Ernest W. Baker was an advertising man in Detroit, who wore perfectly-tailored suits and maybe, just maybe, a rose in his lapel. That’s how I picture him, because it’s impossible to step into Ernest W. Baker’s world without placing a rose somewhere in the portrait. This elegant man was grandfather to Reid Baker, one half of the brand founded with Inês Amorim that has adopted the rose as its main symbol. In 2017, this name — of a real human being — also became the name of a brand… for a menswear range that is today sold around the world, a case of Portuguese fashion flying off the shelves globally.
Interview: Margarida Brito Paes Portrait: Frederico Martins Photos: Vladimir Kaminetsky Styling: Mauricio Nardi
Q: How did Ernest W. Baker begin?
A: We were both studying in Milan. While in Milan, we’d already come up with an idea for the brand; we’d always wanted to start our own, and we were already thinking about what it might look like. The experience of living in Milan, walking the streets and seeing the style of the locals, helped us come up with the brand’s spirit and concept. We also wanted something familiar and personal, so that’s why we chose the name of Reid’s grandfather. We wanted to give a family feel, something authentic that reflected our culture. At the heart of the brand is our family, where it all began, and that’s what Ernest W. Baker means to us.
Q: What was it about Ernest W. Baker that epitomised this spirit and style?
A: Ernest W. Baker, when we were launching the brand, was a major point of reference, also because he was a self-made man who started his advertising business, while also being a family man. We identified with that in a big way, and loved the classic sound of his name too. You don’t need to know him in person to get a sense of where we’re coming from. We also liked the idea of taking such a classic name and turning it into something more contemporary, more day-to-day, with one eye on the past but both eyes on the present and future.
Q: Your brand has taken an interesting path, because you were recognised internationally before becoming a household name in Portugal. Why did you take that path, and how did it happen?
A: At that time we were based abroad, but to create and make our brand a long-term prospect, we thought Portugal was the place to be thanks to its home-grown industry. It was a decision we took when we were nominated for the LVMH award. We were working with major designers that were based in Portugal, and we were living abroad while getting our pieces made in Portugal, and it’s very difficult to work under those circumstances. When you love what you do, you want to see the work, you want to make sure things are being done right, and being separated by such a long distance is tough. Being in Portugal opens all kinds of doors, and it broadens one’s creative options greatly.
Q: One of the problems here in Portugal is precisely the low production quantities, which often make it impossible for young designers to tap into the industry. Was it easy for you to find a factory to work with?
A: In the beginning it isn’t easy to find the right person, who is helpful and believes in the brand and is willing to invest their time. It’s a process, it takes time, and we went through all that. Today, we work with 7 or 8 different factories depending on the product, but finding each one took time. We worked with a particular factory one season and it wasn’t working out, so we changed to another; we have to aim high because factories tailored to young Portuguese designers do exist. I think this scenario is improving, factories are investing more and more in quality and not so much in quantity. We try to avoid factories that only think in big numbers and volumes. Commercially the brand is doing well, but we don’t sell in the kinds of numbers that some Portuguese factories are looking for.
Q: Do you think you can serve as an example to new designers and the industry also, demonstrating it is possible to undertake quality projects with Portuguese designers, even if the numbers are smaller?
A: It gives us great pride to be able to say that what we produce is 100% Portuguese, while selling in the best stores worldwide. It’s exciting to have our products sharing the racks with Gucci, Balenciaga, etc. and see people buying them thinking the quality is just the same. It’s great for Portugal, which can boost our image and bring in new clients. The question is finding the right partners for the job, and certainly, in that aspect, you could say we set an example for other brands. It can be really tough at first, but if you persist you’ll eventually find the right factory. I think there’s a factory for every brand in Portugal.
Q: How do people react when they find out the brand is Portuguese and made in Portugal?
A: It comes as a great surprise because unfortunately some people have a different idea of what “made in Portugal” is, so they’re taken aback by the quality. I think that’s the biggest shock. Of course, there’s the classic preconception that for our market, we have to be based in Paris, Milan or London. We’re also trying to break down that stereotype by saying we’re in Porto, a place where we can do whatever we want, and work with the best names in fashion.
Q: Your work is known for its consistency, in terms of design, as a menswear range that embraces classic style and tailoring. How do you ensure you’re being creative, so your brand doesn’t become predictable?
A: It’s difficult, menswear is very set in stone compared to women’s fashion, and even more so when it comes to the more commercial end. But from the get-go we always allowed ourselves to give free rein to our creativity, we’re an independent brand, and that energy is vital to doing whatever we want. That’s why, if we want to use pink, we use pink, because it feels right. In terms of cut, our bell-bottom trousers are what we sell the most, and people at first thought we were crazy to make those. If it feels right then we do it, we’re not afraid. For us, change comes in the colours and materials, in the techniques and patterning. Every season we manage to do something new, be it new prints, colours, textures, new sensations or new materials. We’re lucky to have a stellar network of suppliers, whose factories and materials are always an inspiration to us.
Q: You’re always on the lookout for new materials. How do you decide what to use? Is sustainability also something that’s important to you?
A: We work with the same fabric manufacturers, season after season, who we also encourage to stock newer, more sustainable materials. In the beginning, linen was the only option when it came to a sustainable material, along with soft fabrics, while we always liked textiles with a bit more body and tensile strength. We incentivised a Portuguese company to begin using rose fibre, and as the rose is also part of our visual identity, we wanted to use rose fibre in some fabrics. Besides, being in Portugal means it’s a lot easier to produce sustainably, be within easy reach of our suppliers, control production, and have very little waste. We always try to keep everything as close to home as possible.
Q: How did the rose become a symbol of the brand?
A: The rose symbolises power and delicacy, which to us is what the brand is about. That’s the dual nature of the rose: it’s beautiful, but it’s tough. You’ll notice that while our cuts are pleasing to look at, they’re also structured and tailored to perfection.
Q: What else is the brand known for besides the symbol of the rose?
A: Every season we go back to the same colour schemes of red and black, beige and brown. It ends up being a signature motif of ours; we have clients who mix and match different pieces with these colours, and everyone knows right away it’s us. Such motifs can be incorporated in different ways, to make sure our bell-bottoms, or our gloves, or certain models of eyewear, continue to be a reference; its the emphasis on little details which together are what make our brand stand out, and symbolise what we do in fresh ways. Putting our logo on our clothes is not enough.
Q: Can we say you’re obsessed with having a range of classics? You’ve launched a wallet with a unique design that you tweak from season to season. Is that one way to create a classic?
A: Yes, I think so. Similarly to how we created this iconic wallet, which ended up being a symbol of ours, and which we’re still working on, every season we add new motifs to the range. Every season, we incorporate new details, which will eventually be iconic for the brand. We also try to find something the market’s never seen before. Whenever we do, we like to tweak it until we have a brand classic on our hands.
Q: What was the creative process involved when you transitioned from clothing to accessories and jewellery?
A: Having nice accessories has always been very important to us, ever since we launched the brand, to help define our identity. From the beginning everything came so naturally and easily. It always made sense to us to have a jewellery line, because the men in Milan who inspired our first collection wore jewellery, from gold chains to signet rings. So for this reason, it was something that came naturally from the brand’s early days, easy and fun to do. It’s important for our brand look to be complete, to create the image of the person we visualise.
Q: And now you’re going to branch out into womenswear. Is it going to be a unisex collection very similar to what you already make, or is it going to have a noticeably feminine cut?
A: It’s going to be somewhere between the two. The look will be similar to our menswear line, but with a different cut, and there’ll be some new pieces too. The autumn collection will be the first with a line for women, which we’ll sell exclusively through SSENCE.
Q: The way you present collections is very distinct, because you never have a runway show but instead do a video presentation. Why is that?
A: The cinema is the first place we look when we begin working on our collections; we come up with a character for each season, and for that reason cinema is on our minds from the very beginning. I think it was for Paris Fashion Week two years ago when we took our first steps doing runway shows, but meanwhile, the pandemic happened and this changed the way collections were being presented to the public. So, the video transition came very naturally, and we liked it a lot. For this reason, we’ve carried on making these videos which have become very important to the brand. We’re not sure if the runway reflects our brand so effectively, even if everyone’s doing it and it’s what people expect. We have doubts about whether it’s right for us or not; so, only when we feel it’s right will we go ahead and do it. We like the movies.
Q: And how do people react in Paris above all, where they’re used to seeing a runway show? Do you think as many people watch them as if you were presenting on the runway?
A: For us, as a brand, it’s not just the work we put in; the art direction involved in presenting our work is just as important. In our view, the runway is rather one-dimensional, less involving; there’s already a predetermined concept and you know you going to see models up on a catwalk. A film is more complex. We can create a mood and do things that just aren’t possible on a runway. Of course, we come under a lot of pressure to do a runway show. If we end up doing it, we have to be sure we’ll do it on our own terms, in a way that reflects the brand and is not just another fashion show.
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