Ten Years of Luís Carvalho

Interview: Joana Moreira
Photos: Vânia Carneiro

On the Portuguese fashion scene, not every designer makes it to 10 years of uninterrupted collections. In uncertain times, resistance is a cause for celebration.

Less than 24 hours from premiering his new collection on the ModaLisboa catwalk, Luís Carvalho is on schedule and showing admirable calm. The designer from Vizela, with his own brand since 2013, understands well how important being organised has been for his successful decade. He has two Portuguese Golden Globes, his own shop and atelier, the recognition of his peers, and a faithful clientele. There are good reasons to celebrate, but nothing that phases him. “I’m a designer one week per year. The rest of the time I’m being a manager, pattern-making, cutting fabric, carrying boxes,” he freely admits. “I’ve always had my feet planted firmly on the ground.” In this interview, Luís Carvalho talks about the legacy of Portuguese fashion, business sustainability, the stigma that comes with dressing celebrities, the relevance of catwalk shows and the dreams still waiting to be achieved.

Q: Is there a legacy in Portuguese fashion?

A: There are a few. Manobras de Maio, ModaLisboa and Portugal Fashion are one legacy of our fashion scene. They were — and two still are — events which have marked Portuguese fashion, and have sustained it to this very day, allowing for a legacy or for names to be made in the history of fashion in Portugal.

Q: In what way has this history influenced you creatively?

A: ModaLisboa, to me, is an institution and a reference. Certain designers have also influenced my way of working when I created my own brand.

Q: Designers with whom you’ve worked closely, such as Filipe Faísca and Ricardo Preto, or do you mean those who’ve influenced and inspired you from the sidelines?

A: Both. There are those who have inspired me, in terms of my creativity and personal taste. Filipe Faísca has been a major reference for me. When I began working with him, he wasn’t a designer I got, just like that, but he was one I learned to understand, and admire deeply to the point where he became a reference to me. He helped me understand how everything worked, in terms of the business, for me to then create my own brand.

Q: This year, the Luís Carvalho brand celebrates ten years. What legacy do you hope to leave as a designer?

A: My legacy may be the way I built up my business, and its rapid evolution. Ten years ago I created a brand and it grew fast. Suddenly, people could spot my pieces without checking out the label. That’s what I like about what I do: having this identity, where people identify with my work, just as I identify with the work of colleagues of mine.

Q: What role do you think you play in establishing a legacy for Portuguese fashion?

A: I play a part just as others do, which is having managed to build a career, although the word career is not one I particularly like…

Q: It’s been ten years…

A: Yes, ten years to celebrate, with all the hardship of building, and principally maintaining a brand, that it entails. It’s what has stood me in good stead alongside my peers: the hard work of maintaining continuity in this very small country.

Q: In the last year, we’ve seen the fashion calendar become ever more erratic. It’s not a given that a designer will be showing this season or the next. In the last few months, household portuguese designers have closed their shops or changed their business model. What’s your take on the state of portuguese fashion at the moment?

A: I’ll just keep doing what I do and have done since the very first day: fathoming out my path and seeing if I need to take any detours to keep going. We’re here one minute, and gone the next. There’s always a new kid on the block and people easily forget, so we must keep on putting in the work. I do what I can to keep the brand at the level I’ve risen to.

Q: Is it still worthwhile to present a collection every six months?

A: For me, it is. I need the collection to get the word out and sell, I need money to work all year long, even with all the other mediums which get people to notice my brand, like dressing public figures. It still makes sense for me to show, and tell my stories in this way. It’s what makes the brand recognisable, and it’s through the collections that people understand the brand and where it’s going. If I look back at my collections from the first few years, obviously the identity is there, but I’ve since moved on.

Q: In the collection for spring-summer 2024, Shelter 2.0, you revisit your first-ever collection and the first pieces that were stamped with the brand’s DNA, such as the bomber jackets. Is it important to take the time to look back?

A: Yes. I do this every season, before I get started.

Q: There’s no cringe factor in looking back at the past?

A: Yes, but I use this to my benefit. It’s why I do it. To look and realise: “this is cool”. Or understand that at the time it didn’t work.

Q: What do you mean by “didn’t work”? It didn’t sell?

A: I’m always selling the last thing I think is going to sell. It’s the weird stuff that sells fastest [laughs]. People look for something different. When I say it didn’t work, I mean something that visually I didn’t like, or when the concept was supposed to be one way, but it didn’t work out exactly as I intended, either because of the materials, or a lack of time. I also look back to try to get better from one collection to the next.

Q: It’s rare to see a red carpet withou someone wearing Luís Carvalho. In the last 10 years, have you ever worried about being pigeon-holed as a “designer to the stars”?

A: It’s a preconceived notion I’m always dealing with. People have a thing against dressing celebrities. But why do I have to be different from all the other designers abroad who do the same, and it isn’t a problem? Why does it have to be this way here? If it’s a Portuguese red carpet moment, we’re not supposed to use a Portuguese designer? My business is split into two, what’s custom-made and the online store. If 50 to 60% of my brand revenue is custom-made, clients who dress up for a special event, why wouldn’t I go for it? Why is that a problem? Can’t fashion dress on the red carpet? I feel this stigma intensely, but I don’t let it get to me because I have fun doing what I do, and if it’s fun then more power to me.

Q: Without ever turning your back on the catwalk.

A: No, it’s what I do. Obviously, the red carpet is important for the brand, and this has helped it get to where it is today, and stay there. I try not to cheapen or sell out the brand, by getting involved in things that aren’t its style. I try to maintain my identity and work with people who are the right fit for me. But the most important thing is to tell my story twice a year at ModaLisboa.

Q: A little while ago, you mentioned business. With the current state of the homegrown fashion business, is there increasingly the need for a designer to also be an entrepreneur?

A: Of course. Either you pay someone to take care of this so you can focus on the creative side, or you have to figure it out for yourself. I’ve recently been saying I’m Luís Carvalho’s assistant because I’m everything but a designer. I’m a designer, if we count the days, one week per year, because the rest of the time I’m managing everything, creating pattern-making, cutting fabrics, carrying boxes, and busy doing everything but being creative. We have to know every angle, and sometimes that’s a problem. If we don’t sell, or understand how to manage the brand, then its days are numbered. We need money to keep working.

Q: Over the brand’s last ten years, when did this become clear to you?

A: From the get-go. This is also one of the secrets to the brand’s success, and its staying power. I’ve always had my feet planted firmly on the ground. Besides being my dream job and my life, it’s also a business and I have to make money from it. Of course there are highs and lows, but the pandemic was also a great help when it came to understanding all kinds of things.

Q: What impact did the pandemic have on the brand?

A: The brand got ten times better after the pandemic.

Q: Why?

A: People were spending a lot of time at home, and they had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the brand, seek it out and get to know me better. They got to know the brand, bought it, and now are still my buying customers. The Globes also helped, dressing public figures… There are very distinct pre- and post-pandemic phases.

Q: At the creative or business level?

A: Business. My brand began shifting more units after the pandemic hit. Not the first six months, it’s true, which were difficult for everyone, no one was buying clothes to stay home. But the post-pandemic phase was very positive. I don’t like to shout it too loud [he knocks on the table, a portuguese gesture to send the bad luck away].

Q: How do you juggle innovation with the desire to maintain an identity, every season?

A: My goal when I show is, above all, for the collection to be commercial. Then there are the more eccentric pieces which help to tell the story.

Q: Ten years later, you’re still based in Vizela, where you’re from. You never wanted to move your atelier or open a store in Lisbon?

A: No. In Lisbon, it’s all much more difficult. I don’t hide this from anyone, and haven’t from the very first moment I opened my shop. In Vizela, my business and personal life are completely sustainable. To do the same there would be 4 or 5 times more expensive. Having my studio, a shop, someone working for me, my personal life…

Q: Are you the proof you don’t have to be based in Lisbon to be a success?

A: People come all the way from Barcelona to get wedding dresses made, they come from Lisbon… It’s never been a problem. Whoever buys Portuguese fashion does so because they like it. And if they like it, they will come.

Q: How do you see the next ten years of the brand?

A: I’d like it to keep growing. I won’t lie, I’d like to still be here in ten years, and have an atelier on such-and-such a street in Lisbon. I’d like to have my own space here. And of course, show abroad. That’s everyone’s dream, but we all know the reality of the world we live in. I’d either have to work for an international brand as a designer, or have a lot of money to show there and be seen. I’ve had shows in Paris two or three times, but we’re just one more face in the crowd, and don’t stand out like the big designers do. A lot of money is needed to invest in publicity and create a buzz. Otherwise, it makes no sense. I have to be realistic. But of course, I’d love to show in Paris.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.

Top 3 Stories