It might seem impossible to manage an agenda split between being a teacher, the father of two, a manager and creative director of a company, the developer of his own brand and a designer for many others. But Hugo Costa performs each task with enthusiasm and finesse.
Two days after presenting his brand’s offering for Autumn-Winter 2017/2018 at Portugal Fashion, we met at the Porto Fashion School to find out more about his promising career as a fashion designer.
Two days ago, you presented your ‘Amundsen’ collection at Portugal Fashion. What can you tell us about your 2017/2018 Autumn-Winter collection?
The source for the collection was research in which we discovered a series of pictures of glacier explorers. From then on, it was almost a metaphorical construct of the need for exploration itself, of endless discovery, of going above and beyond. This is also what happens in this collection regarding the Hugo Costa brand itself. Testing limits, cuts, new shapes. That was why we decided to name it Amundsen, after the first glacier explorer to reach both poles. While developing the collection, we researched technical clothing a lot and reflected on the function of the different elements that make up the garments. What is the importance of a pocket? Where should it be so that it is most accessible? We used a coating on some fabrics to give a reflective and more crystallised look. We tried to contrast new elements with the ones inherent to the brand. In the end, we got two versions of the garments: one more fluid and traditional and the other more technical.
What are these inherent elements to the Hugo Costa brand?
Oversized, some elements of streetwear and urban wear, but also a few classical elements. We like to reflect on the basics. The cut of the pants generally goes from slim fit to oversized. We use high-contrast on our finishings so that when the garment is opened a strong graphical component is revealed, which generates an emotional response from the consumer. For example, in this collection we have a baby blue piece with an inside that comes alive in black. Another characteristic detail of the brand is that we always use black-teethed zippers, as a way to unify the finishing touches and connect them to the inside.
Is colour also a defining element in your brands’ creative process?
When you build a collection, you also build an imaginary world. Colour plays a part in creating that world. If we talk about glaciers and ice, right from the beginning you have a colour palette ranging from white to oil blue, with baby blue in between. This palette was created straightaway. If you have a masculine or gender-neutral brand you almost always feel the need to have a three-colour palette—black, grey and blue. I usually work with two or three colours related to the theme and use these more neutral colours to attain balance. The first time we presented this collection in Paris we had 15 models and 30 garments divided into two sets. One group conveying the colourful imaginary world and a second group built by the neutral palette characterising the brand’s identity.
How do you describe your creative process?
It never stops. We already have the mood-boards done for the next collection and are now looking for the raw materials. Contrary to what one might think, the difficult part is not designing the collection: it is executing it. We have a relatively small time-window to develop the intellectual part of the work before we can begin the technical process, so things are never set in stone. There always needs to be space for new ideas and details that we might want to add. Sometimes while having coffee with friends, they talk about something that makes you grab a napkin and start drawing. This is precisely what happened with some of our best-sellers. That is why I never draw all the garments straightaway. I prefer to define the core garments of the collection and go on from there to compose them and by introducing stronger elements so that the pieces are intuitive and align even more with the main concept. I guess that is the biggest advantage of the director’s line of work – the unpredictability, not having to adhere to a set plan. If you follow the rules strictly, your brand will quickly lose its lustre and I don’t want to lose my lustre. In a way, I believe that is what attracts people to our brand.
When the moment comes for you to find these materials, where do you usually go?
We mostly work in partnership with Riopele. Right now, they may be the textile company that supports Fashion Design in Portugal the most. It’s very important for us to have these partners helping us and providing materials. In the end, we all profit and grow together. I truly believe in the Portuguese market and this proximity between industry and design.
How does this partnership work?
Riopele supplies us with the materials and, in exchange, we develop a small collection for them or adapt a few of our garments for them to include in their portfolio. It ends up being a very beneficial collaboration for everyone. Especially because it can often be difficult for the producers to show the raw material they create being used in innovative ways. By joining forces with a designer’s creative vision, they have the opportunity to have these materials used in nonconformist ways. That ends up giving certain clients the courage to dare to take a chance and support you.
Once you have acquired the raw materials, where do you produce your garments?
Some of the more creative pieces are made in-house. We prefer to produce the other more technical and complex pieces in a factory. All our pieces are designed to be made in an industrially efficient way, but we have the flexibility to develop hand-made craftsmanship, like pattern making and cutting, so that nothing goes awry. We are always careful to have perfect finishing on all our garments.
Your father had a shoe factory, so you always had a connection to the industry. Is that why you also develop shoes and accessories for your collections?
I grew up on my father’s shoe factory in São João da Madeira and the first collection I developed was for footwear. It was later that I began to work with textiles. But that’s not why I incorporate footwear and accessories into my collections. In my head, it doesn’t make any sense to use other brands’ shoes when I draw a collection from scratch. It is also an option that makes sense commercially. We know that accessories are the most sought after thing in fashion. A pair of shoes is usually valued more than a jacket, for example.
Does that mean accessories are your bestsellers?
Half and half, at the moment. However, our basic, classically designed sneakers have ended up having the widest consumer appeal. For me, creating accessories works to enhance the brand’s concept.
Portugal is internationally revered as a country of excellence in textile and footwear production. Do you think one can say the same about its design?
The partnerships with new designers and also the work of APPICAPS in promoting Portuguese footwear is going a long way towards changing things. One just needs to think back to the Association’s initial strategy of promoting the quality of Portuguese footwear and these days it’s promoting the quality of our design. We are respected for our quality, which is of the same calibre as Italy or France. We’ve received several international awards. Portuguese companies are supplying the biggest global brands and even complying with the most demanding technical challenges from brands like Adidas and Nike. You don’t need to stray too far. I can tell you our sneakers come from the same factory as those of Raf Simons, with the same sole and the same leather parts. Portugal might be a peripheral country, but regarding creativity, we are leaving the periphery behind.
Is Portugal’s peripheral condition a benefit for your brand, strategically speaking?
Without a doubt. In Portugal, one can easily find the right space to create an atelier at very reasonable prices. It’s also much easier to get in touch with raw material producers.
You speak about Hugo Costa as a designer brand, but you always answer in the plural.
The project bears my name, but it would be unfair to say I do all the work. Right now, we have a permanent team of three and have an additional four interns. I always speak in the plural, because everyone is involved in the various stages of the process. I want everyone who works with me to feel that part of them is in it. Even the interns. Fresh blood is always welcome to stir everyone up.
What does a day in Hugo Costa’s life look like?
My life is very unpredictable and no two days are the same. That pushes me to be very methodical and organised. On the days that I don’t teach classes in Porto, I start my day by driving my kids to school. After that, I head to the office which is in São João da Madeira, where I also live. I have coffee and I begin work. I start by planning out the day and on some days I can’t get through the whole list. Either because I’m called upon to take questions, fix problems, go through bureaucracy, get through deadlines or because I have meetings with clients, have to meet producers or go to factories to follow the development of garments.
Before you created the Hugo Costa brand, you had already designed collections for others. How did the opportunity to design collections under your own name come up?
After graduating with a degree in fashion design, I did an internship in a textile company in Santo Tirso, where I was later hired as a creative director. Apart from that experience, I always worked as a freelancer for footwear and textile companies. In 2006, I presented my first collection at the Acrobatic competition. I entered subsequent competitions and won ‘Best Male Ensemble’ and ‘Best Collection’ in 2009 and 2010. Meanwhile in October 2010, ‘Espaço Bloom’ was being created at Portugal Fashion and Miguel Flor asked me to present my collection there. From then on, I strived to keep evolving, balancing my brand with collection development for clients and teaching as well. By 2012 I started teaching at the Footwear Industry Professional Training Centre at Porto Fashion School and also at Modatex.
Was developing your own brand a long-time idea of yours?
I have had the idea since graduating. When Miguel Flor contacted me, I already had part of my collection designed and was thinking of developing it with the prize I’d been given by Acrobatic. So I immediately said yes to Miguel. However, it was a challenge at the time because I was getting married and ended up making patterns on my honeymoon. Luckily everything turned out well, but I usually say I was a fortunate test guinea pig, as the brand ended up being built backwards. First, we presented the collection, then we thought about the strategy. When starting a brand is extremely important to know about how to make a business plan, e-commerce, marketing and social media. Fashion designers live a very intense life, full of challenges and we must have the necessary perseverance, persistence and stupidity to be able to solve any problems that may arise. Even if it is not really the designer’s job to know this, it is important to be aware of future needs, so that the business can be structured accordingly to consolidate the project.
Where does inspiration fit into such a busy schedule?
I don’t have a formula. It’s an extremely sensory experience. I’ve been inspired by a shadow to create a silhouette. I’ve been inspired by the shoulder blade of an 80’s shirt I saw on a tourist walking down the street. I usually say I’m inspired by people and intellectually beautiful work and things that happen that have an impact. It can be a photograph, a song, a lyric. Pinterest and Google cannot be our only sources. We have to search the streets, to know how to look at people, to understand what they want.
What are your expectations for the future of the Hugo Costa brand?
We’ve been presenting at Paris Fashion Week, with the support of Portugal Fashion since 2016. Our goal is to continue with the brand, because we have been fortunate in drawing attention so far and we’re negotiating with new showrooms in Paris. A second goal is to start working beyond retail to enable direct sales and a closer relationship with the final consumer. The back-office of our online shop is ready to go. The next step is to invest in the development of a team dedicated to e-commerce and to create an online range that is distinctly different from the products available in stores. It’s an ongoing project, still in development, but one in which I’m entrusting a lot of our future expectations.