More than seven hundred thousand meters of fabric are created every month to Riopele’s looms. Revered by fashion designers and brands all over the world, Riopele integrates spinning, dyeing, twisting, weaving and finishing and sets itself apart from the competition by its ongoing backing of creativity, research and development.
José Alexandre Oliveira, the current president and the founder’s grandson, welcomes us to their textile facility at Vila Nova de Famalicão. He tells us about the family business’ inspiring journey to becoming a beloved opinion maker on the global fashion market.
As soon as we enter the Research and Development centre, inaugurated in 2015, we are surrounded by pictures of Riopele’s 90-year history. José Alexandre immediately points out the windmill which was built strategically next to the river by his grandfather, the founder and namesake of the family business. After passing through several rows of red chairs previously belonging to Braga’s Theatro Circo, we are greeted by the creative team and invited to sit at a long wooden table. «All this environment was carefully thought through, working as a path to welcome our guests and provide a unique experience», he says.
José Alexandre also tells us about how it all started back in 1927 when his grandfather founded Riopele with ambition and just two looms. «I usually think to myself that if my grandfather lived in our day and age, this would be a start-up», he comments with a smile, before going on to point us how that same enterprising spirit can be felt at the company incubator “Famalicão Made INcubar”, which has recently been launched at the Riopele facility. «Cotim JO [the name given to the textile mentioned above] was a revolutionary product and very successful at the time», he refers us, before going on to highlights that «since its inception, Riopele has never stopped innovating». The family business is living proof of this legacy and now occupies more than 170 thousand square meters and has 1,085 employees who work in a range of areas from spinning, dyeing, twisting, weaving, finishing, modelling, research and development to product engineering.
Operating under an all-inclusive vertical structure, «Riopele is one of the few textile companies that range from raw material to finished product», the founder’s grandson states, emphasising that this inclusiveness and strong support of its R&D efforts are the main reasons for the company’s leading role on the international market. A team of “fashion Einsteins”, as José Alexandre calls them, work tirelessly to develop new fabric in the surrounding 1,200 square meters, once the location of a weaving facility. Riopele provides an archive of more than 9,000 references to clients visiting the facilities, all of which can be browsed and readapted. «We can always take our collections to the client, but when they come here they have the opportunity to meet the people, follow the whole production stage and freely browse our archive», he tells us.
«Increasingly clients are looking for exclusivity and like to share information, be a part of the creative process and we’re open to that», he continues. «We get their input, add ours and from this combination product development ensues».
Moments later this is emphasised by Carlos Costa, a member of the development team, «The way the R&D space is organised brought very positive results. It’s much more authentic for me to be speaking to you and showing you my work process here, than being in a studio built specifically for that purpose». He believes that «it’s not enough to design a garment and passively wait for the fabric to contribute to the execution goals» and highlights that brands are very motivated to join forces with the producer’s know-how. «These days, clients send us a mood-board and a very conceptual briefing and then rely on us to interpret these and make our own proposal, because they recognise we have that skill», he tells us.
Fabric development for fashion and clothing—from wide-ranging natural, synthetic and recycled fibres—are this Portuguese textile company’s core business, exporting 97% of its production to 93 countries around the globe. Following the success of brands such as Rioplex in the 1950s and Texlene in the 1960s, today’s main brands are Çeramica (easy care, breathable fabric with maximum comfort), Çeramica Clean (ecological, stain-repellent fabric with a soft touch) and Tecnosilk (completely ecological from the raw materials to the finishing). Riopele supplies many international private labels such as the Inditex group and Max Mara as well as brands like Prada, Gucci, Burberry, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Karl Lagerfeld, Diane von Furstenberg, Versace, Gerard Darel, Paul Smith, Giorgio Armani and Tory Burch.
«I dare to say we work with every household fashion brand», says José Alexandre Oliveira. “Today, Riopele is an opinion maker, brands are always looking at what we are doing, at what we launch». Carlos Costa points out that, while they used tools like WGSN to seek inspiration in the past, today it’s the trend agency itself that visits them, seeking to know what’s in development. «We can say we belong to a group of influencers, ones that help define fashion trends», he comments. «The fact that Riopele is not only confined to these four walls brings tremendous know-how; since our strategy is to work directly with customers, we absorb information and realise where brands are headed and what they’ll need. That’s how we form our own opinion», he clarifies.
Nevertheless, at a time when the fashion industry is in a period of deep change, José Alexandre Oliveira and Carlos Costa agree: the traditional model, dictating that trends be organised by season, is not efficient enough to answer the relentless challenges of the global market. «We still develop two collections per year and participate in trade fairs, where we present products, but trade fairs are increasingly just a meeting point to show our clients what development stage we are at» tells the president. «Whilst ten years ago seasonal collections were almost final, nowadays we have to pay close attention to mutations in the market, so we develop capsule collections, that keep on being adjusted». Carlos Costa confirms this from the product development perspective, «I follow up on my team members’ work every day. I can tell you that one is doing a summer collection for China, another is doing a winter collection for Europe and a third one is doing transitioning. Today we can’t even define our products according to seasons». This is why the strategy is «to create fabric every day, so that Riopele can always share new products with its clients», he explains.
«The more years I work here, the less I can define what fashion is or what a collection is», he admits. «Right now, for me, the key words in fashion are focus and rationalisation. Focus, because today we get asked to do absolutely everything, so either there’s a focused company or it’s very easy for us to slip. Rationalisation, because our goal is to make a difference with the fibres and technologies we already possess», he explains. «The simple part is to design, colour, make prints, make a visually appealing product, whereas creating good fabric is very hard», he shares, while showing us a chart with Riopele’s latest developments. «This is what we’re developing right now and as you can see, there are no pictures, because we need focus. The illustrative side immediately takes one away from the product’s focus». As an example, he tells us of a product, developed in 2016, which is 100% cotton and composed by twisted yarns and has a finishing that stays true to the raw material and is proof of a company «invested in the real product, one that believes that materials are meant to be touched, not disguised».
«Nowadays, we’re witnessing a renewed sensitivity to “making” because the tools given to us by technology made us lose our knowledge about the product’s origin, how they are actually made», Carlos stresses. «Sometimes, the team does an exercise: we make ourselves work around the table, and only after the concept is decided do we switch back to the computer», he tells us. «Another important feature is the vertical system, the fact we have a manufacturing facility and can test out stitching or make a sleeve and immediately know how it turns out. Making fabric means a global approach, not just weaving some fibre and waiting for a product», he clarifies. «I always say anyone with enough money can buy a facility like Riopele, but they won’t put it to work like we do, because we have people and we have culture and you need this kind of know-how to work at a company like this».
Besides the in-house experiments, Riopele is invested in creative partnerships with emerging Portuguese fashion design talent. Reiterating Carlos Costa’s position, José Alexandre Oliveira believes that «to make fabric, one needs to know what will be able to be made with it». Riopele therefore «supports a select group of fashion designers” which includes Hugo Costa, Sara Maia, Inês Torcato, Luis Carvalho, Vicri and Nuno Baltazar. Behind this curatorship is Rita Fortes, who tells us that, «beyond supplying fabric that allows for these designers to develop their collections, Riopele supplies extra meters of fabric from the current and continuing collections, so that they can also create garments that may be presented at trade fairs or to clients visiting the company, to demonstrate the fabric’s potential».
Nuno Baltazar, a member of this partnership program, was invited to join Riopele’s R&D team. The fashion designer tells us his main task is «integrating the designer’s creative thinking into the company, because it is the designers and brands that Riopele works for». Among his duties are «the continuous creation of garments to test out the fabric potential and to identify possible problems that might arise, monitoring proposal presentations for trade fairs and client visits and identifying adequate typologies for specific markets. For example, we take more trousers and traditional garments to the German market, whereas we take special pieces and fabric with a more obvious fashion component to Italy», he explains and adds, «as collection dynamics are so fast, often the clients don’t have the time to interpret what a specific fabric might allow and the fact they can see the fabric used on a garment really helps to understand the possibilities».
Constant investment in innovation and creativity, such as celebrating partnerships with research centres, goes side-by-side with Riopele’s priority of fulfilling all environmental standards by integrating practices that promote sustainable development and the responsible use of natural resources. Equipped with an in-house recycling and water treatment facility, Riopele is backing energy-efficiency projects as well as new water processing technologies to reduce production water use and decreasing chemical product use. 60% of the water used at the industry level is recycled and Rio Pele’s quality is permanently monitored in a commitment to being in harmony with the environment engraved in its company’s roots.