Ana Duarte is a well-grounded visionary. A paradox? Not really. She combines rational objective thinking with ambitious dreams that she projects in her designs. She wants men to feel sexy and comfortable in luxury sportswear and she is determined to make her name into a well established brand.
You were an honor board student while in high school, studied arts and finished school with a high GPA score and have parents who are architects. Did you always know you’ve wanted to be a fashion designer?
More or less. There were times when I was in doubt because I also liked Cinema and Multimedia Animation. But when I was little I used to say I would have my own brand, store and factory! I’ve always leaned towards fashion, even because my family history is related also to a textile factory. I also thought about pursuing architecture because of my family context but I’ve noticed that, when I travelled with my parents, they would look at the buildings and how they were made and I would look at people. That’s when I’ve realized I really liked fashion.
You are also an illustrator. You made these cool mugs and have work published in many different media. Do you think being an illustrator is also important for you as a fashion designer, to be able to better express your ideas?
Yes, a lot! I mean, even being an illustrator myself, I sometimes can’t really explain my ideas… I have colleagues, even from my Masters, that only used technical and digital programs to explain their designs and I realized they would sometimes get frustrated because they could’t get their idea through. During exams periods I would feel privileged because I would be able to explain my thoughts clearly.
You volunteered in ModaLisboa (Lisbon Fashion Week) and were a styling assistant for a Magazine. In what way did these experiences helped you develop as a designer?
I think it was important to have these experiences. When I volunteered in ModaLisboa I was allocated to working in “seating” and “backstage”. I was in my second and third year of college. It was useful to take a look at how the press reacted to the shows and how everything operates backstage. In college we don’t learn about these aspects of the fashion business and it is important to gain this kind of experience. In Maxim magazine I was assisting Nuno Lago, who was the stylist and it was useful to understand which type of clothes work best for publishing. As a designer, when I look at a piece of clothing I look for some details, but when you’re working as a stylist or in other type of environment you get to understand the different kinds of interpretation people have towards fashion. For example, I didn’t notice accessories a lot, and I’ve started gaining more awareness in what regards them when I worked as a styling assistant.
Do you think these experiences transformed the way you approach fashion design? The way you work?
I’m not sure. I think everything ends up being related intrinsically. But I noticed I started being much more aware of what happens in the publishing and press environments.
You’ve presented your work in exhibitions in both London and Lisbon. What do you think is different about presenting your work in an exhibition or in a fashion show?
The exhibitions have a problem: since the designers can’t be there all the time, we can’t have immediate feedback from people who have seen our work. Some people that are in the exhibition site can tell us what people thought, of course. When I showed my work in London I just went there to give them the pieces and then had to come back to Portugal, but I had some colleagues there that, for example, have told me a Star Wars director was there and liked one of my coats and tried it out, so my friends took a photo and sent me! You end up knowing the reactions but not through direct contact. Whereas in a show people come up to you and immediately tell you if they liked it, or which piece they like the most… Exhibitions are great for people to look closer to details. Shows are better to tell the whole story of the collection.
We’re in a digital social media era. Do you think social media is important for designers to showcase their work nowadays?
It’s very important! To be able to get in touch with people that you’d otherwise take longer to engage with. I notice that my Instagram is getting more followers by the day and it’s cool because they’re random people that start following my work and then get engaged. It is becoming more consistent. I already get contacted by people that want to know the prices of the items I post…
Do you think this is a good way for designers to get sales?
Yes, it’s a starting point. Of course we’re always trying to get stores to sell your collection. Duarte is already in an online store called Then and Now and in ComCor!
That’s great! Congratulations!
Thank you! But yes, social media is great to engage with a broader audience. For example, we’ve had Justin Bieber’s stylist, Kemal Harris, contacting us… Some showrooms from Los Angeles and London have also contacted us. Now we just have to organize everything and define priorities, but we’re starting to gain some international exposure, which is great, and a lot of this has to do with social media.
You’ve graduated in Portugal and then decided to do a Master in London, much more directed to menswear. Why menswear and why London?
When I started my fashion degree, I wanted to work on womenswear. Lingerie, to be more precise. Then, on my third year, when I was working as a styling assistant, I felt I was blocked creatively and decided to try doing menswear. So, on my third year of college, I’ve only done menswear and was the only one from my class doing it. Then, when I started thinking about continuing my studies, designing menswear felt like the right decision to make. It was interesting because my bachelor years here in Portugal were much more oriented towards womenswear, so I didn’t know anything about menswear constructions… But I felt like it was the best choice so I applied to the master anyway. I think my taste for menswear comes from my childhood. I’ve had judo lessons since I was four, I’ve always had a lot of guy friends… so, I’m used to seeing how they interact with fashion and how the male body moves in a sports environment specially. And my clothes are very related to luxury sportswear for men and to showing the male’s physiognomy… their muscles and shapes. They are designed for men to feel sexy in them.
Having studied in both Portugal and the UK, what are the main differences you felt between both academic environments?
In Portugal we have a more theoretical approach to fashion and in the UK learning is more hands down. That is probably the main difference. At least that is what I felt, but I’ve done different things in both countries. In Portugal I took my Bachelor and in London the Master. But I find that here we talk about materials, patterns… but in a generic way. In London the courses were more practical. They would say things like “For this assignment you’ll have to sell your brand. Start contacting people from the industry”. We would be thrown to the wolves and not just told how things work in theory.
You’re working in Portugal but are selling in the UK. What do you think are the main obstacles and/or advantages for a Portuguese designer to sell their brand internationally?
What I notice, in contrast with my colleagues, is that buyers usually give priority to labels “made in London”. But that is changing, I think. Portugal is starting to be associated with quality in the fashion industry. And also in what sales is regarded… some of my contacts are from London and, at the moment, I can’t meet their demands because I’m based here in Portugal. But we have advantages here in Portugal… London has a higher working cost. I can see that for my colleagues it is tough to start a business unless there is a big investment.
So, do you think it is maybe better to base your brand in Portugal and then try to gain international market?
Yes, I do. Right now I’m investing in social media. It is easy to get in touch with stylists and showrooms online. Everything happens over the Internet these days and if you really need to meet with people you can always get on the plane and arrive in a few hours. If the meeting is in Europe, that is! But if it isn’t I can also have Skype meetings! And you can also send everything internationally and manage to get things done. I’ve had some pieces that were sent to Sweden via a friend that was going on a trip, for example.
You said your relatives from previous generations used to own a factory. Do you think it is important for designers to establish a close relation with their suppliers and manufacturers? Or do you think nowadays this connection is becoming more distant?
I think it is very important. I’m always in close contact with my suppliers. The other day one of them called me saying he was coming to Lisbon so we should take advantage of the opportunity to meet. I’m always keeping up with them, asking for catalogues and all. I believe fabrics should come from specific suppliers because if, out of a sudden, someone asks me to make fifty units of a piece, I can always call my suppliers and I know things will be delivered in time to the atelier or to the factory. And then you have to manage your budgets and priorities, to define what is going to be produced in a factory or by seamstresses.
So, in short, being close to your suppliers and manufacturers is a way of ensuring you can meet your clients’ demands?
Yes, absolutely. Even if right now I don’t need large quantities, when the day comes I will be able to guarantee a quick response.
Is Luxury sportswear for men a difficult segment to work with, in terms of positioning within the industry?
In Portugal yes… Some pieces are well accepted by a broad audience and I understand people would buy them more easily, like basic sweats and blazers. We’re going through a financial crisis in Portugal and that obviously reflects in how consumers act. People are less willing to invest money on an up and coming brand. If they are going to spend more money, they prefer to invest in well established brands. But the international scenario is different… A lot of online stores are selling both well-know brands and new ones, that are also selling really well! Right now the target is set on countries with more buying power.
Last question. How do you see the future of fashion in Portugal?
I think fashion will grow here. We already have some Portuguese designers with international recognition. We will grow… step by step. We’re a relatively small country in what geography is concerned and we can’t compare with the UK or the USA but we are starting to get the world’s attention.
interview: Catarina F. Pinto
photography: Gonçalo M. Catarino
find out more at: DUARTE