Representing the creative future

Paula Canovas del Vas chooses books and research over catwalk shows

We take a dive into the research process of the Spanish-born designer who doesn’t follow fashion’s playbook

We arrive at Paula Canovas del Vas’s studio in Dalston after the sun has set. We start the conversation in Spanish, but Paula jumps between languages ​​as the interview progresses, as there are things she is used to responding to in English. There is a difference between the ‘Spanish’ and ‘English’ Paula. The first is quick, spontaneous, and offers responses that seem to surprise even her. The second is precise, professional, on guard. We talk about her research impulse, that from the beginning has been at the heart of the brand. She shows us a book of photographs where her team has documented the brand’s process. There are photos of their studio, ideas, novels, fabrics, objects that surround them, a myriad of elements come together in her work. Everything around the studio is susceptible to making it in the collection. As the interview continues, we wonder if this conversation will also leak into her universe in some way.

Your brand is synonymous with research. When does that relationship start?

Our brand has been closely related to research from the beginning. Its seminal idea was born when I did the master’s degree, which I was able to do thanks to the Stella McCartney scholarship, at CSM. I had a year and a half of time to focus on research, and that research laid the foundations for the future of the brand.

How is the centrality of research currently manifested within your creative proposal?

In that, we do not do catwalks, for example. We spend a lot of time reading, watching movies, doing research in general. We do not want to “throw away” all that work, which can take us six months or more, with a five-minute catwalk. It is absurd. That is why we like to create experiences that have a more personal touch and a post-exhibition life.

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“Our way of consuming fashion is totally different and yet the shows continue to be the same as many decades ago.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

So no Catwalks.

No. I think it is an outdated proposal. The industry has been doing the same since the 50s and I think that as creatives we can come up with more interesting things.

How do you understand the evolution of the utility of catwalk within the fashion industry?

Catwalks were born in response to the social roles of their time. Perhaps they worked then, but nowadays, it seems to me, are a little out of date. It is always the same concept: passive audience, objectified model. Our way of consuming fashion is totally different and yet the shows continue to be the same as many decades ago.

“Most consumers have no idea what it takes to create a garment. Mostly because there is no consumer education.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

How did your research develop during the pandemic?

During the pandemic we were investigating the relationship between process and product in the fashion industry. Most consumers have no idea what it takes to create a garment. Mostly because there is no consumer education. It is our duty as creatives to highlight that relationship, and explain the work, time, and techniques behind our products. So we made a book, which is like a visual collage, which collects our research processes: everything we did during the pandemic.

You’ve treated this theme before, am I right?

Yes. In 2019 we explored another way to show our creative process. We did a virtual reality exhibition, in which we recreated the studio space where the collection was designed, and people could observe the space where the pieces we sell were conceived. There, through a peep-hole, you could see all the references, the fittings, etc. that we later used to produce the final product.

“Going to the library is always a good option, or calling my father and talking with him about music or books. From there, threads come out and we can start pulling.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

Is there always a central idea, or are concepts intermingled?

Many times we mix concepts. For example, that VR project resulted from the desire to disclose our process, but also to investigate voyeurism. When talking to women about their perception of the feminine, one of the topics that came up most frequently was the feeling of being watched. That is why in our VR show we included giant models who observed you and followed you with their eyes. We aimed to recreate the very sensation of being surveilled, without having to be a star in a catwalk.

Is there a method in the way you do research? Do you usually start with a certain type of material?

It depends on the season. Sometimes we start out with an exhibition. In our very last season, we were inspired by the Noguchi show at the Barbican. The season before that was based on an analysis of fashion consumption and its relationship with the visual realm. My friend Gabriel Santos from Aesop recommended a book called The Eyes of the Skin, which asks why in modern architecture the sense of sight dominates the rest of the senses so much when it has not always been the case. I wanted to find out if there were ways to make a collection that could be experienced beyond its visual aspect, so I called my friend Zelika Dinga from Caro Diario in Paris to think about food.

It changes every season, but of course, there are some routines that always work. Going to the library is always a good option, or calling my father and talking with him about music or books. From there, threads come out and we can start pulling. We also use quite a bit of material from the files that I developed during the masters at CSM.

“I want an ongoing conversation between the work and the concept. I want our creative process to allow for improvisation and make room for mistakes.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

You are in the middle of a research process, trying different materials and playing with various ideas. When do you say: “this is it, I  have it”?

There are designers who are very clear from the beginning. For me, it is very important to be dialectical. I want an ongoing conversation between the work and the concept. I want our creative process to allow for improvisation and make room for mistakes. We start with something quite vague and there is always a conversation between work and the direction we are taking.

Does this mean that the research never ends?

Never. In fact there are references that remain with us once we have finished the collection to which they originally belong. Even when we have the finished product, we can touch up things with set design and styling. There is still a dialogue with the research. That’s why I love going to the factory, and seeing and testing the production process, because many ideas come from there.

“It is strange for me to find things that inspire me, but once I find one I go deep into it. ” – Paula Canovas del Vas

How do you relate to other media, with literature, for example?

Sometimes in reading, I find specific, clear messages, like what I mentioned about The Eyes of the Skin. Other times, it can be simply an energy. This happens to me with the work of Susan Sontag. It is that energy that inspires me, beyond the content of the work. I like Sontag’s directness and rawness, which I love even more because it comes from a woman, during a difficult time for women. And I like that she has such a broad, almost massive, frame of references but she manages to keep her writing very concise and clear.

Does the idea of condensing a universe into a concrete concept attract you?

Maybe. It is strange for me to find things that inspire me, but once I find one I go deep into it. And I like that in my personal universe things enter into dialogue with each other.

“Nowadays everyone has the same references, shares the same conceptual universe… ” – Paula Canovas del Vas

You have also been inspired by musical pieces or gastronomy. Do you think that there is a difficulty in transferring a musical, literary, gastronomic reference to the fashion format? How is this transfer of medium negotiated?

There is no difficulty. The medium may be different but the language itself is the same. For example, that directness and rawness that I find in Susan Sontag, I also find in Alice Coltrane’s music, or in Jodorowsky’s intent to create Dune in cinema. For me, the important thing is to feel that we are doing something different that somehow transcends fashion, at least as we conceive it now.

“The speed at which the industry demands that you produce, create, and show does not allow for more thoughtful processes. That is another reason why we do not do catwalks. We do not want to participate in that game.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

There are new informational channels, such as Instagram or TikTok, that have opened up a lot of research possibilities for current designers. At the same time, these media have created a centre of gravity in which many creatives seem to be trapped. Some kind of self-referential parallel world is formed, and that becomes a bit sterile.

I totally agree. Nowadays everyone has the same references, shares the same conceptual universe… Everything is sanitised; there is no texture to what we consume. Despite the fact that everyone seems to speak of their work as a challenge, as something radical, the truth is that there are very few things that are radical and truly challenging. I think a lot of depth is lacking in most of the things that are done today.

Does it have to do with the dynamics of the industry?

Of course. The speed at which the industry demands that you produce, create, and show does not allow for more thoughtful processes. That is another reason why we do not do catwalks. We do not want to participate in that game.

Can one get out of this?

Yes, but you have to be careful, because there are many cultural forms that seem critical or subversive with the dominant expression, but they are not. We know that many subcultures that are formed within dominant circles are often simply little mainstreams whose only virtue seems to consist in being smaller … Of course, there are people who are truly subversive, like Sontag. That is why I make an effort to read, to go to exhibitions, to somehow get out of that closed circuit.

What do you look at when you go to an exhibition?

I really like to understand the research process of the people I am seeing. I want to know where what is presented to me comes from, what are the references that have allowed this to take place. In the end, everything is a copy of a copy, of a copy.

Do you think that the verb “to create” is adequate to talk about your artistic process?

Yes, but it is not enough. There is some of that, but “to create” simplifies a bit what we do. It is part of the process but there is something else. Sometimes we do collage, we model.

When you are researching, do you filter your ideas according to their economic feasibility?

No. Because there is always a way to do things. I do not limit myself until we have to go to the factory. Then, I talk to my CFO, who tells me “this is not possible.” I do not put up a barrier until the very end. Sometimes I have the feeling that I am divided between an abstract and conceptual approach and a very practical one. And these two worlds live in me.

In peace?

Not in total peace. But I like to think that I do not have to compromise. I do compromise a lot at the end but I am happy about the way we do things. Sometimes there are technical barriers (a shoe has to meet a series of requirements to be able to be used) but when we do the installations everything is possible, and there we give free rein to our research process and ambitions. There is a place for everything.

“My anthem is not to improve, but to learn, to stay hungry.” – Paula Canovas del Vas

What is the relationship between your current research and the socio-political moment?

Sometimes the relationship is there in a direct way. We do respond to things and we take a stance. And sometimes it is there just indirectly because what we do can be, and sometimes must be, escapism.

Has there been progress in your research process?

What is progress? Progress from what and towards where? Do we measure it on the project’s output? On our ability to produce ideas based on the research we do? It is difficult to say, and it is not something that I consider so much. My anthem is not to improve, but to learn, to stay hungry. Nothing compares to the feeling of discovering something new that you have not been able to imagine before.