Once upon a time (read: almost three years ago), creative director Natasa Cagalj started building a London-based design team for Ports1961 womenswear. She now finds herself surrounded by female graduates from the Saint Martins fashion programme. It seems like the kind of fairytale opportunity many CSM students dream of finding after their education: a luxury brand they can run with their friends. We arrive in the Exmouth design space just a few days before their first show at London Fashion Week, yet everyone is remarkably calm and takes time to speak to us at length. Before we’re let loose on the women of the studio, Rachel Hewitt glides in with some bottles of water, urges us to sit down. Rather than an interview, we end up just hanging out for an afternoon, lusting after the waiting rails of clothing and having a long succession of relaxed chats.
The near-magical atmosphere of Ports1961 even has its own fairy godfather. Louise Wilson’s legendary presence can be felt throughout the workshop, and not just because Natasa has her portrait hanging on the wall. Wilson was actually intended to be involved in the Ports project before she passed away. “There’s not a day that I don’t think of her because she gave me so much,” Natasa explains softly. She also attributes the shared visual codes of many of her team to her old friend and mentor. “It’s like we speak a secret language. The secret visual language of Louise Wilson. That’s a very nice thing to have.”
A sense of harmonious communication certainly pervades the design space, perhaps aided by the bright airiness and neat lines of garments, though Rosa, a pattern cutter, warns me that this is not normal: “usually it looks like a bomb has just gone off.” As we speak to the team, they all reference Louise and the creative systems they share. Even the latest interns from the Central Saint Martins BA Fashion feel the Wilson legacy despite never having worked with her. Dominika, another warm and friendly member of the team, is excited to talk about the creative process: “When someone here says: ‘Okay I need a mood board’, you know exactly what the person wants, because we all went through the same drill, so you don’t do something like… ,” she completes the thought by pulling a face and laughing. Melody, another CSM BA intern nods along with Dominika’s exuberant stories before chipping in quietly: “It’s a very trusting and inclusive environment. You just understand each other.”
“You can kill things once you work into them too much, and they lose their essence. Your initial idea can get lost in the process and that’s the opposite of what Natasa does.”
We encounter stress exactly once, from Jessie, as she trawls music collections to find the perfect soundtrack to the catwalk show. The stress is understandable. Rachel introduces us to her as “a woman of about three jobs… and now she’s DJ-ing for the show.” Ports is known for their attention to detail and perfect fit in their clothing, and they expect no less from their music: “It’s a tricky balance. We need something a bit unusual and fresh, but not so niche that it’s inaccessible. Something that Natasa personally likes, but we try to stand out, not be that mainstream. You get a lot of runway music which is just horrible and soulless, so we try to have a bit of emotion in there as well.” It’s a lot of requirements, and not a lot of time. Jessie gives us her full attention to chat though, and in the end I’m more worried that we’ve taken up music-hunting time than she is. Much of this ease seems due to Natasa and her working style; “Natasa really sets the tone, and that is very intuitive. Not pushing things that are becoming too laborious. There’s something really cool about that. You can kill things once you work into them too much, and they lose their essence. Your initial idea can get lost in the process and that’s the opposite of what Natasa does.”
After years showing at Milan, the switch to appearing at London Fashion Week seems exciting more than stressful for Jessie, despite her musical stress. The rest of the team too obviously find comfort in the support of their friends and families, as well as the fact that London is the spiritual home of their clothes, inspiring and propagating their aesthetic. Natasa admits to not sleeping very well, but one has the impression of a child anticipating Christmas Eve rather than, say, a woman with a fast-approaching root canal surgery. There is a humbling sense of gratitude and, much as I despite the trendiness of this word, mindfulness: “It’s almost too good to be true what we have here, so I’m just going to enjoy it for the moment. It’s genuine.”
Jessie and Rachel both highlight how much they feel the lack of an egotistical pecking order from director to interns. “[Natasa] wants to hear what everyone thinks, even the interns. She wants to hear their opinions and actually cares what they think”. Dominika and Melody too spoke about how their opinion is always taken into account in the process, and Natasa, unprompted, mentions them in our interview as “amazing… there’s just something special.” She wants the whole team to feel “free” in the studio, and considers it a second home. It’s a priority that “people enjoy going to work” and “not torture themselves, it’s only about clothes at the end of the day!” Feeling respected and valued is for every member of a team that searches for intuition and creative flow. Natasa seems highly aware of the responsibility that comes with her position as well as the advantages; “It’s always about the team. It’s not a solo mission. I just need to push and I’m the responsible one for all the good and bad things that come out of it. I get the blame, and a bit of glory sometimes as well.”
“It’s always about the team. It’s not a solo mission.”
As recent graduates who witness and experience a lot of exploitation, and face the choice between unemployment or being underappreciated and over-worked, it’s inspiring to see young fashion students and graduates who gain so much from their work, and to hear their co-workers speak of them so highly, as valued members of the team.
The Ports approach isn’t just a godsend for fashion students, but for busy working women at large. Their dynamic of women designing for, and dressing, other women is incredibly refreshing. It’s a “more realistic approach to design,” according to Natasa, “which you always find when it’s a female designer involved. Men are usually more creative because it’s fantasy.” Yet it seems for many women that some amount of practicality is their dream, and it’s the approval of busy women with busy lives that Natasa seeks, rather than a narrow sector of young It girls or ladies at leisure. “In the two years that we are here we have customers that come back for more, and that’s the biggest compliment you can get.”
For Jessie, there is a difference in inspiration for an all-female design team: “This is women for women, make what you would want to wear. Usually it can be this hyper femininity, hyper sexuality kind of thing. This is a bit more down to earth, that sounds so awful. Designers have that ‘girl’ sometimes, who basically is very few girls. When we’re considering things we’ll like hold it up in front of ourselves, Natasa will hold it up in front of herself, she’ll consider how it looks on all of us, and we’re all just different normal-looking women.”
Rachel’s description of the design process touches on the universality of brand that focuses on something beyond overt sexuality. “We have people who are 22 and people in their 40s, so it’s a wardrobe for everyone. Maybe that’s where being a woman comes into it. You think about the practical reality of stuff. How is this going to make you feel in a certain situation? Are you going to be at ease in this social context if you were wearing this? You can see sometimes when fashion is so painful to make, it looks painful. This is quite joyous to make, so I hope it looks joyous.”
At the show, backstage was once again remarkably calm, far more so than the throngs of women outside, panicked about getting in, though occasionally stopping to pose with faux-jaded expressions for street style photographers. The clothes indeed look joyous on the runway, from exquisite tailoring to a sequinned dress I strongly consider giving up eating to purchase. For all the emphasis placed on practicality and comfort, each look still retains that sheen of aspiration, beauty, and, yes, magic. And the music? The music was perfect. May they design happily ever after.