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On Slow Burn: Felipe Oliveira Baptista

I first met Felipe Oliveira Baptista about five years ago when he visited Hong Kong to launch his own line of clothing in Harvey Nichols. Since then the down-to-earth Portuguese designer has landed the role of creative director of Lacoste and won rave reviews for his work. Considering how tough the fashion world is, I was so happy to see this talented designer finally be recognised for his work. We reacquainted again last October in Paris and he filled me in on his new line and work for Lacoste. Read on to find out more.

AFTER 10 years as a struggling designer, Felipe Oliveira Baptista has finally hit the big time. Since he launched his own label in 2003, he has been hovering above the fashion radar, winning a few high profile awards along the way including the prestigious Hyères festival, and LVMH/Andam awards. However it wasn’t until he bagged the job of creative director at French sportswear brand Lacoste last year SUBS 2010 that editors stopped and took notice.

“It helps a lot media wise, and gets my name out there,” says Baptista, sitting in the middle of his vast white showroom in Paris.  “For Lacoste to take on a designer who does a niche line is a risk but it adds an interesting edge. For me it’s difficult to compete with the big brands so when I got good reviews a few weeks ago for Lacoste it really helped for my own show. It’s a win/win situation,” he admits.

The appointment of a relatively unknown Portuguese designer may have come as a surprise to those who had never heard of him, but Baptista has paid his fashion dues. Born and raised in Portugal, he chose fashion as a way of escaping his small hometown and studied at London’s Kingston University  instead of the more popular Central Saint Martin’s.

“Kingston had a fashion department that had quite a commercial approach, while Central Saint Martin’s was a bit too “fashion” for me,” he says. “I was really attracted to the visual side of fashion, especially since it was the late 1980s when all the photographers started to get famous. The click came when I understood the construction side – it’s still one of the core elements in my work.”

Inspired by minimalist designers such as Helmut Lang and Jil Sander, he honed his craft at brands such as MaxMara and later at Cerruti where he learnt a different side to the business (and designed plenty of camel coats).

“MaxMara was the most corporate experience I had but I learned loads about fabric – the quality, and about how it works with the garments. Even after I left I continued to consult with them. Cerruti was the shortest but they had a real atelier in Paris so it was nice to get that experience,” he says.

When the time came for him to launch his own label, Baptista was ready to return to the experimental, creative side of fashion. In 2005 he launched at Couture week instead of the busier ready-to-wear schedule, which meant that his collection had to incorporate a substantial amount of handmade pieces.  While his concept-driven shows were poetic, he made the decision to reposition the label in 2009.

“We grew out of [couture] because it was time to become a brand and focus on ready-to-wear. Couture was great but it was about aesthetics and less about garments. It got to a stage where I wanted to be a designer that made clothes that would be worn. I didn’t want to be a designer whose pieces just sat in a museum,” he says.

His new ready-to-wear line, which is now in its fourth season and available at Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, is modern yet wearable while still playing on Baptista’s love for construction. This is most evident in his recent spring/summer 2012 collection, which is inspired by the idea of freedom and features loose dresses made from fluid silk that can be transformed into different styles or deconstructed via multiple zips. Everything comes together in a vibrant palette which features colour blocks of turquoise coral and yellow, offset with white.

“I’m really interested in clothing you can live in. You have a look that is still comfortable, easy to wear and that you can travel with. It’s quite pure but at the same time there is a lot of graphics going on. I have always been obsessed with the army and functional clothing, so there are parachute dresses with mesh inserts and separates you can play with,” he says.

It made sense then that his chic collections caught the eyes of executives at Lacoste, who approached the designer after his friend and former boss Christophe LeMaire jumped ship to Hermes. Baptista was keen to take on the role, his only caveat being that he could continue his own line, which they immediately agreed to.

“I’ve been up for big fashion house jobs but this was different because it was like being a producer doing music; you have to make a hit. It’s not just about a show, you have to make products that are very democratic and appealing, and that need to sell. Lacoste is the Ralph Lauren of Europe – they sell products every one to two seconds somewhere in the world. It’s also in the top 10 of most recognisable logos in the world.  It’s not about an ego-driven fashion designer; it is about a different design point of view. It also has a different positioning to my own line so it will never overlap,” he says.

When he debuted his first collection for the brand in September at New York Fashion Week, Baptista presented a sexier version of the Lacoste woman. The collection features favourites such as the colour blocked rugby shirts (now worn as a tight or sheer long dresses), cropped polos and drop waist sleeveless shifts with an air of Parisian chic.

“I wanted to get Lacoste out of this weekend preppy club so it’s slightly more urban. It’s for the 30-year-old woman who lives a fast life, likes easy clothes with a little something extra. We picked a lot of iconic pieces and twisted them. The polo becomes a backless dress that is a bit more sexy and feminine. The fabrics are more fluid whereas before there was a lot of cotton. Everything has to be credible – if just looks fashionable it’s no point,” he says.

For next season Baptista will develop the men’s wear (plans for his own men’s wear line have been shelved for the time being), while working on the next collection which will touch “on a forgotten part of the brand,” he says.

As for his own label, he is working on his second line, FOB by Felipe Oliveira Baptista, which he launched last year.  Both his brands are doing well, with Asia holding the position as his number one market, although he maintains that he wants to grow things organically.

“Everyone sees the opportunity there, but there has to be an education there – I’ve noticed in China things go so quickly so I can’t predict what is going to happen.

“Overall I am proud of what I have done. When we first started the chances were that we wouldn’t survive the first five years. If you look at statistics, 80 per cent of brands don’t make it. I have to live in the now, and I can’t think too far ahead. I would be lying to say that I wouldn’t like that to be successful, but that’s not what drives me. You can’t be driven by that as you become obsolete immediately,” he says.

As published in the SCMP on December 23 2011.

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