Words: Patrícia Barnabé Photos: Frederico Martins for Portugal Fashion Campaign
The duo Alves/Gonçalves are a reference of good taste and longevity in the story of Portuguese fashion. Their energy, sophistication and sense of the future never fails them as they constantly search for an admirable new world.
You opened your first shop in Porto and then in Lisbon, where you met José Manuel Gonçalves. It was the 1980s: what was the country and fashion like?
There are no words to describe what existed, because almost nothing did exist. I am still from the times when to get Vogue you had to ask the Bank of Portugal to import it. There was José Luis Barbosa, who was Giuseppe Luigi, there was Ana Salazar’s Maçã and Claudine Delfieu, where I bought some clothes. And then there were the fashionistas: Ana Maravilhas, Sérgio Sampaio, Candidinha, who also made trousseaux. It was as poor a country in this area as it was poor in spirit. There was no interference from the world, we were completely deaf and blind to the outside, looking inward to misfortune and fate, to survival. And the better-off went to Paris for three months for the haute-couture. There was a huge divide between the classes. When I arrived in Porto with men’s fashion it was like a breath of fresh air. We started using colours and linking up with the musical phenomena. We lived apart from youth, from the new ways and the new aesthetics of the world outside that we were starting to import and to read about. I began looking to Roxy Music, David Bowie and the Velvet Underground. It was a very interesting way of seeing the urbanity that came from outside and which was in contrast with what existed here. Those wonderful 1970s, and then disco arrived in the country. Suddenly we loosened up, the discotheques were full, the glitter, the colours — it was the perfect terrain for the start of our journey. And then we rejected those back-dated, old-fashioned and stale values of the past to embrace a new way of seeing the world with a more open mind. We started going to Ibiza and Paris. For a year-and-a-half I spent every weekend in Paris with my friend Regina from Porto who had a house there. And I’ve transformed those trips into trips to Lisbon, you see?
You studied management, while José Manuel attempted law; but fashion was always an obsession, which is extraordinary, since you came from Trás os Montes and then Braga. Were you fascinated by this possibility for the future?
Yes. It was the opposite of everything I had known until I was eighteen or nineteen. Fashion was very liberating in the way it gave me the tools to become a more interesting, more evolved and more charming person. It was a reversal of the idea I had of myself, so I could be something else. I began to understand that I had other desires within me, besides that of being a teacher. So I focused on fashion, because it was a limitless seduction. Every day I felt attracted by everything that was body and shape, which was associated with the libertinism of the time, which also helped me to face things in a very relaxed and even daring way. So I opened my first shop with very interesting T-shirts and had customers who came from Lisbon just to buy them in Porto. I sent cases full of t-shirts and shirts to Pap’Açorda. We had lots of orders. That is how it all began.
You’ve always liked designing for men, as if it was your alter ego.
I love designing for men. I put it down to a certain laxness. I sometimes want to hit myself. I will never forget that in 1987 my clothes were on the cover of Italian Vogue, a red lacquered suite that Rui Reininho bought. I had a small shop in Lisbon, but then Zé Manel came in, who loved women’s cloths. So we opened a shop for women. Lisbon was the Bairro Alto, and despite living in this very cosmopolitan environment, a guy from the north was still an outsider, and I was also an outsider because I was very different. The others were minimalists, which is a very Japanese aesthetic. I was urban and focused on music trends, hand-painted suits, red, green and pink coats. It was a question of personality. I love the Japanese, but it was not for me at that time. Now, one of the people I most love in the world is Yohji Yamamoto. I loved meeting him, as I love meeting others who make fashion look to the world with an energy and satisfaction that translates into a daily revolution through clothes.
Can fashion be such an agent for change, be more creative and have a greater purpose than just something to wear?
We are both getting older, Zé Manel and I, but we are also getting closer to taking this deep breath and saying: fashion is not about little skirts that everyone knows very well how to make and sell. We are not riding that wave. We have our way of seeing things, which is even more true of Zé Manel Gonçalves, who increasingly rejects the conventional and who has a more radical way of thinking. We often have to forgo easy sales for something more emotional. Fashion is a way of engaging, the way we think the world and people ought to be, what we want out of life, a catalyst for new ways of seeing. Clothing cannot be separate from people’s lives. Why is it that for a woman to be regarded as feminine in today’s world she has to wear the perfect dress? I don’t understand. We studied the classics very thoroughly, from Madame Vionnet to Chanel, from Schiaparelli to Balenciaga. We know all the techniques, but we want to do what they did in their time and break all the rules.
Your designs are both instinctive and rigorous…
They are very emotional, but we are very interested in technique and technology, in the sustainability of the system and in reusing things. If a jacket looked good three years ago, and it wasn’t accepted, then this year I’ll modify it and add value to it. It will be a new product. I will reuse it with new techniques, put some varnish here, some eyelets there and transform it. Or now might be the right time for some fabric that I have saved for twenty years. That’s what we did. We mixed manual technologies with high-tech. The new shapes and prints on the fabrics we had made (we always add value to the fabric), but also on the manual side, and these two things result in what you saw in the last show.
It is very evident from your shows that you do a lot of research: from haute-couture to streetwear to music.
We are passionate about the street! And if only you knew all the research we have done… from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s: we have seen it all! And it’s a lullaby, because we don’t connect with these, but things remain, you know? There is profusion of things. It was our beloved Conan Osiris who made the music, telling us: “This is not what I like doing at all!” And he kept sending us songs, and Zé Manel kept saying: “Change it like this.” And there are aspects of Portuguese folklore, but it doesn’t seem like it, it is very much our roots. The runway music is always unconventional (the radio stations contact us to find out how we arranged it). The rhythm is always nocturnal, urban, emotional. Then we didn’t want to do anything with the hair or the makeup, perhaps just a little powder. We had no lips, nothing at all. We wanted the woman in the raw on the runway, like normal people, without artifice.
Then these animal backpacks appeared as a big joke and removed the harshness.
That was Zé Manel. His room was full of Japanese things: there were dolls, dolls, dolls, he’s addicted to these things, and now he wants a robot dog. He has a very childish side that lives in his head, which I find very amusing. He has the ability to transform any house with his abilities. We’ve been here one month and ten days, and everything is from scratch. Imagine a Gucci, a Prada, a Bottega Veneta, a Balenciaga sending letters. He has such a great ability to invent new things that I am sometimes afraid of him! Imagine if we had six months to create a collection, with all the resources and an 80-person team…
It is a lot of work on your part, but it means you continue to be extraordinarily relevant. Of the first generation of Portuguese fashion designers, you are the only ones who keep poking us, moving us.
It’s because it comes from the heart and from the soul, the soul. And our constant goal was not to become dated, not to give in to time. The past is behind us, we are interested in the future. That’s what we are saying with this collection: we look to the post-COVID world with a positive attitude and optimism. It is a way of saving us from ourselves, because we have no other way of living. It is saying “No!”. It is moving forward, not getting too close to the others. Do you get it?
You said your spring 2021 show looks beyond the pandemic: what do you see?
We see the idea that everything that is established is going to change: the cheap glamour, the feminine is going to combine with the masculine, the identity of people is not important, women will wear men’s clothes and men will wear women’s clothes. There will be concern about and attachment to nature and animals, to the climate, and clothing will fall into line. I see optimism in all this. It is not a reinvention — I hate that word — but the creation of new habits resulting from new ways of thinking. Until then, we will be bitter, but we are really looking forward to this new time.
In the future, I am even open to those who say: “I have a dress you bought in the 1980s, what does it cost me to change it, to make something new from this?” But you will have a beautiful and more daring dress. We took this classic dress from 1989, which was a bit cheesy, we took it apart and stitched it by hand, creating all this confusion in an experience that will result in another story.
Do you think this is going to be the future of fashion: that it will abandon the constant obsession with the new?
Absolutely. You know, the big fashion houses, the big names, have huge stocks of clothing. It’s a waste. Sometimes they destroy it, it’s burned in containers. Why not turn the whole thing around in favour of a new aesthetic that has to do with time, which is needed in order to live? Glamour will continue to serve the emerging nouveau riche, but the people in the city, better-informed people, will certainly adhere to this new energy. It is a new piece, but with a story.
You have always been quite reserved, even solitary. You still socialise, but no-one sees José Manuel. You once said this reserve was what gave you freedom, and that freedom is your definition of fashion.
Fashion is the path I followed, and if it were not free, I would not be here. Life has enough complications, we need to be free. In Portugal, fashion is still thought to be a luxury activity, which for me is a pity, since of course it belongs to an elite. But that has always been the way since man has been man and started wearing animal skins. Seduction is an exercise in freedom, but like make-up and all the artifices that exist related to the body, they are weapons of the seduction of the other. We can also say: I’m going to do what I feel like doing, without constraints other than those imposed by the activity. But beyond this, we cannot be happy without freedom. I will never be. I have my little place where I do what I enjoy and in the way I want to do it.
What is still exciting in your work: what are you still passionate about?
If you talk of common things, it is my daily vice, my rituals. The part that moves me most is the feedback, knowing there was someone who liked it, because there was pleasure in what you made, but if there is no feedback… Not like Degas and other artists who ate Algarve sultanas while they were alive and whose work was not fully appreciated until after they died. It all still makes sense to me and gives me a certain happiness, a certain high. There is one thing life has taught me, what is important in a good designer: a designer needs to have knowledge and has to have experiences, has to have desires and explore the senses, absolutely all of them without exception. And I have had time to try them all, from careful observation. I am extremely sensitive to smells, to the feel of objects, fabrics, people, all life, vision, the eyes through which we see life, always open to everything… My life has been spent exploring all the senses, being passionate about everything. Even personally: I only conceive of passion when I explore everything. And knowledge, being cultured, reading a lot. I began reading Tolstoy when I was 10, and I am very proud of that. To me, fashion is knowledge and experience of all of nature. It is being able to say: “I am all here.”
The phrase “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” is very Manuel Alves.
I am very simple. I like to hug my dogs, eat sardines with beans and rice or head north to see the concertina dancers, which I love with all my heart, just like I enjoy listening to classical music, to the Velvet Underground, Underworld and Arcade Fire. (He shows us his tattoo, which is the title of a song by a Canadian band: Everything now). It is living for the now. I am very demanding, I want everything now and afterwards… afterwards I still want it. If I could I would be a brute eating, dancing, eating, fucking, dancing, working. Everything in excess.
Everything but the way you dress.
Ah, but this is because consumerism does not interest me. I make a point of having things that bring emotion into my life and which reassure me: objects, art, a beautiful house. I worry about my well-being, about my daily life, but when I share I do so with great generosity. You know, during my childhood I was denied a lot of things. So, it is very important for me to be everything for others, and when I do something, I do it seriously, because it gives me pleasure, until I am wasteful: when I am full and everything is in excess. It is a way I found to appease myself: is it or isn’t it. I am a guy wracked with fears, but in the midst of all this, I think I am quite tough.
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