Portuguese native, Felipe Oliveira Baptista has regularly collected premium-level fashion awards since graduating from Kingston university in 1997. The designer was unanimously voted for the Grand Prix at the renowned Hyères festival in 2002. A year later, the highly coveted Andam award allowed him to launch his couture business. Creating garments with a genuinely contemporary aesthetic, the Chambre Syndicale were quick to invite him to show on the couture calendar in Paris. The federation has also offered him platforms to present collections in Shanghai and São Paolo. Still in his mid-30s, Baptista was appointed as creative director for Lacoste last year.
Caroline Issa So we're here at your new base in Paris, where you're working as Lacoste's new creative director. How has the transition been?
Felipe Oliveira Baptista Very exciting and demanding. It's been nearly a year since I joined, and I said I would give myself a year to find a stable rhythm and it couldn't have gone better. It's been very exciting and at the same time challenging keeping the balance between dedicating enough time to my own label and ensuring my presence at Lacoste allows me input into everything. I'm learning a lot too, dealing with the textiles and the accessories collection. Today we've been working on the new campaign for spring/summer.
CI What made you decide to take on the role?
FOB I thought it would be really interesting because it's not just designing another collection; it's overseeing a whole brand - the image and the story of the brand as well. Also, it was a brand that I grew up with and related to. Plus, I like sportswear.
CI Was your collaboration with Nike a few years back your first foray into sportswear?
FOB Then I did something with Uniqlo as well. [Reinterpreting classic Nike pieces] was my very first sportswear collaboration, and it's been something that I've always looked at. I find the sportswear arena questions things and pushes designers forward. The polo shirt was an innovation in itself.
CI Was it the polo that got you excited about taking the job?
FOB I wanted to expand the idea of Lacoste and make it wearable for every day of the week, because it has a whole lifestyle possibility. When I was doing my interviews for the role, I emphasised wanting to change it from just being thought of as a leisure and sports brand, which is a big challenge.
CI What do you think you will bring to Lacoste?
FOB I've already started working on a lot of the cuts, and we've spent much more time on fittings and focusing on volume and proportions. Lacoste is a brand that is about colour, too. But we want to talk about colour in more subtle ways. And while I often like to look back, I never like to do things with a retro feel. So I was looking through a lot of pieces and pictures from the archives and drawing on the heritage. The idea is to communicate what Lacoste is today and what it will be tomorrow. It might sound pretentious but Lacoste pieces should be really relevant to how we live.
CI So what can we expect for spring 2012?
FOB You know how the polo is typically a woven fabric? Well, we've done it in silk and other combinations. We've also done a rugby shirt - something that we always did really well for menswear. And we've done all sorts of colour block patchwork for women. Plus the outerwear is much bigger too.
CI I know you've worked in bigger companies [MaxMara, Cerruti] consulting and supporting teams. Still, it must be a new experience to have a big budget to work with and a full team to support you.
FOB Yes, it's great when you can develop things far quicker. The flipside is that everyone gets involved so that can slow the process too. When it's just me and [business partner-wife] Séverine, we can quickly decide on things and do them. It's weird how with your own small label, you just have to make things happen - I now have less than half the time I used to, but I still manage to fit it in.
CI Let's talk more about your own label. It's really been gaining momentum; I know your coats are selling out at Browns in London. Tell me about the kind of women you design for.
FOB We never really design for a specific woman. I like the idea of appealing to different types of people. But if I had to personify her, it's someone who appreciates a good cut. I'd like to think that if I were designing sofas, I wouldn't be thinking of the people who are going to be sitting in them. With clothes it's the same; it's just about creating special pieces that we love. But I hope that when people buy one of my pieces, it will be an essential piece of their wardrobe and not just for the season.
CI Now that your label is eight years old, how do you see it developing during the next decade?
FOB Well, ideally I, would like to have started menswear by now. That was supposed to have happened, but then Lacoste started and I can't do it all. I would really like to have a shop in the near future too. Maybe in Paris for the brand's 10th anniversary. Just thinking about a space to show clothes would be really interesting.
CI Why did you venture into couture?
FOB Well, it was accidental in the beginning. I like the idea of the essence of couture, it being all about the cut and the perfect fit. I also loved working with the craftsmen - all the textiles and handmade things that were always a part of the collection. Sometimes we'd have just seven looks, but the sky was the limit. Ultimately, though, I want the clothes to be worn. At a certain stage, you decide it would be easier to reach a wider audience and just do ready-to-wear, given where you want the label to go, which is what we did.
CI Have your skills had to change over the last few years?
FOB I learn new things every year, whether it's from working with Nike or with the people putting each feather on fabric by hand. As a designer, you have a vision and you believe in certain things and how they should look and be constructed, and you can apply that to a bag, a photo, to everything. Of course, when I'm working with a shoe designer I know what I want but it's much more his patch. I'm interested, though, because it becomes a dialogue.
CI Do you work online or are you more of a paper person?
FOB I'm very paper. I'm online as well, but I love to do research in my libraries and I like to pick up old clothes and look at how things are made. It's funny because the other day I was writing a letter and my assistant came in and said: "Oh we should frame that, because I don't see anyone here writing by hand any more." I do all my drawings by hand. At Lacoste, all the designers draw using computer programs. So while I know that computers can streamline things, I always start with pen and paper or on a mannequin. But to imagine how a colour block can be done 15 different ways, computers are the solution.
CI Do you get any inspiration from blogs or images online?
FOB All the designers here do that, as do my assistants, but I don't really follow any. I also tend not to read or follow that many fashion magazines. First, because of lack of time, and second, I prefer to nourish myself from other sources. An inspiring exhibition can prompt me to try new things.
CI I remember seeing your fall 2011 collection in the showroom in March, when you had a mood board full of frogs. Remind me what your inspiration was.
FOB I had seen the film The Road, and I read The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, which is about a post-apocalyptic world and global warming and people having to protect themselves with hundreds of layers. There was this profusion of iguanas and reptiles that had invaded the world. And even though the book was written in the early 1960s, it reflects a lot of the fears that people still have today, and the themes were coming through in many of the drawings. I had found a picture of tropical frogs and their colours were amazing and from there, I decided to do something really direct and "jungly", which is why I used a lot of intense colours among blues and blacks.
CI Are you generally inspired by nature?
FOB Yes. I grew up in Lisbon, but I used to spend all summer in the Azores, this island in the Atlantic. It's pure nature. Anything we do will always be really crap compared to nature - design wise, anyway. You will never be able to get anywhere close to it. But I'm always thinking how clothes should relate to the body, how to redefine sensuality or sexuality.