“It was incredibly difficult organizing the fabrics into a collection,” the fresh CSM graduate replies when asked what the greatest difficulty was in pulling together his award-winning MA collection. We are sat in the brooding dimness of Brilliant Corners on Kingsland Road, just the setting for that artsy aloofness you often come up against when interviewing designers. Fortunately, Olaf Tavares Vieira exhibits nothing of the sort, continuing with refreshing measures of zest and ease: “I must have changed my fabric board about 100 times. I really like to play with compositions and see what does and doesn’t work, to see how the feeling changes bit by bit.”
In an attention-driven economy, with Instagram-likes a plausible contender for the next hot cryptocurrency, it’s reassuring to hear a perspective on clothing-making so purged of corporate compliance and tongue-in-cheek performativity. But, when the criteria for satisfying a fickle consumerist appetite and those of ‘success’ are one and the same, the question must again be asked: how can young designers with alternative visions navigate the industry with their creative dignity intact?
Olaf’s MA is a quietly defiant response, a presentation of clothes that question and challenge expectations of how they ought to be designed. “I began by exploring what a Western body looks like in a suit, where everything is straight, slim, broad-shouldered. And then I compared this to the Japanese philosophy of Hara, which states that you shouldn’t have to stand upright: the knees should be bent, the belly should be released – breathing in and holding back is really unnatural.” To achieve this, the shoulders of heavy outer pieces are dropped or pinched forward in an illusion of hunched comfort, and softly sculpted pleats at the waist echo the contours of a belly in curled repose: these are clothes that conform to the wants of the body, and not the body to the wants of the clothes.
Those that have followed Olaf since his BA will also notice the characteristic blurring of function and ornament, which returns with greater depth and nuance. Where the references to nature were once explicit, painted flowers for example, here they merge into woolen hues of earthen brown, ochre and mossy green. A pair of trousers in golden silk velvet is decorated with generous flap pockets (which anywhere else would risk coming across as a bit of a gag), and another pair in scarlet is peppered generously with snap-fasteners – they glint like sequins, while serving as the means by which the many possible configurations of haphazard folds are held.
“Basel was all about communicating with words first, and then trying to communicate your concept through your presentation,” says Olaf, referring to the four years he spent as a bachelor’s student at the Swiss city’s fashion school, FHNW. A visit to his page on their website confirms that he learned his lesson well: the only text is a short list of statements, seedlings that culminate in the most recent collection’s full bloom: “At the outset stands tradition”; “Structure becomes ornament, ornament couples with function”; “Defect becomes the crux of creation”.
As solid as the foundations he had laid were, he quickly realized that there was still much to learn on arrival at CSM. “It was really a cultural thing – the approach at FHNW was much more naïve. It was less grounded in fashion culture, not as grounded in clothes.” The transition effectively amounted to learning a new language, related, yet grammatically distinct: it was a question of relying less on the direct translation of concepts, and more on conveying them through garments alone.
Olaf’s work, along with that of Rebecca Jeffs, was awarded the L’Oréal prize, a formal pay-off for the journey thus far and an achievement worthy of rapturous applause. It also signposted life after CSM, triggering a reflection on his future as a designer, and on the old riddle of maintaining integrity in the face of commercial interest. “Winning it made me realize that I’d never really thought about it that much, but looking at certain scholarships, it’s clear that it’s a difficult way to go. Is it worth giving away your intrinsic sense of who you are as a designer?” In Olaf’s case, the path well-trodden to conglomerate-owned houses seems an unlikely one. “People need to return to smaller companies, where you have a greater view of how things happen and what they are worth: that’s what interests me the most.”
Words Mahoro Seward