Hope is All We Need

Hope begins where new generations of designers think about and build a new world. Here we take a look at António Castro and Maria Carlos Baptista, with whom we chatted about the future and the collections they created on their own in lockdown and presented via video.

Words: Patrícia Barnabé

António Castro

Born in Lisbon in 1993, at the age of 18 he went to London to study textile design at the renowned Central Saint Martins, following in the footsteps of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Stella McCartney and even PJ Harvey. He interned with Lidija Kolovrat in Lisbon in 2012 and with Trend Union/Li Edelkoort in Paris in 2017, where he lived for three years and worked in the artisan fabrics department of the Maison Margiela: “John [Galliano] and Margiela are my main inspiration, it was an enriching experience.” Starting as an assistant, he was then placed in charge of embroidery and feathers, eventually being called on to help with other collections from this iconic label. At the same time, he hand-weaved the London-based John Alexander Skelton collections, and it was to the capital of the UK that he returned to study for his master’s degree in fashion design with a L’Wren Scott Scholarship.

We spoke a day after he presented his collection at the Saint Martin’s finalists’ show, which is not for everyone. And he was still finishing off things at college before crossing London to get home. Because of lockdown, he had to show his work via Zoom — a format that is natural to him and which he has used twice at ModaLisboa. He wants to create a type of pagan ritual inspired by the Caretos of Podence, declared an intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO, an initiation for pubescent boys, “a symbol of fertility and of hope,” where dressed in scary masks and carrying rattles they take to the street at night to mark the winter solstice. He called it “Initiation for the Boys,” but “I wanted to play with that idea and talk about gender. I’m not thinking about the gender of what is worn, just that it looks good,” he explains. While he was thinking about the collection, he travelled to the north of Portugal to meet up with António Pinelo Tiza, an academic who studies the caretos: “I love the fact that the church has not managed to destroy this ancient ritual, but has instead assimilated it, and it is fascinating how it survived the New State.”

In the film in which he presents the collection, he imagined “boys taking part in the ritual, which was becoming increasingly flamboyant: the sexual tension, a dance that is transformed into a party — and they are becoming ever more feminine, in an idea of physical transformation, of undressing and play.” One of the main inspirations was Mademoiselle Beaumant, “who was a spy in Britain and who dressed as a woman. Europe’s first trans,” and a painting of Maria Antoinette in which she is on horseback and dressed as a man, “so some skirts are trousers, and vice-versa.” Everything was recorded on a mobile phone and computer, including the backgrounds. “It was a beautiful experience.”

Because of lockdown, António created “in the mirror,” from the curtains to the patterns, “everything made on my body, which made it special.” He used his tools of choice, where his love of haute couture stands out — “It’s my kingdom, but I want it in more accessible pieces” — to experimentation and crafting — “when you’re sewing it’s chaos, it’s rags and rags!” and to recycling and collaboration. So the masks were made or bought from artisans in northern Portugal, the weaves are made from leftovers thread from British factories that he dyed and sent to an artisan in the Azores, who made typical Portuguese quilt patterns, and for the embroidery he contacted Ritex, a factory in Italy. He also continued the work he was already doing with Levi’s 501s that he unpacks, cuts, re-stitches and embroiders, and for patterns he used whatever enticed him, such as images of dried flowers that a friend in the hospital sent him. Then he worked on the digital prints “which gives [my work] a freshness.” He also made corsets from vintage items, including one of his grandmother’s dresses, men’s shirts and catholic draperies that he bought from a “dealer” in Estremoz, “just to add that little bit of drama.” And slit dresses: “They are super sensual, mysterious and revealing.” It’s a trip to hear him talk about his creative process while he shows us every detail on screen.

He won the L’Oréal Creative Award, which he described as “a surprise that I’m still trying to process.” At college he did some group work for Louis Vuitton and entered a competition launched by Tod’s in 2020, and rethought his classic Gommino driving shoes that were inspired by Italian Baroque and the Trevi Fountain scene in La Dolce Vita. He photographed his version in front of Lisbon’s Fonte Luminosa during the early days of lockdown. Now he would like to develop his brand “slowly and solidly, because the type of product I’m interested in is somewhat niche. But I would also like to be able to create commercially successful products,” at the same time as working for other houses and doing consultancy: this is his immediate future as he sees it. He likes it in London, where “there is an intangible desire for progress, exclusivity and success that feeds every area, including the creative industry. Despite the shockingly expensive cost of living, there is a spirit of resilience that I like, a neo-punk attitude. I like the idea of DIY and of individuality.” He also has praise for the group work he was involved with at university — “so honest and disarming and hopeful,” he says with a glance at the subject of our magazine.

“The system is not going to change much after the pandemic,” he opines. “There will be small shifts that will be processed by the coming economic crisis.” He likes the idea of making fewer and higher quality collections, “its what I expect the system will accept, that there will be no pressure to prepare for a runway show when this can be a film or a fashion shoot.” For him, this new life on the internet has the advantage that it gives everyone access to the collections. His greatest hope is that he will have even more freedom in his work “with this idea of hands-on, of total involvement” and in a community: “The lady weaver in the Azores in her 70s, the gentleman of the masks in the north sold them to me through his daughter’s WhatsApp, while the university lecturer was very generous in showing me around Bragança. It was very rewarding.”

Maria Carlos Baptista

She was born in 1991 in Coimbra, a city of students, rock ‘n’ roll and coquetterie, where “people get dressed up to go to the shops,” she tells us as she laughs down the phone. And Maria, who never had any problems “leaving the house dressed as I was,” started wearing black when she was 13: a taste she inherited from her “always elegant” mother. One day she realised that she “was not being revolutionary, and that she was the odd one out” and that “while austere,” black “was very comfortable: a refuge.” She grew up admiring the “anti-fashion” designers of the 1980s and 1990s, like Yohji Yamamoto, and then discovered the more “arty” collections “with the best fashion poses” of those times.

She always wanted to be a dancer, and attended ballet classes from an early age. “I wanted to invest everything into it. I did all the training there was, I taught classes and I loved the direct connection of the creative side with the body, the ideas and how what I was feeling could be expressed with the body,” she says. She studied for a degree in dance at the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa’s Escola Superior de Dança, to which she dedicated herself fully. It was “a lot of work, discipline, method, your head had to be well for your body to be well. Discipline is an extremely complex art. In fact, as a person, if something is out of control, I’m all over the place, a bit lost.” This demanding culture began with her study of Russian ballet and “came to reveal itself in my work.”

Her dreams of a life on stage were shattered following a serious injury and two hernias. They told her she could still teach, but that she would never be a professional dancer. “I would have to take extra care to keep my spine straight. It would have been very difficult. My body began to protect itself, and I had to accept it and find a new way to express myself.” She stopped dancing, gave lessons and looked for other things to do. “I am not happy doing things by half measures.” And, to be honest, she always liked clothes. “For me, it was always a passion,” so at the age of 26 she enrolled in a technical fashion design course at Modatex in Lisbon. She thought about working for a fashion magazine, creating productions, styling, because she also liked photography. “Fashion was an area in which I could express myself in so many ways, but I never thought I would make clothes.” She joined Portugal Fashion’s Bloom programme for new talents and, once again, got stuck in. “I put a lot of myself in it. I have been very creative since I was very small. I made collages…and these days fashion involves so much. It’s so much work: selecting fabrics, imagining pieces, making patterns, hours of sewing. I discovered I love sewing.”

In this virtual edition of Portugal Fashion she presented Espaço Negativo (Negative Space), “a continuation of Bloom,” an extension of the basic premise of her work; that is, of the polarities she plays with, creating contrasts between textures and revealing shapes: feminine and masculine, the fluidity and rigidity, the transparency and opacity of the materials. She loves masculine trousers and tight blazers as much as she likes dresses and the elongated silhouettes that define the female body and mark the waist, just as she loves exaggerating details, certain collars that accentuate a more austere silhouette.

It’s clear that dance is in the fashion she began designing, “the search for silhouettes is linked very much to dance, the longilineal image, the concern with fluidity, the movement of the clothes that is a consequence of the movement of the body and which is very important.” And she seems to want to recover that memory of the more performative fashion of the 1990s, and praises, among others, Issey Mihake’s accordion dresses. “There are so many possibilities in that sense that bring the two areas together.”

Her collection was presented on a video she recorded in Paris, in a bright setting that nonetheless suggests a certain abandonment. It reminds us of the choreography in a video of Rosa Danst Rosas by the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. She laughs, as she was not aware of this. “I create things and then I realise where they come from! I try, as far as possible, to keep my distance from what’s going on so that I am not influenced by it.” The artistic director of that video was Miguel Flor, while the styling was by Isabel Branco (“there is no better team”), and came from a dream that Maria had in which coordination with this environment made sense: the light and “the sounds and everyday noises around us” that seemed even more evident during the silence of quarantine. “We are conditioned in life and have to face our internal problems: the routine, the daily drudge, the repetition, being in several places at once, but in a suspended space, with memories and sensations of the moment we no longer have,” she adds. In the midst of this austerity one can see the poetically positioned white flowers. “The fact that the models carried them in the space, enveloping them with their bodies, gave them life and a little hope.”

Maria Carlos believes in the mission of new designers and in adapting to new forms of consumption with the conscientiousness of a creative’s work: “it’s better to invest in a quality piece than in ten others. We have to work in a more sustainable fashion, to be really radical in the hope of mitigating some of the damage we have done to the planet. The challenge will be to find what we like and what we are, but without the thirst for trends, collections and new things that are entirely empty and without content.” Her collection suggests a certain solitude: the solitude with which she made this collection. “I spent a long time alone in Lisbon.” She imagined styling her body and was only with people during the fitting. “I had no idea that I would miss human contact so much. I spent a long time without any hugs, without any references.” Because of this, her dream is for a future with greater social respect and greater respect for the arts. “Let’s realise just how much we need them. I hope humanity moves in that direction. It’s so scary to see people glued to their phones: it’s an illness! I’m inspired by people, and Espaço Negativo was born of their absence. “We sorely miss being together, which is the most important thing of all.”

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