Sea Colours

Words: Margarida Brito Paes
Photos: Tomás Monteiro

A house in Ofir built on the dunes facing the ocean is largely the reason why blues and water-greens make an appearance in almost all of Ana Duarte’s collections. “I don’t know why I have this thing for the sea, I’ve been like this ever since I was little. Maybe because I spent many holidays with my grandparents at the beach house in Ofir. The sea is one of the most important things in my life, it is by the sea that I relax, and it is the sea that gives me energy”, the designer says.

This connection to salt waters as far as the eyes can see has ensured sea colours are her favourites, always and forever. Her creative colour palette has consistently, and naturally, inclined towards these tones, but always in the details. Only in the collection presented last March for ModaLisboa did Ana create a whole look that was the colour of sea mists. The collection took its inspiration from judo, a sport the designer took up at the age of four. She had long wanted to do something on this theme, but being so close to her heart, she had high expectations and she only felt ready to do it now that the brand had matured and had a well-defined identity. This identity began to come together in 2015, when she founded the brand, after having finished her Master’s degree in Menswear Design and Technology at the London College of Fashion.

“In London, everything was very much focused on business, professional networking and contacts. There you had to have a very solid concept, while here everything was less intense”. (Ana got her degree from Lisbon University’s Faculty of Architecture). “I also felt that while doing my Master’s, it was a lot less competitive than in Portugal. Anyone can design clothes, but designing clothes that tell a story isn’t so easy. Creating an identity takes time”, the designer tells us.

With her brand now eight years old, Ana Duarte has had plenty of time to give it her very own stamp, one that took shape over time and that today is very much indebted to the world of sports. Finding inspiration in different sports has been a constant for Duarte, and that makes it three collections in a row where they were the creative starting point. “Sport was always something that interested me a lot, and my grandfather also. I’ve been doing judo since I was four, it’s a lifestyle I like. There are many incredible details in sportswear, which have rarely made it into our day-to-day lives. Nowadays, there are more choices, but when I was growing up it was hard to find a balance. In college I had to design a collection that was a study in contrasts; at the time, I’d just had a go at skiing and I found it interesting to explore the contrast between the ski silhouettes, much more girly and feminine, and snowboarding silhouettes, which were super chill and baggy. I added certain details you see in the clothes for these sports, such as the back protectors for example, then from there it became very organic. The truth is, my collections haven’t always been inspired by sports, but they always find their way in there somehow; it’s something that really speaks to me”.

Detailing such as zippers, stitching and buttons are things which easily make the jump from the sports stadium to the street, but Ana takes it further and brings the ergonomics and comfort of utilitarian clothing to everyday life. “We always do the lifting arms and moving around test”, she explains simply, which involves inviting people with different bodies to be the guinea pigs. “My husband always comes to try on the clothes, when we are still at the design stage, to make any necessary adjustments. Besides this, we always try out S, M and L sizes, to see if it works across the board. The clothes have to be wearable, they’re something to be worn from day to day. I have a rule where I always wear at least one Duarte piece every day”, she reveals.

Before the design stage and the final models to ensure the clothes’ wearability, there’s a whole creative process that in the case of this designer begins not with sketching, but with prints. Daughter of a couple of architects, Ana Duarte grew up surrounded by sketchbooks, where her father drew whole cities by hand in a way that always fascinated her. Knowing that she would never be able to draw like her father, she devoted herself to more organic forms. Illustration was actually her first creative outlet, while still at college she would sell drawings for mugs and t-shirts. These days, she has published several books of her illustrations and incorporated some of her designs into the brand. “When I began to be on the lookout for different fabrics, naturally my prints were one option. The first print I made was quite abstract, but it was a way of telling my story. I started out with just a few printed pieces, people liked them, and always bought the outfits with prints, so I ended up producing more to meet demand. Today, prints are my starting point. I think of the concept and first I draw the print, and then I look for fabrics, depending on the pattern I’ve made”.

At this point, we are interrupted by Tadao, Ana Duarte’s dog, who’s already earned the name Salvador do Mundo (Saviour of the World), the inspiration of one of her collections. In this case, the designer created an entire comic strip, where this cocker spaniel had all kinds of adventures while saving planet Earth. Afterwards, the drawings were worked up on the computer, and she ended up with two different patterns. An incredible story that deserved to become a viral sensation, as was the case in 2018, when Sara Sampaio appeared wearing a Duarte sweater during Paris Fashion Week. #portuguesedoitbetter was the hashtag that went viral and changed the course of this home-grown brand. On a day like any other, Ana Duarte began to receive messages from friends asking if the red sweater, hand-knitted in a very thick thread, cut off at the chest and with a huge hood which Sara Sampaio was parading around in, in Paris, was not the one that Duarte had shown a year before. And indeed it was, the model having ordered the jersey from the brand several months, before wearing it during Paris Fashion Week between show-hopping. She didn’t immediately say what the brand was, but as soon as it went viral, Sara fessed up to the hundreds of people wanting to buy a matching sweater.

“It was truly awesome! But at a production level, it was tricky. The factory no longer made the thread, so we had to buy all the remaining yarn from the one we’d had made. At that time, it was my mother knitting them all, along with my friends’ mothers, everyone pitching in. We had lots of orders and each jersey took 10 hours to knit. We made about thirty sweaters, and we only stopped when we ran out of thread. We’re still getting requests to this day”.

This madness brought more international customers to the brand, opening it up to other markets. The United States, Italy and the United Kingdom were three of the countries receptive to the Duarte brand, which today has its eyes firmly fixed on going global. To make it happen, Ana Duarte is betting on international fairs, to get lines into multi-brand stores all over the globe. The investment has already begun to pay off, but given the public health and political situation, the designer believes this is the year when it should really get results.

This will be another step forward for a brand that also has creativity to spare for footwear. What began as a partnership for the Spring-Summer 2021 collection has gone to another level, Ana Duarte being the creative brain behind the designs for Exceed Shoe Thinkers. It’s yet another example of the designer starting back to front, since she first chooses the soles she wants for the shoes and only then thinks about the shapes to go on top.

A different approach, just like Ana had when she was a little girl and travelled with her parents, and while they admired the architecture, she took a look inside the buildings to see what people were wearing.

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