Since I’m a Maison Méditerranéenne des Métiers de la Mode (MMMM), or in English: Mediterranean House of Business in Fashion, follower already for few years now it was natural for me to go there searching for a new Mediterranean designer to feature on my blog.
Looking all the winners for 2017 it was not easy to decide which one to contact but, after the answers that I got from few of them, Susana Lopes from Susana Bettencourt brand was the most friendly and approachable person of all.
Although my blog is new and I am still working on improvements regarding the audience and categories and although she and her small but enthusiastic team are very very busy with orders to the Far East, exhibitions on European fashion weeks or work for MMMM Prize, she found time to answer my long list of questions.
Not only that, she sent me 2 beautiful garments, a white knitted dress and a colourful knitted scarf so I can wear it, feel it and style it not only for this blog post, but for different occasions. I styled it in different ways for you to see and to fall in love with her design. Everything is possible to order here.
I made the presentation of Azores Islands Designer Susana Bettencourt as a friendly chat in a coffee shop, where I asked a million questions as curious as I am, but she didn’t lose herself in them, quite opposite, she was very open and sincere about her brand, her business, her beginnings and the period where is she now, and about her life and things that inspire or influence her.
Q. I have to admit I have never been to Azores Islands but I visited Lisbon few years ago and I liked it a lot. Geographically it is not a part of Mediterranean but the spirit and the soul and the mentality is very much Mediterranean, isn't it? That is why I think you are rightfully considered a Mediterranean designer. Do you agree?
A. Yes, my Portuguese roots are very "oceanized", being from the Azores Islands, living in Lisbon and London for most of my life, I consider myself a person of the world, but my origins and my heart is Azorean, where I've learned to knit when I was 5 years old and where I may say my brand DNA comes from: knitwear!
Q. After you discovered traditional bobbin lace in your hometown did you already know what you want to do or you needed time so everything can fit in place? Do you know how to knit bobbin lace? It is not easy, we have it here in Croatia too. It's a special skill.
A. Yes, I have learnt the bobbin lace technique in Azores with my aunt Maria, she was a teacher for Singer (when Singer wasn't only a machines seller but also a crafts school) and she passed her knowledge to me. I think even passed the handcraft gift because it was so easy for me to learn. I try to teach my team and hopefully keep the craft alive through my generation (which is only computer and social media driven).
Q. Why did you decide to go to London for further education? Do you think talent is not enough? Did you gain any benefits from your London universities?
A. When I finished high school and having a mother who was a math teacher and a father who was in economics, their knowledge of fashion school or how I would survive doing this was small. But they were amazing parents, and humble as they were, they didn't give up until they have been with me to every embassy, every school possible. In Portugal the university level in fashion were still young schools with not prospects of future jobs, but Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, in the number division (which was my patterns language) was the best university at the time, with the higher employment success. So that is how we decided I was going to London. They were afraid of my choice and they wanted to make sure I got the best opportunity! Even though CSM didn't even had a website then, they found it and forever they will be my heroes!
Q. Where is your business now? Where is your factory, or better say where is your team? Portugal or England Do you have a big team? Do you think you and your team can develop a brand that everybody can live from?
A. My business is now in Portugal, north of the country where the majority of knitwear factories are! I was set in London but when I started having orders it was easier to be closer to factories than to London Fashion Week. Sales come first! In the direct team in Portugal I only have 3 people including me! But the indirect hired people like seamstress, factories, knitwear factories and finishing, yarn companies, well.., that is a lot and I couldn't do this without them all! In each collection I work with 5 to 6 different factories :). What do you mean built a brand that everyone can live from? In terms of a company and salaries? Of course! It already is a company that pays salaries! I would love to pay better, and to increase the team but step by step!
Q. What is for you a sustainable business?
A. Well, everyone is talking about sustainable, sustainability, and all that! For me, my dream has always been, I mean since I was little and played with dolls, I was always pretending to be a business woman or a teacher! Today, I consider myself both! Is it the way I dreamed of? Well, it wouldn't be, I was a child, I didn't know the real world then! But I'm proud of my team, what we have accomplished with the budget we have, it’s a Miracle! We work 10 to 14 hours a day, we are restless and stubborn in a good way!
Q. How do you work? Do you draw classically to the paper or do you do it on the computer? How do you choose materials, colours? Where do you get them? Is there a big difference between lace and knitwear? I have read that you combine handwork and new techniques. How do you do that? Is it expensive?
A. To be honest, I start on excel, on my budget, how can I move it? How will I distribute it for all the material and hours, that is where I start! Then I see yarns, agents of yarn companies and I start planning in writing! I'm a better writer and planner than sketcher, really! I keep saying I'm knitter and somehow I express myself in clothes, but I could express myself in other ways too.
Colours... well, if you listen and if you observe your surroundings, the world will tell the colours it needs, in a way! Sounds too profound, not the idea though, lol.
Q. How many pieces of one product you make? You know what I don't like, that everybody shops in Zara or Mango or H&M and then everybody looks the same. With your dress and scarf I know I will be the only one in Croatia to wear them. :)
A. Our production is exclusive and small! Each hang tag shows how many pieces where produced of the same product, so each client knows how exclusive it is. We never produced more then 50 pieces of the same design and don't intend to go over 500, selling worldwide and being smart! To sell and produce more, I would have to make a segmented label that communicate that.
Q. What inspires you?
A. Well, everyone does wonder how we get inspired, and I have to say that I get improved by everything and everyone! From a painter, an artist, a movement, a phrase or even just a building worker! Creativity comes from the mind and how it works, not what it sees, I think! :)
Q. What is the most important thing you want to express with your designs?
A. The most important thing I would like to express is the process, I'm hoping the MMMM Prize can help me with my communication material so I could do a video that shows all the background, the people helping, how much we work for this and how much we give out in every collection. I would like for people to know and recognise Susana Bettencourt even if the piece is not in its normal environment! I hope I can spread the aesthetic which expresses the diversity, the ethical workers and the ethos of my brand and consequently, the ethos and reason of my life.
Q. The 2016/2017 winter collection was very colourful and warm. What was the inspiration there? Where do you get the ideas at all?
A. I normally express my point of view, the world is my inspiration and what is going on in it. So it is hard passing by quietly near what we are going through right now without that influencing my work. I know the end result is clothes, but I go through an artistic process until I get my artwork, my prints and jacquards done. I have to develop my concept artistically! I cut, I paste, I repeat, decompose and deconstruct all the way through!
Q. Do you think knitwear is possible to wear in Mediterranean summers too? In your summer collections you use some other knit or materials?
A. My summer collection has been the best of all collections in terms of sales, so I'm sure it could be worn in summer too. It is just a question of picking the right material, right composition and design the shapes accordingly.
And now few quick “personal” questions.
Q. Are you a feminist? Do you think we need to fight for women rights? Do you have any men in your team?
A. I’m 32 years old, I don't consider myself as a feminist but as a believer in diversity and equal rights! Everyone has the right to dream, to fight, to be better and to live the life they want! That is what I believe! I believe NO ONE is better than anyone else, we are all here having a physical journey and we should all do as we wish as long as the others people's rights are respected! We live in community, we should all knowledge that and respect that! Where your freedom begins and starts, that line is so defused nowadays! It’s so messy and it is a shame.
Q. My most important question: Do you like animals?
A. Yes, I love animals, I probably respect them more then really play with them! I keep thinking that if I was in their "shoes" I would like the space as well! I'm a dog lover which doesn't mean I'm good at raising one, hahaha, but love them and the love they give you back is amazing.
Q. What are your plans for future?
A. Future - I hope to sell Susana Bettencourt knitwear all over the world, spread our label and ethos, being able to make a presentation with the British Fashion Council at London Fashion Week (still a dream to come true) and also south love to have a PR that can understand my label and my view, and also a sales partner such as an agent or distributor that can help increase our business and our turnover.
Q. Do you live your dream?
A. Do I live my dream? Well, I have this problem that I'm never satisfied, I'm like this since I was younger so I guess it’s in my personality to never be living my dream but to always wish for more. Is that bad? As long as I enjoy the ride, I'm happy! The challenges, the goals, the day by day little battles, I love them! I know I'm growing every day as a human being and as a business woman, knitter and designer, so if I'm growing and getting better, I'm doing I was suppose to be doing!