everyone wants to make things happen, and fortunately it coincides with a year that is meant to be celebrated.
When I look back, I see a whole life dedicated to work, a marriage of 30 years that has always been my priority, but first and foremost, a great passion that I was fortunate enough to turn into a profession, a way of being, and a way of life. The inspiration for the next collection comes from this.
I christened it “30 Years”. We are going to recapture the essence of the early years, and the memory that the public has always kept of the brand: lots of skin, sensuality, the communion between the feminine and masculine. The more recent years of the brand may have been more sober, but this show will not be sober at all.
PRINÇIPAL Watching and learning about your 30–year career is like walking through a landscape of femininity, which has evolved successfully alongside you.
Curiously, the other day someone wrote something about me that I really liked, and I remember thinking it was the best compliment that I could be given. It was something like, “This creator came to change the mentality of women.” The truth is that this is exactly what I’ve tried to do over these years. Admittedly when I started, it wasn’t planned, but this notion that we have to demand the same rights for women already existed within me and over time it became the basis of my work. We should not be afraid of being ourselves, and even less afraid of being criticised for something we wear. My mother, despite being petite, was a very strong woman, and I grew up with that example at home. I never worried about what people might say about me and criticism never stoped me from doing anything, but I did try to make women open their eyes and realise that we have to reclaim our freedom.
I have the right to be ultra-feminine, to wear a sexy dress, and be respected at the same time. I have fought for that since the first day I started designing. When it comes to opening minds, we still have many challenges ahead but, in the information age, there is no room for excuses.
PRINÇIPAL Can you describe what your personal style archetype was when you were younger? I heard that, from early on, you started to refuse to wear the clothes your mother chose for you.
It’s true, I used to say no to everything she bought me, but I have a funny story that goes along with that: I was 6 years old when my older sister got married and the guests were expected to wear long lacy dresses. Of course, my mother got me a dress like that, but I cried so much and insisted on not wearing it. I got my way in the form of a short jumpsuit. As long as my mother lived, I heard her say countless times that that jumpsuit was her greatest shame... but there was nothing I could do, because I knew very well what I wanted. I’ve been like that all my life.
PRINÇIPAL At what moment did you start on the fashion path?
It was not at all in my plans to make fashion a profession, Initially I studied tourism and later worked as a travel agent and tour guide. I was very good with languages and was a very extroverted person, which turned this phase of my life into four wonderful years of tourism. It was a tremendous learning experience. I organised trips for groups of 50 people, and I was responsible for them from the moment they boarded the plane until they returned home. This was at a time when there were no mobile phones or computers and I had to manage it on my own.
After four years, I began to feel that it was no longer a novelty and the fashion bug started to settle in. It was around the same time that a friend who lived in Lisbon told me about Manobras de Maio. It sounded perfect: a fashion event, where amateurs and professionals could participate. A breath of fresh air. It became my dream and it was because of this event that I moved to Lisbon in 1988. The funny thing is that I never took part, because I started working straight away, and I didn’t have any technical knowledge of fashion.
In 1990 I opened Versus, which was only the second ever concept store in Lisbon (the first was Maçã, run by Ana Salazar). I sold brands that I bought in Paris, Milan or London, like Jean Paul Gaultier accessories, Cop. Copine, Gossip… essentially, everything that wasn’t available in Portugal at the time.
It was a time of a lot of growth, and Versus was undoubtedly my great fashion school, because of the opportunity it presented to travel to the big capitals, make direct contact with suppliers, and of course, with the final client who is the mirror of the market needs.
PRINÇIPAL What was the city of Lisbon like in 1988?
There was an incredible buzz at that time, and the young people had a great thirst for knowledge, novelty and freedom, but primarily there was a need to search for a different culture and for Portugal to fight against the backward rules and norms imposed by previous generations. This cultural elite, if we can call it that, wanted to make things happen in all areas, from cinema to fashion, theatre, music... I was lucky to meet a lot of people like me, and this contributed to me living the city life very intensely. I had fun and did everything I should have done at the right time.
The 1980s and 1990s marked a moment of rupture for the city, in such a way that, when I got to Paris, they couldn’t believe I was from Portugal, and would say, “Portugaise? Nooon, ce n’est pas possible!”.
Their perception was defined by the Portuguese woman with a moustache and hairy legs (who also existed) and they asked me if there were more Portuguese people like me. The image of our country has changed so much in the last twenty years, and this is just one of the many examples of how everything has changed. Now, Lisbon and Portugal are fashionable and there is no French person who wouldn’t like to come and live here.
PRINÇIPAL What was the big turning point that started your career as a fashion designer?
Parallel to the Versus business, I was already making and wearing my own clothes, and on one of the many trips I made between Paris, Milan and London, two of the brands that I sold at Versus invited me to design for them. I remember thinking that it didn’t make sense and wondered if I would be able to take this step. I ended up experimenting by making twenty pieces that I put on sale under the Versus name, never revealing that they were my own.
PRINÇIPAL We imagine that the Versus label was also a kind of buffer, so that you could test the pieces without the pressure of a brand.
I wasn’t even aware if those pieces had any kind of value, and I wanted to find that out without anyone knowing that they were designed by me. That was the big turning point. My first show took place in September 1992 at the Beato Convent, and I’ve never stopped nor have I bought a ready-made garment since.
In 1994, I began to attend Prêt-à-Porter trade fairs in Paris. I remember being placed in the least friendly area of the fair, because the synonym for being Portuguese at this stage of the industry was “production”. But that didn’t stop me from moving forward, and I set up a stand made of zinc plates with a metal table in the middle. It was a moment that didn’t go unnoticed, and the fair organisers immediately apologised, placing us in the avant-garde area at the next fair. I went straight to the opposite end, and it made perfect sense, because the brand was different and had no commercial concerns at that time, only with the authenticity of the brand’s DNA.
PRINÇIPAL Looking back at your early years in Paris, do you feel that your identity worked for or against you when you arrived in the fashion capital?
Curiously, I think it worked in my favour, because I was different from everything and everyone and in Paris difference was respected. I ended up being known as “la créatrice portugaise” because of the number of times I corrected people who thought I was Spanish.
The press insisted on writing my surname with a “z” (Lopez). The French couldn’t pronounce Lopes. But none of this had any negative impact, because I went in through the front door by myself, without anyone’s support. The only way I had of competing against the great multinationals was with strong originality and spectacle.
The Fátima Lopes shows have never revolved around clothes, because I believe in spectacle as the great driving force. Look at the great examples of Christian Dior by John Galliano, Tom Ford for Gucci, and Chanel by Karl Lagerfeld. It is the notion of spectacle that makes the brands, their press, and last but not least, the audience. I remember my first show in 1999 was put on the eve of the fashion calendar and I was thinking no one was going to be there to watch, but thank God I had a full room and I presented my collection on the first ever water runway. In the autumn/winter 2010 season, I presented a collection with the theme “North Pole”, with white LED lighting decorating the walls and fake snow on the ground. Two days later, my press agent called me to say that Chanel had worked on the same theme... but there was one big difference — l’argent! And what did they do? They brought icebergs from Iceland and placed them in the middle of the Grand Palais. This is to say that when it comes to clothes, I’m not afraid to compete, but you can’t compare white LEDs and fake snow to imported icebergs. In the end, we managed to laugh at the whole situation.
PRINÇIPAL Your career in Paris is characterised by many “firsts”, such as the iconic diamond bikini and the first ever show in the Eiffel Tower.
I got to do two shows in the Eiffel Tower, the first in 2011 and the second in 2015. The first was inevitably remembered for being the first ever show in the Eiffel Tower. The French press asked me how I had achieved such a feat: I simply asked, and they said yes.
PRINÇIPAL We can’t help but notice the willingness, and ease with which Paris allows the fusion between the industry and the historical spaces of the city.
Paris is very open to fashion because they live and breathe it. The press from all over the world focuses on the city twice a year, and all the buzz generated by the Fashion Weeks, is a vital part of the city’s culture. I have already presented two shows at the Musée de l’Armée, where Napoleon Bonaparte is buried, three times at the Louvre, another two at the Eiffel Tower, and at the Cirque d’Hiver. Paris is open to fashion because it recognises it as culture.
PRINÇIPAL Let’s talk about the diamond bikini: how did the opportunity to create a bikini worth a million Euros come about?
I was preparing my third show in Paris, and as I said before, the only way to compete with giants in the capital of fashion is with originality. For that very reason, my press agent had been insisting since the last show that I should walk as a model. I thought the idea was pretentious nonsense and I always told him no. With the arrival of the new season, he insisted again and I jokingly told him that I would only parade if I was dressed in diamonds. Suddenly we fell silent and realised that this was exactly what we had to do.
We then decided to contact Greg, a friend of ours who had a diamond cutting company in Belgium, and present the idea of making a diamond bikini. “Consider it done”, he said, which I’ll never forget.
PRINÇIPAL What was the impact for the brand in general?
It was huge, both for me and for Ezziddeen Diamonds, the diamond company.
There was no other talk for the rest of the year: the Fátima Lopes show had not only been the most talked about show at Paris Fashion Week, but it had also drowned out the big brands and their millions in investment. From then on, the bar was as high as the responsibility to do more and better, and the success of this collaboration turned into a partnership of several years.
PRINÇIPAL What have been the most important lessons over the last 21 years of Paris Fashion Week?
For starters: ‘there are no impossibilities, only difficulties’. This is a motto that has accompanied me throughout my entire life, especially during the time I was told Paris was ‘impossible’.
The truth is that any creator can do a show in Paris, but to continue for 21 consecutive years, that is very difficult. We are talking about a level where you have to grow continuously, where ambition cannot stagnate, and excelling is a daily exercise. Besides, there is no room for failures, copies, or being mediocre. There are only two ways to get into Paris: either with many millions to spend in order to buy a market, or with a lot of work and ambition.
PRINÇIPAL What are the big Fátima Lopes symbols?
For me, the body has always been the central figure: I was born on an island with sun all year round, and carrying a bikini in my bag was something very normal for me.
I have no taboos about the body so designing sexy clothing is something that has always happened very naturally. The DNA of my fashion is also characterised by asymmetry, graphical and geometrical cuts, and also a special consideration for the architecture of the pieces themselves, like fabric sculptures.
That is why the pattern making phase is one of the most important moments in my work, and not everybody can interpret my drawing and execute them the way I want. We are talking about pieces that aren’t easy or simple, and which, generally, require dozens of pattern drafts. All of this is a thousand times more laborious and asks for a lot more fabric than usual.
PRINÇIPAL It is funny that you mention that, when one of your secrets for business success is ‘little fabric, plenty of imagination’. Tell us about this motto.
I remember saying that at a very particular stage of my career, although it is a value that I continue to carry into my collections. The sensuality of the forms in my work, creates an illusion of little fabric, which in fact hides a few extra meters of fabric as well as the great work of pattern making and sewing. When it comes to imagination, I mean the study of the naked body, which in itself is not beautiful, but free. One must understand the game of sensuality as an exercise requiring a lot of imagination.
PRINÇIPAL How important is originality to you?
I never followed anyone’s fashions, and I always worked under my own style and vision. In Paris there was no one like me, and that’s why the doors opened, there was a great respect for originality.
In Portugal, the scenario was very different, because nobody understood the difference, and the supposed fashion experts understood little or nothing: as I was nobody’s copy, they simply thought that nothing I did was a trend.
Being a creator is not about chasing trends. After 30 years, I feel very comfortable to say this, because I am my own creation and I never stopped achieving what I wanted, despite all the ways in which I was criticised by a fashion niche which fed on ignorance.
PRINÇIPAL Despite the criticism, around the 2000s, fashion in Portugal started to be a very popular topic in the media and the public was curious to know more about this world and its players.
It’s true, and maybe I was lucky enough to start working at a time when fashion was in fashion. There were many programs and content about the subject, but these have unfortunately disappeared over time. These days there are practically none and when I am invited to speak it is usually to speak about my personal life rather than my work.
These days the press in general is different, but when it comes to communicating about fashion in Portugal, there are few doing it, which is a shame. On the other hand, we are living at a time when brands and designers are able to control their own exposure and reach, offering a whole range of new possibilities.
Back then, everything revolved around the traditional press and anyone who couldn’t get coverage simply didn’t exist. Luckily, I have always had the press on my side. It is something I need to reinforce and be thankful for, because I am very grateful for all the press and TV that have always been with me over the last 30 years.
PRINÇIPAL Your 30 years of career have naturally “embraced” the most varied audiences: some of them have been with you for a long time, and others are just discovering your work. What impressions have you gathered from your customers?
This year, I have already received two awards directly from the public. One is the ‘Five Stars’, which involves asking people to name a personality from an area who influences that scene, and for the seventh consecutive year, since the award was created, the public have said “Fátima Lopes”. The other one, “Trusted Brands” from Reader ‘s Digest, involves a different kind of audience, but we have won every year since the competition began three years ago. It is gratifying to know the public continues to remember me and my work. There is a group who are a similar age than me who have seen the 30 years of my work, but also younger generations are now learning about the brand. Recently, a 16 year-old and her mother were in my shop looking for a ball dress. The mother had worn a dress of mine to her school ball so she wanted her daughter to wear a Fátima Lopes dress for the same celebration. It is funny to see young people coming via earlier generations who inform and educate them about my work.
PRINÇIPAL The pandemic was a sudden stop for the whole industry, but also an opportunity for reflection. How was this time for you?
After 43 shows and 21 years in Paris, it took a pandemic to stop me. Curiously, I believed that presenting in Paris was the centre of all my work. Being there was a duty that I had never questioned. Suddenly, I was forced to slow down, but I realised it was possible to continue doing everything anyway, without the stress of the world we left behind. It was a time that allowed me to understand what truly matters. I still don’t want to think about going back to Paris, and I know that, through digital spaces, I can show in Portugal and reach an audience abroad at the same time. I feel calm and not pressured at all, because I don’t miss the stress of organising a show abroad at all.
PRINÇIPAL What plans are in store for the future?
We are about to start a franchising model for the brand, and already have two business partners. It is a system that offers a different level of engagement, but does not prevent the brand from reaching more audiences. The project will remain entirely under the Fátima Lopes brand, we will be in charge of both the store decoration and the product will be our label, but it will be managed by our partners.
In parallel, I am working towards the opening of another Fátima Lopes flagship shop before the end of the year.
PRINÇIPAL Returning to the context of our national fashion industry, what do you believe needs to be done, and where do we need to invest urgently?
What is missing is what I have been saying since the beginning of my career: the union between industry and creators. Let’s take the case of Italy, the image we have of the country today would not exist if they hadn’t invested in that link, and in the made in Italy label. Portugal has never invested in brands, but rather in the role of manufacturer and supplier of services, the poor relation.
We have big brands from all over the world producing in Portugal, but the added value is always on their side, because what counts in the end is the brand. I know people will slam me for saying this, but it’s the cold, hard truth: Open your eyes, Portuguese fashion industry! Anywhere in the world brands are an asset. Look for creators, join them and build brands. We have everything to make it happen.
Unfortunately, I speak from experience, because it took many years to build partnerships, and nobody wanted to make pieces for designers. I had to set up my own factory/atelier in my old studio in Bairro Alto, and I stayed there for 20 years because there were no alternatives. Today, things are quite different, but the challenges of our industry remain. I imagine that there are a lot of young creators who need support and don’t get it these days, just like was the case when I needed it 30 years ago. I’m fully aware that for those who are starting out, this disconnection from the industry is a big obstacle that doesn’t need to exist. When we start thinking about synergies between creators and producers, we can start thinking about a fashion capital in Portugal. Until then, it’s not even worth dreaming.
PRINÇIPAL Finally, what is the function, or the key role of fashion?
I believe above all that fashion is culture, despite so many people underestimating its power: all people have a cultural identity that is somehow linked to fashion. On the other hand, it is also an industry. However, fashion can’t be exclusively viewed from either a cultural or commercial perspective.
Economically speaking, it is a great force, because it is forms part of the (inter)national GDP. It is very important to note these various facets of fashion. And how many people make their living from the fashion world? It would be good for the Portuguese to think a little about this. I think the French have already understood, the Italians and Americans too, and even the Spanish. Portugal hasn’t yet. ♥
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