Interview with Alexandra Oliveira, Creative Director of Pé de Chumbo[i]

By Lígia Carvalho Abreu (2016)


Left: Waistcoat made of raffia by Pé de Chumbo Right: Detail of Showall by Mafalda Santos at the Oliva Creative Factory, photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu 

At her atelier in Brito (Guimarães), Alexandra Oliveira orients her team of 20 ladies in a collective exercise of searching for and understanding innovative and non-industrial ways of creating original textures to give form to Pé de Chumbo’s clothing. The following interview sums up an interesting conversation about innovation, originality, novelty and recycling in weaving and knitwear, as well as the importance of structures to support production and sales and her desire to create pieces of clothing with value in order to reduce production.    

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law -WFMFR): Why the name Pé de Chumbo (Heavy Foot) for a brand that is distinguished by its delicate textures? What are the characteristics and core values of the brand?

Alexandra Oliveira: I studied in Guimarães and at that time, in school, I already liked a bit of fashion, of making my own things. I used to wear Dr. Martens boots and so they nicknamed me Pé de Chumbo. While studying fashion design at CITEX in Porto, we did some work on how to create a brand. I decided that my brand was going to be called Pé de Chumbo. And so it has been, until this day. As I always liked experimenting, I began to create different fabrics using methods that were only ours to create garments with unique textures. The main feature of Pé de Chumbo is the texture created from the use of threads. The way the clothes are shaped are basic, there is little elaboration. The textures are what give the pieces originality. I prefer creating textures rather than shapes, because for me, it’s a more manual process. We invest a lot of time in thinking, studying ways of innovating in this area, of creating new textures and non-industrial processes to work the thread.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law - WFMFR): Do you use a unique manual process to create the textures? What is this process? Where does it take place? Who are the people involved?

Alexandra Oliveira: It is a manual process, not an industrial one. It's as if we were to knit a jumper using a homemade knitting machine. It’s a process that’s created and developed by us. It started off as being experimental and then we adapted it to our needs. Before the creation of each piece, there is a period of study and experimentation. We have to adjust the process according to what we want to create and for the wielding thread to be easier for the ladies who work here with me. We are always adjusting the thread entry process to create textures or make new moulds. This process is our secret and we will patent it. However, creating new textures is not only dependent on the way we work the thread. There is a huge study that precedes each collection. We think about what we can do differently and how we are going to do it. Creating a new texture is not easy. We need creativity, a lot of study and rigorous ways of creating. I have 20 women working at the workplace. 17 are seamstresses who go through a learning phase before beginning to sew the pieces together. Some 3-2 ladies sewing small garments, located here in Guimarães, who also work for us. Right now I'm looking for seamstresses. But it’s very difficult to find people who want to work in the clothing industry. Today, fewer and fewer young people don’t want to train in sewing to go and work for a clothing industry because they find it boring and very degrading. They don’t want to spend their lives sewing pockets and hemming. Furthermore, I often find myself meeting people of a certain age who are used to other clothing workplaces where they don’t think about what they are doing and so when they arrive here, they have to do exactly that. At Pé de Chumbo it’s different. Here they have to participate in a creative process, they have to think about what they are doing, they have to feel what they are doing so that things can go as well. We’ve managed to find these skilled people, including young people, but it’s increasingly difficult to get these people.

Left: Golden Sweater  by Pé de Chumbo Right: Unknown Title by Pedro Cabrita Reis at the Oliva Creative Factory, photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu 

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law - WFMFR): Pé de Chumbo uses its own process and textures which are unique. Have you ever been victims of knockoffs?

Alexandra Oliveira: I have never felt as though I have actually been copied. However, I’ve seen in View magazine, for example, textures which I’ve thought to myself "These are the same as what I did 4 years ago for Pé de Chumbo ". In international fairs, I always have people looking at the pieces and coming up to me asking how we make them. I have a Japanese couple who, in every season, come to my stand to try to see how we make our textures. They’ve asked us if we could make the fabrics for them or sell them the fabrics. For now, I'm not interested in this because I want to maintain the integrity of the brand.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR):   What materials do you use and what are their origin? Are you concerned about recycling raw materials?

Alexandra Oliveira: Mostly knitting, wool and raffia thread and we also use the extra material from the cutting and sewing machines. Since the beginning, I’ve made use of this extra material coming out of the cutting and sewing machine. I’ve also bought scraps of knitwear in clothing places and made a collection from colourful material that come out of the cutting and sewing machines. I’ve always made use of scraps to make other pieces. As for the origin of the material, it’s 90% Portuguese from Brancal and Logic. The rest come from a Spanish supplier and another Italian supplier.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR):  What are the sources of inspiration behind the creative process?

Alexandra Oliveira: I never think of something so as to inspire me. Usually, I develop three or four different themes: sportswear, party wear, women and youth. I always imagine the pieces hanging somewhere and colourful. I see the threads beforehand and then I select those that appeal to me, after I try them out on the machine. I create trends from the 1920s or the 70s, but there is no specific inspiration. But yes, this is a thing that I do and like doing and from there I develop a collection. I like observing, for example, a jumper and seeing what I can make from it. Is it possible to put a larger square on it? Can I make a coat from it? It’s a very experimental process. Sometimes the design comes after the finished product, only to note down the model and any changes. This isn’t just an inspiration. The pieces slowly develop one by one. I only think of a theme after four or five pieces.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR):  Who is the consumer for Pé de Chumbo?

Alexandra Oliveira: They are creative people who like to have a different clothes, even if it’s to wear with a basic item of clothing. I have many clients who are artists, people related to fashion and the arts.

Left: Silvery Sweater by Pé de Chumbo. Right: Untitled by Jean Marie Bytebier  at the Oliva Creative Factory, photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): Where can you buy Pé de Chumbo clothing?

Alexandra Oliveira: We sell to 25 countries on all continents. We have more selling points in Italy. Our biggest client is Japan, Turkey, the United States and Italy. For example, in Turkey, we are in VAKKO and in Italy we are at the Elisa Gaito Show-room.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): What are the major challenges that lie ahead for Pé de Chumbo? Are they any future goals?

Alexandra Oliveira: This year I did a catwalk show called Portugal Fashion that went very well. I made all the pieces for the collection without having to buy fabric. By working hard, I was able to accomplish what I set myself out to do. I’m a big dreamer but my feet are firmly on the ground. One of my main goals is to do something in Italy, perhaps a catwalk show. I have a project which has been approved with EU funding to take me in that direction. I also have the support of ANJE (The National Association of Young Entrepreneurs). ANJE and Seletiva Moda (Selective Fashion Association) are doing a fantastic job in taking designers to international fairs. We've done fairs in New York with ANJE and we’ve also done fairs with the Selective Fashion Association. But since 2007, I’ve been going to international fairs alone. My future goals have to do with the expansion of the brand, with the development of an image that is valued. We have no problems in selling, we’ve even given up some fairs just because we can’t produce more. Producing more doesn’t interest us but instead, we are interested in creating and selling pieces of clothing that have value. This is the only way we can evolve and produce less.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): In your opinion, what makes a brand strong?

Alexandra Oliveira: A brand must maintain its concept, continue along its same path, but you should not let it age over time. It can sometimes be a thankless job because from one season to another everything can change. Everything lies on those who buy the product.

Left: Yellow dress by Pé de Chumbo Right: Ohne Titel by Tobias Lehner at the Oliva Creative Factory, photo by Lígia Carvalho Abreu

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR): In your opinion, what would be an important change to make or where should we invest in order to give more visibility to young designers and Portuguese designers and brands in general?

Alexandra Oliveira: Nowadays young designers have all the support they want if they choose to use it to their advantage. They have ANJE or Selective fashion, for example. If they are committed enough, they will have people who will put their items on show. They also have social networks. In my day, when I started, there was none of that. However, despite these platforms being important for promoting a designer’s piece of work, it doesn’t necessarily create a supportive framework for them. If a young designer sells their items at a fair, what company is interested in producing small quantities? Sustaining two or three seamstresses is very difficult. Ok, there is support towards taking them to fairs, in paying for everything or almost everything, for example, a catwalk show, to show their work. I think they are beginning from the end. Firstly, there should be a supportive structure for production. It’s very difficult to have only 3 or 4 coats made, prices are sky- high. Portugal Fashion and ANJE give us fantastic images, they give us a fantastic portfolio, they take designers to Fashion Weeks in Milan, Paris, New York, London etc ... but they are not yet at a certain level of sales in Portugal and abroad. I know they are thinking about this, but it's a job that still requires development. Buyers can come to Portugal Fashion because this event has great quality.

Lígia Carvalho Abreu (Fashion Law-WFMFR):  Thank you Alexandra for this interview.

Alexandra Oliveira: Thank you.