The power of working as a duo is, as Felícia and Alexandre explain us, the power of creating a strong voice, that is different from what two voices could have been individually. We met them at a coffee shop, in the early night, after a long day of work. They had every reason to be exhausted but, feeding up on each other’s energy, they showed us what really meant to want something: to work all day and still have a spark in their eyes when talking about their brand: M HKA. Curious about the name? Read along.
The brand is M HKA and it reads “Muka”. What does it mean?
Felícia: We were both doing an internship in Antwerp, where there is a museum called Mhka. We were curious and asked how it was pronounced, because it was somewhere we spent large amounts of time in and that we identified with the way we work. The museum tried to stay away from the rules and always present something new, and that was what we wanted. We were going to apply for Sangue Novo, needed a name and that made total sense for us, as it represented all our experience and the moment we decided to start the brand.
What kind of new and different things could you see at the museum?
Felícia: At the time we were there and decided to use the museum’s name, there was a Belgian artist’ exhibition: Panamarenko. His universe has a lot to to with imagination, which was absolutely related to the collection we were developing at the time. And it is curious… We were in Belgium in June or July, just after finishing Sangue Novo’s collection, went to the museum and their temporary exhibition had the theme “Rave”, which was precisely our concept! So we always feel we are in sync with the museum!
So you launched your Lemonade collection when you were still in Belgium, right?
Alexandre: Yes, we were in Belgium. That was when we really decided to apply for the contest in a more serious way. We had previously entered the contest, but always in an academic perspective. We both sent our collections at the end of the course, individually. But then, when we did the internship, we decided to make a collection together with the sole purpose of entering Sangue Novo. We were interning and then working after work.
You already knew each other before going to Belgium, am I right? You did your bachelor together. But did you decide to apply for the same internship together?
Alexandre: Not exactly. We had been colleagues since the bachelor and then, for the master, we needed to choose a designer to apply for an internship with. We applied to several designers. I applied to Berlin also, and Felícia only applied to Antwerp. Then the results came in and I had entered in this one in Antwerp, and so did she and we thought it would be interesting to go together.
And why did you decide to work together for ModaLisboa? Why not individually, like for the school projects?
Alexandre: We had been best friends since the first year of college. We met each other and got along really well always. On the second or third year we decided to enter Acrobactic together. It was our first contest and it went really well, so we understood we worked well together. When developing our collections in college we would try to help each other. The both of us and also another colleague that lived with us. We would pull all nighters to work… It was something that happened naturally. We didn’t sit one day and said “let’s do a collection together for ModaLisboa”…
Felícia: we wanted to present something unique and understood that our ideas combined would create something different because, obviously, our collections individually have little relation with the things we develop individually. It is quite interesting!
Regarding your brand and your collections, how did you go from “Lemonade”, where you played with the imaginary of childhood, the undersize and oversize, to developing a collection based on a Russian Rave?
Felícia: it has a lot to do with how we are feeling and what we need. With Lemonade, the brand was on its first steps and we wanted to go back to what we thought was our most imaginary and childish state. Going back to the museum reference, they were presenting a collection based on imagination and things that weren’t real, and that influenced us back then. For this collection, it’s a bit more complicated to explain…
Alexandre: yes because it happened naturally through the conversations we have with each other, things we share, being videos or music… We exchange ideas to the point where we already had a concept to work with.
Felícia: and then we don’t really understand when the beginning was. It was a process.
Alexandre: maybe it all could have started with a picture of an 80s rave I shared with her, and from then on we might have researched about the subject and Felícia might have sent me another picture… it all happens in a natural sharing process. And the concept we end up working with is never the same we started exploring.
Is that what brings value to working in a partnership? Those shares that lead to unexpected interests and developments?
Alexandre: Yes! And if we think about our time in Antwerp we understand it was the experiences, the people we met there, the culture we were immersed in and who we were there that influenced us.
Felícia: and then when we came back, we wanted people to associate us with a different image, but at the same time we didn’t want to just be associated with extravagant design. We wanted to find a balance, and that is what we did with this collection. We restrained ourselves just enough to be able to stay true to our ideas and our image.
You have been working together, but then also include other designers, namely Gone Monteiro in this last collection, to develop the prints. Is this inclusion of others something that is part of your working process?
Alexandre: yes, from the moment we decided to apply to Sangue Novo together, we knew we wanted to always bring people into what we were doing. We want to work in an open community environment and know that, by working with others, we can improve ourselves and create more interesting projects. In this collection we understood we needed a third person to work with us, so we explained him our concept and gave him total freedom to design, within our concept frame, of course.
Felícia: We always try not to cut people’s wings when working with other designers. Gone works really well the flower print and he is a very good illustrator, so we first tried to tell him we wanted something with flowers, but then we changed our minds a bit and wanted some words on top of it, and then we wanted to add some red… so at one point we thought “ok, maybe we should let you create and then give you some feedback and we will work from there”, so we gave him freedom. We like working with other people. We like to share others’ work as well and present new ideas and talent.
Having worked in Antwerp and now in Portugal, which are the main differences you have experienced between both markets?
Felícia: Everything is so different…
Alexandre: Starting with work schedules and ending with… work schedules! (laughs) In terms of industry, design is much more respected and appreciated. In Portugal, the designer is seen as the person that stands in a table and sketches a bit. In Belgium we were working in small studios where the focus was in the collection and not so much in sales. It was important, but the work we were developing was not mass-oriented. It was a more select market. The main difference was that: the designer here is the person that makes a garment happen because someone wants a sweater. It is much more difficult to be heard here in Portugal.
Felícia: And then the industry in itself it is so different…
Felícia: Even buying fabrics… For a small studio, it is very complicated to buy fabrics, because we are not working with large amounts. We are working with a few meters that, for the industry, is almost leftover fabric! We, personally, can’t complain a lot because we were actually lucky with our suppliers. But overall, the process of buying small quantities is much easier in Antwerp. We would contact a Japanese factory, for instances, and they replied immediately and sent us the quantities required, even if we asked for 4 or 5 meters. The dynamic is very different. Of course the sample price is much higher there than it is here, but it was much easier to go to a factory and ask for a piece to be produced without them complaining about quantities. There we have a price for the production of one item and a different price for the production of 300. No more questions. Here, if you don’t want to produce a certain amount, they don’t even give you the option of paying more to produce less.
Why do you think this happens?
Felícia: They have much more access to suppliers from both Japan and all over Europe. Maybe we, in Portugal, are a bit more displaced, further away from the rest of the industry. And also, designers there have a different kind of credibility, as Alexandre said. We personally feel the need to change the way we talk to suppliers when we are in Antwerp or in Portugal!
Alexandre: There is a different perception of young designers from an industry point of view. They see and think about things more in the long-term. They think “if I help this designer grow, I will also grow with him in the future”. They see it as an important partnership. In Portugal, the industry thinks about the present and how to make more money now. If we go to a factory with a project proposal, they will immediately say they are not interested in it because they will waste resources on it. They will invest time and money and they will loose money because they could have Zara ordering 3000 pieces from them and they are loosing time helping us make 20.
Do you think this is also related to the type of client each industry deals with? Because in Portugal, people consume fast fashion and would much easily spend 100€ on a Zara coat then on a designer one. Does this influence the confection industry?
Alexandre: well, maybe. In Belgium people like to spend money in special items. They buy for the experience. They value the garment and the history behind it. In both our internships we understood that the concept and manufacture was something very well explored – where the fabrics came from, how the garment was produced… This is all important for the consumer. In Portugal we just care about fashion in terms of trends. We are not conscious consumers and don’t think about the consequences of our purchasing habits. We don’t think that, for 50€ extra we can buy something unique, well made, with good fabrics and help a young designer.
Felícia: But I think it is getting better. Our generation is more conscious…
About sustainability issues as well? Are Portuguese consumers aware?
Alexandre: In Portugal, I don’t think so. Some people may start to be interested, but in Portugal, everything happens in a small scale, in terms of numbers of people.
And do you worry about sustainability in the way your pieces are developed and produced?
Felícia: we don’t have a structure big enough to allow us to make sustainability an important factor. We try to do our best with what we have available and are capable of. People still think that sustainability is associated only with the fabric, and that is not the case, at all. Our collections are sustainable in terms of the process. In this last collection, for example, we tried to buy the fabrics in Portugal and take advantage of fabrics leftovers as a way of making the processes more sustainable.
Going back to the differences between the fashion industry in Belgium and Portugal, do you think that the way people perceive fashion designers in Belgium is related to how they perceive artists in general?
Felícia: No doubt!
And do you think fashion should be seen as art, then? Or should it be functional?
Felícia: There needs to be a balance. Absolutely. You can have fashion that is art, and it has value that needs to be acknowledged. People still have the idea that conceptual design has to do with pieces that can’t be worn and that is not true. Conceptual design is related to the concept and how the work is created. On the other hand, I also believe garments have to be functional some how. It’s quite an ambiguous question but, overall, I would say there needs to be a balance.
Alexandre: Yes, we need balance in fashion as well as in everything. Of course we won’t be designing over the top garments. Our goal is to reach consumers and sell our items so we can grow. Design is all about functionality. To solve a problem. But it needs to have a concept.
Regarding your last collection, how did you bring the Russian Rave to your presentation?
Felícia: Mainly through styling. We started with a concept, but then the garments start gaining life of their own. We did the styling and decided to bring some of our own models, so we could present the concept like we wanted to.
Alexandre: And we worked a lot on the fall of the Soviet Union and the transformation between a time of little access to information to another, very sudden, of infinity possibilities and freedom. We wanted to play with this idea “if we didn’t know what existed and, out of the sudden, have access to everything, how would we use things”. Because maybe, we wouldn’t use clothes in the most “socially correct” way, but in a way that made us comfortable. And that is what happens in raves. You go there and be yourself. We wanted to convey that spirit in the presentation, not only in the garments, but in the way everything was put together.
What can be improved in Portugal in terms of helping young designers present their collections in the best way possible? Being it in ModaLisboa or any other platform.
Felícia: Of course in ModaLisboa we are a little bit limited. Even our music choice… it wasn’t our original pick
Alexandre: We couldn’t put our original choice. People wouldn’t pay attention to the collection! But for us, the scenic aspect is very important, so it would be nice to have more freedom in how to present the collection…
Felícia: And to be able to choose models is also important. We chose Marlon again for this runway, because he fits perfectly with our brand. Models are important because they are the ones bringing the clothes to life. To be able to choose the music and the models is very important to us…
Alexandre: And then if we could also choose specific hair and makeup for our presentation it would be absolutely perfect! But, of course, it is not possible for every young designer presenting at Sangue Novo to choose everything. We have, understandably, limits. So we work with what we have and, in our case, we tried to invest in styling and accessories, like the sunglasses, the necklaces… We wanted to engage people. At the beginning we even though about asking the models to enter the runway dancing…
Felícia: Yes, but then we didn’t know all the models and maybe some would feel uncomfortable, so we decided not to risk it.
Alexandre: It could go really well, or really bad.
What is missing in Portugal for young designers to succeed?
Felícia: First of all, I think we, designers, need to go and look for things. We can’t expect things to fall on our lap. And then the textile industry needs a change. Fashion in Portugal is growing and the industry needs to be a part of it, together with designers. And then we need platforms not only for brands. People know us as a brand, but we are not yet a company. It is difficult to get in some platforms as young designers before establishing a company. And if we can’t get in the platforms, it is also difficult to grow enough to become a company.
Marta Gonçalves, from HIBU, told us the same thing in her interview…
Alexandre: Yes, because it is a cycle we all have to deal with.
Felícia: It would be great to have adequate platforms here. But if we don’t, we need to look abroad and find a way of succeeding.
Alexandre: We need to find a way of showing that small designers can grow and transform their scale. And the industry needs to understand that this change is possible and that it would be best for all if we worked together. But, in the end, I think it all starts with us, designers, really wanting this. And trying to find ways to make it work.
interview Catarina F. Pinto
photography Gonçalo M. Catarino
find out more at M HKA