· Adorned with dreams · Style with substance · Ethical fashion with big dreams
Words: Patrícia Barnabé Portrait: Frederico Martins Catwalk photos: Ugo Camera Backstage photo: Pedro Leote
The face of a new generation of Portuguese fashion, Joana Duarte began by creating delicate pieces from vintage trousseaux. Today, her fledgling brand Behén works with artisans from all over the country to create a fantasy, feminine wardrobe.
She went to London to do her Master’s, and it was there that she began to ask herself what the role of the designer was. “First and foremost, to be a problem solver. How is it that we are creating products that only add to the problem?” Meaning the carbon footprint fashion leaves, something that was as much a concern to her as finding her niche in a world as competitive as it was enchanting. “I had an existential crisis, where I believed I no longer identified with the fashion industry,” she tells us, sitting in her atelier in Poço dos Negros, in the heart of Lisbon. So she went to Jaipur for three months to focus on “ethical production and working with local communities.” There she came across the practice of reusing old fabrics, such as family saris, an idea that she would later apply to the trousseaux lying dormant in Portuguese wooden chests, and thus welcome Behén into the world.
Born into a family of collectors, from an early age she began to go to antique fairs and rifle through family drawers, while her grandmother would tell her stories for hours on end. “She’d take me to our neighbours to show me who-knows-what,” she laughs. One day they went together to a fair where Joana stumbled upon a very special quilt: “I never again found one so beautiful as that one was.” That was her “Aha!” moment: “Wait a minute, these pieces are already out there somewhere, maybe I can transform them?” She knocked on door after door in search of a seamstress in Aveiras de Cima, who then recommended others.
Her atelier has the look of a traditional Portuguese living room, “like being in my grandmother’s house,” she says. Doilies on charming second-hand furniture, stuffed with knick-knacks that we peruse behind glass doors, handmade pieces, “this stepladder came from my 90-year-old neighbour,” the chairs from her mother’s wedding, the table and rug from a “vintage shop in Santarém.” The wooden hangers on which she hangs her pieces were given to her by neighbours in her grandmother’s building.
She is always on the hunt for more trousseaux, many showing up at fairs or auctions, or via word-of-mouth, or someone sends her a message saying they have old linen embroidered sheets, or they’d send photos during the pandemic. “It’s not the same as buying a few metres of fabric somewhere, the people tell me their entire life stories, and send me huge voice messages! They even come here just to chat, and I love it! If I could, I would set up an archive full of all these stories.”
Joana would look at her younger sisters and soon realised that they “weren’t at all interested in things like this, not one bit.” Behén is a way to bring this finely-detailed and diligent world “to the younger generations, through fashion. So if I were to show at a fashion week, would it then be considered cool?” She launched Behén in March 2020, with just six looks on ModaLisboa’s Workstation platform, and she’s now a permanent fixture. During the pandemic she streamed her collection, also at London Fashion Week, but “Behén has a story to tell, it needs a runway show.”
Joana Duarte makes her looks in small quantities, and the majority of her pieces have the luxury of being custom-ordered, but she does also sell in high street stores in cities like Toronto and Miami. “The follow-up is very on point, our communication strategy is very different from most brands, people really have to get where we’re coming from.” What she really needs is more time, in a world running at the speed of the internet. “Time to do research; I like sitting down and talking to people, and embroidery or crochet work takes forever!” For this reason, some of her lovely blouses can retail for as much as €400. At heart, and at just 27 years of age, she hopes her delicate pieces take us back to a more innocent, romantic time that it seems we have lost.
These days, her original concept has evolved and she now works with craftspeople and communities “with the traditional expertise that is being forgotten. For example, it’s practically impossible to find someone these days who makes homemade quilts” and so each new collection involves yet more hard work. “There’s also a learning curve when it comes to the Portuguese market.” For now, her focus is on working with Portuguese craftspeople, embroiderers from Madeira, the Azores and Viana do Castelo, who all have different techniques. In her latest runway shows, she also featured Portuguese weaving and rug-making. “This is a concept that in the future can go global.”
A committed vegetarian and humanist, some of her pieces are made with zero waste: a shawl which drapes across the body, small lavender pillows and leftover patchwork holdalls, even the linings of pieces being made from old cotton or linen sheets, and the fleece of some recent collections from old damaged jackets found on the internet. “It’s a shame that more people don’t get it,” she says. Because of her incredible creations, the American embassy awarded her a female entrepreneur’s grant, which has paid the rent of her atelier-boutique for a year, and allowed her to invest more in her work with local communities. Also, this year, Fashion Revolution helped her work with Amazigh women in the Anti-Atlas mountains of Morocco, alongside French brand Memory Studio. The project is called Small But Perfect and you can find out more at www.small-but-perfect.com
What’s more, part of the profits goes to a Syrian family, something she has made sure to do since the very beginning, thanks to her passion for volunteer work. She took a family in a refugee camp near Lebanon under her wing. “It’s easier if someone buys one of my pieces and x percent goes towards this project, rather than giving money directly. I don’t believe people should live on handouts forever, so what I’d like to do is help families like these find their feet. I know Amina can sew, for example, so I’d like to start an embroidery project.”
Behén was the name that came to mind one day, when she was in the company of her sisters — it means “sister” in Hindi. “I was keen for it to have a link to India and represent the women who have surrounded me in this project. All these women, my grandmother, mother, aunt, neighbours, the heirs to the trousseaux, the seamstress, the lady who crochets or the embroiderer who is more than 100 years old and has a collection of handkerchiefs from her boyfriends…” Joana listens to all their stories and shares them later with her customers, when they buy that unrepeatable item. “For me, the emotional connection to the piece is really important.”
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