With more than three decades in the industry, Alves/Gonçalves is one of the stand-out names in Portuguese fashion. Essential met up with Manuel Alves, one of its creators
It’s impossible to walk into the Alves/ Gonçalves studio, in Lisbon’s Chiado, without noticing the vast collection of design items it contains. The great fondness shared by Manuel Alves and José (Zé) Alves Gonçalves, the brand’s two creators, for this area is generously represented. “I love things,” Manuel Alves confides, “but Zé Gonçalves is worse than me. We live within four walls and if we have something that moves us within these four walls, our existence is so much better.” Paintings, sculptures and music are other words to add to their list of “addictions”.
“It’s the blight of our lives,” he says, laughing. However, they are small pleasures that also help when it comes to creating: “A designer has to be an individual, acquiring all sorts of experiences. To amass knowledge he needs to be eager and curious. He has to do a great deal of research and live in a very particular manner; he has to endow everything around him with a cultured and sophisticated air. This isn’t a matter of elitism, but rather a duty we have to be very meticulous towards the life around us. This is something you build up over time.” This construction work has been undertaken with his partner, José Manuel Gonçalves, and which today reflects more than 30 years of history.
Quite detached from memories of former times, because, as he says, “the past has passed and what matters is the now and what the future will bring”, Manuel nevertheless reminisces about his first forays into the world of fashion and the start of his career. “I’ve been interested in fashion for as long as I can remember. At 18 I was already passionate about everything that had to do with the industry. I had an eye for aesthetics and I was very fussy about the way I dressed.” And so, he abandoned his management studies and opened a shop in Oporto, called Cúmplice. “I understood what proportion, harmony, texture and sensitivity were. I opened a shop with no experience at all (but) I sold gorgeous things.”
With three highly successful stores in Oporto under his belt, Manuel was unable to resist the call of the Portuguese capital. He gave up his business in the north and headed south. “Oporto wasn’t giving me what I wanted. At the time, I came to Lisbon and I could feel the vibe in Bairro Alto; the artists, the architects. So I packed my bags, grabbed my dogs, got on a plane and, thanks be, I was jettisoned into Lisbon.” The year 1984 was thus marked by the opening of the first store and the birth of the Alves/Gonçalves label. “I got here and it took me two or three months to buy a place on Rua da Rosa.”
Back then, the Bairro Alto neighbourhood was buzzing. It was a hub seething with artists from the most diverse areas, from architecture to fine arts, in addition to fashion, which was still in its infancy in Portugal. However, as the area began to lose its character, they were forced to change premises once again, this time to Rua das Flores. In 2003, the company invested in a prêt-a-porter outlet in Chiado, but the state of the fashion industry in Portugal led to its closure.
“You open an outlet and then you believe that the country has solutions, from an industrial point of view, to keep this project afloat. What happens is that, to start with, the factories say ‘yes’, and then they say ‘no’. We are on a ‘journey’ and there is nothing to support this ‘journey’. The factories say that the quantities requested are very small. The season goes by and we have no clothes. Small companies are thin on the ground and we are dominated by an industry that says no to small-scale production. When there is nobody to give support, we don’t exist. It’s better to just stop,” admits Manuel Alves. “There is certain romanticism around such initial decisions. Then reality shows its face.”
Today, the focus of their attention is the studio. “I only have my clothes here. Anyone who wants can come here (…) We now have a small brand; we have worked many years on it and it has a certain following within the country. We are respected and this is the part that pleases me.” And this is what they cling to in order to continue on their path, far from pressures and complacency. “Time forces me to make certain decisions. We get to a point when we say: ‘That’s how it is, and that’s the end of it!’ Determination is a given. I won’t give in! This is a very interesting facet that both I and José Gonçalves have towards the fashion system in Portugal (…) There is a certain independence towards the system. We tend to say: ‘if they want it, they want it, if they don’t then fine. That’s how I’m at my happiest’. There is a certain independence and a certain pride in the way we operate.”
This may be one of the reasons that led Alves/Gonçalves to drop out of the Moda Lisboa fashion show a few years ago. “For us, a catwalk show isn’t entertainment. It is professional discourse and therefore only our customers and friends go there. I don’t want to do fashion shows for millions because I already have and I never liked it,” he admits. “It has nothing to do with the brand and I entirely reject this kind of social event.” Nevertheless, they still present their collections each season. “We present collections every six months, always very carefully, very unusually, in fantastic venues.”
Aware of the state of fashion in Portugal, the duo has been focusing on other projects for a few years now. “The Portuguese always think that things can be done without the means. Things today are so demanding that you can’t get anywhere if you don’t have the right resources. It’s difficult for all of us. And so we need to be aware of things, to stay in our little corner and engage in other areas of design that are very interesting and which require a watchful eye, in which the creator’s ability to do something useful, stimulating, visually interesting is expressed and hits the mark.” This is the case of the uniforms they created for the airlines TAP, SATA and, more recently, TAAG.
Internationalisation has also been an area of concern in the past, but the risks involved ended up becoming too much of a deterrent. “I even went to New York a few times, but I called it a day. When you put all your resources at stake it becomes very dangerous. There is a structure that I need to keep running. I can’t place my life in danger. And once you take the step abroad, however alluring it may be, this attraction may or may not work. It’s not worth the risk. I’ve done enough somersaults in my life to not take the risk, to not take a shot in the dark and take a step backwards in my life, emotionally and financially. I prefer to stick with what I have and be happy with it.”
This work includes what he likes doing most: “dealing with human beings”. “I still do commission work. It is a very particular kind of contact, very personal with the individual. It greatly exceeds that relationship of worker and person commissioning the work. It goes beyond this.” Happy with the respect and admiration acquired in these 30 years of Alves/ Gonçalves, Manuel’s wishes for the future are simple ones: “My ambition is to be happy. I’m not after anything else. To carry on working hard and if anything has to happen, it happens.
“At any time of the day you ask yourself what you’re lacking and afterwards the answer is always obvious. It’s never about anything material. It’s always about having the ability to still be capable of responding emotionally to things and to feel that you are still alive, that things haven’t settled down and that everything is still bubbling. It’s the best thing there is the world. It’s feeling that everything is still moving within you, that your emotions are on a high and that you can respond to things passionately.” He concludes: “I’m not very demanding in life, I’m demanding about the things that surround me.