Rock ‘n’ Roll Fashion

Words: Patrícia Barnabé
Photos: Portugal Fashion

Isabel Branco saw the birth of Portuguese fashion and has been pushing it on and supporting it from behind the scenes with a mix of good taste and rebellion. All to ensure that creativity and modernity shine.

She is lying on a terrace in the Estrela Park in the early morning, and blends in with the scenery. We always meet like this, without time or effort, discrete and attentive, crossing paths in the corridors of the fashion weeks. Isabel Branco is a talent behind the scenes, she is everywhere but the vanity fair, which is something rare and admirable in this field at this time. She likes to pass unnoticed behind the curtain at other people’s shows, but the story of Portuguese fashion cannot be written without her name. No-one believes she is 68, just like we don’t believe that everything was still to be done when she came to fashion. She is of the generation that made everything happen, and so her reserve seeks words to describe it. Also for this reason, designers look for her aesthetic and demanding scan to ensue everything is in order before going on the catwalk.

Her love for fashion began in the cinema. She has had a production company for fifteen years and has been around the block: from production to set design, from wardrobe to art direction, and she continues to do it. She says, “fashion happened to her,” which is unusual in a country with no heritage of style. At the same time, she raised six children, including twins who are now 45 (one of them is the writer João Tordo) and another four boys who were born a decade later. At one time she was a freelancer with Elle: “With so many young children and so many things, I had to choose — and I chose fashion. And because I like it so much, I’m still doing it,” she says with a smile. She was 21 when the 25 April revolution took place. “It was extraordinary, a wonderful thing to see and experience. Something new happened every day: a demonstration, a play, a performance.” She is a daughter of this time and of this new country. And she had the fortune to be born into a family “where you make your own way, your own choices, because freedom is everything.”

And those not paying attention ask: “who is Isabel Branco?” She is one of the first stylists, before such a thing had been conceived. She wrote editorials in Elle, Máxima and other magazines and is head of production behind the scenes at national fashion weeks. She began as a model: “Many years ago, when I was 18, Brian McCartney opened a modelling school. I was tall and pretty and I started modelling there.” This was in the 1970s, when “the fashion shows began to appear, and there were no agencies, we all phoned up for a job, there were few of us, and the atmosphere was nice. It was the start of it all, after all! I think my whole life I have been, almost always, at the start of it all: the start of modelling, of fashion magazines and fashion shows. I started with Ana Salazar.” And with Manual Reis, the visionary owner of Frágil and Lux (“he had all those ideas and a vision that was at least twenty years ahead of his time. He was very important in my life”), she coordinated “two fantastic shows” by Manuela Gonçalves of the Loja Branca, a pioneer of the more “arty” fashion. “Enormous, magnificent. It was the beginning of the big shows”. During the 1990s, Isabel Branco was a part of the association that created ModaLisboa and joined Portugal Fashion when this became international. “The beginning is always super exciting and full of adrenaline. There were also lots of mistakes. It is hard work, even more so in a country with neither the culture nor the cultural tools to help us. We had absolutely nothing. Back when I started working at Elle, there was nowhere to go to dress the models! It was difficult. You want to get some Louis Vuitton? There was none. Gucci? There was none. You had to get them from France, or you made your productions there. I learned a lot. When you arrived there, there was a warehouse full of shoes in any colour you wanted.”

Isabel moved to Paris on her own with just two suitcases of clothes, many by Portuguese creatives, and breathed in the new air. “You bring all your knowledge, even makeup and hair techniques. When I arrived there and said: ‘You don’t do it like this!’ or ‘You don’t need so much foundation!’ and then there was an argument, people didn’t like it, did they? ‘Enough of this mania!’” she laughs. “But it was an attempt to internationalise, to learn more.” At Elle, Isabel Branco was also responsible for inaugurating each season a production with only Portuguese designers, which became a classic for the magazines. “The French [from Hachette, the owners of Elle] hated it,” she laughs. “Qu’est que c’est ça?!” But at the time, Elle was pretty much the image of Paris, and of the editorials we were doing; we needed a Portuguese identity.” She caught a break in the production of Moda, which suited her: “Everything was very sexy. I loved it. I even loved the peri-peri. Why not nude? And suddenly there was a woman with a lot to say!” It came from the Paris school of sensuality, and the look of a woman on the body of another woman, with less pose and more bone, more skin, more rock ‘n’ roll. “Yes, I was a rock ‘n’ roll stylist,” she says, smiling. “Music was very important in my life,” although her main inspiration was, naturally, cinema. She stopped writing fashion articles and concentrated on the shows. “Because that’s the way it is. One day things come to an end, and I recognised the end and accepted it. Now, perhaps the only magazines that interest me are Prinçipal, by Miguel Flor, the last one I did, because it is so alternative that it is a big challenge, because I am not alternative; and Portuguese Soul by Paulo Gonçalves, which is not afraid to use sensuality and sex. I adore this. Sometimes it’s almost super interesting porn: it is an act of courage. Those who practice sex know how to see its subtlety in the images. It is necessary to be fearless. I had this schooling, and many windows of opportunity to try things and to experiment. And this is excellent, now I can be here at peace in the Estrela park.”

She was ModaLisboa’s first production director. “I coordinated everything with Eduarda [Abbondanza] and Mário [Matos Ribeiro]: from the choice of location to set design, which was by Manuel Reis, obviously,” the creatives and the hours entered, the casting, the backstage teams. “All that management was a difficult machine,” she recalls. Later, because of her long experience and good taste, the creatives began seeking her advice. She has been seen backstage with José António Tenente, Maria Gambina, Miguel Vieira, Luís Buchinho, Nuno Baltazar, Alexandra Moura, Diogo Miranda, Pedro, putting their heads together at key moments. “I only got involved in the parades of those I loved and believed in. Full stop. You don’t invade the creative act. It’s months of work and you cannot waste a minute. In those four hours you have to do everything to get it all together: what you want from the hair and makeup, and the order of the pieces, sending them to get dressed, get their hair and makeup done, define the choreography, rehearse, ‘this is no good, who’s coming?’ It’s a mass of confusion and is very difficult for a designer to do it on their own. They did not have the assistants they have today.” Designers are her big cause: “I have a lot of affection for them. The life of a designer is very tough. I see them create a collection, and most of them have nowhere to sell them, so they sell them to their friends and use the money to create another collection. They are extraordinary. It is not a business model: it is survival. You have the talent, so you do this. Designer fashion that is sold to those who understand, like a painting.”

When she went to Portugal Fashion in 1998 it launched its first Brazilian edition, where she manages the shows to this day. Although there are increasingly different ways to show the collections, Isabel believes the fashion show is everything and that it cannot disappear. “They are ten unique minutes! When you have the perfect model, makeup and clothes one after the other, you immediately understand, the walk, the lights, the music, the rhythm, these things together exist nowhere else, only in a theatre play or a dance performance. You live that moment… There are shows, and it is not unusual, you understand, that in the end they make me cry. It may not be a fantastic collection, but it is what we all achieve together. It is a huge pleasure. For me, the fashion show is fashion.”

Isabel’s eyes brighten when we speak of her trade. “Fashion is one thing… Now it is very difficult — it always was — but it is everything: the people, the colours, the texture, the shape,” she recites, lost in thought. In this era of dispersion and the banalisation of the internet, “you have to search for the talent within you and push it to the top,” she says. “Before Covid it was the commercial aspect, suddenly you see ideas and say: ‘Wow! Extraordinary!’” Fashion was “very much up there.”

What keeps Isabel Branco going in such a difficult environment? “I have never lost interest in fashion: I love doing this. What keeps me going is the look of the designers and the fashion shows… It’s not about going to Milan or Paris, I don’t even like travelling that much, but it is that look, those collections, that common passion, the love of things and of making things happen. You know? Fashion is normally ahead of its time, anticipating what is coming, and that is super exciting. What keeps me going is the visionary side of some designers who give me this view of things and keep me alive. And then there is a beauty in fashion… it is food for the soul.”

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