Susana Bettencourt

"I would like it for the brand not to die with me”

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She grew up in Lisbon. She discovered herself in São Miguel. And in London she grew further. At 38, she is one of the most exciting creative names in Portuguese culture, with an ethos that is characterised as ‘handmade knit technology’. Her talent is immeasurable, placing her in the position of a Portuguese ambassador for handicrafts and knitwear. The artist’s collections have already passed through Rome, London, Vienna and Mozambique, capturing the attention of the entire world for the Susana Bettencourt brand, including that of Lady Gaga herself, who has even requested exclusive pieces. The secret lies in time. Introducing a time into other times. Taking the precise bits from them. Nothing more, nothing less. Embroider them cohesively, and unite them by threads that are not short-lived. In essence, a work that unites stories and traditions, guided by sustainability. More than a craft, Susana reveals that she has a mission: to immortalise handicrafts with modern brushstrokes. 
P. Ugo Camera
You learnt to crochet from your grandmother at the age of 5, when you spent the three summer months on the island of São Miguel. Was your creative identity beginning to show its first signs at that time?
Not yet. When I was 5, my enjoyment was based on making tables, chairs and Christmas presents. When I went to the island for the summer holidays, I remember that my evening entertainment was learning to crochet from my grandmother. Knitting, on the other hand, I learnt from my godmother, who lived opposite. Still, I think my interest was sparked by my great-grandmother. For many years I watched her crocheting tablecloths and trousseaux, and even when she went blind, she decided to continue. The onset of my creative identity came much later. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started crocheting and knitting clothes for myself. That’s when I realised, I wanted to dress differently; in fact, I remember inventing clothes and spending hours at the seamstress because I didn’t want the clothes as they were given to me. But I only discovered the identity that I have now, in my brand, at university and even at that time, it hadn’t yet fully developed. 

Later, you ventured to London for more than ten years. There, you graduated in Fashion Design, specialising in knitwear. Was there never a plan to study in Portugal?
Actually, the plan was to be a marine biologist or a psychologist. Then, I realised I wasn’t happy in the sciences, despite my good grades, and I chose to switch to arts, in order to express my artistic vision, even though I didn’t know which field I’d go into. When I realised that what I liked most was making and altering knitted clothes, I applied to the University of Lisbon. I didn’t get in. At the time, in 2003, the course I wanted had only just started in the country’s universities, so I thought I should look for other alternatives abroad. And then the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design came up. I liked the option and decided to go on an exchange in London first, and then apply for the course at the college. Getting settled was a breeze and I ended up extending my stay in London by ten years. After graduating, I wanted to go to the London College of Fashion to do my Master’s, as I had always been fascinated by the bridge between craft and technology. I must say that the London culture opened my horizons and the course was both intensive and competitive, factors that really helped me discover my identity. 

Before you started your own label, you worked for renowned designers, such as Fátima Lopes. What did you learn from those experiences?
I worked for Fátima Lopes, but also for Alexandra Moura. I even did internships in London and Australia. One of the greatest lessons I learned was from Alexandra Moura, when I understood the struggle I would face with the issue of a designer label. I also gained experience in terms of organisation and trying to do a lot with very little... It was always a learning experience, from the economic to the creative side. 

"Portugal is small and we end up suffering for its size”
P. Ugo Camera
And in 2011 you created the Susana Bettencourt brand. A fusion between artisan and digital work, is that how you describe it?
Yes, artisan and digital are the brand’s two pillars. In handcrafted work, I always try to modernise with new materials and application methods. It’s funny because I got this tendency from my aunt, from the Azores. When I was little, I remember watching her take traditional lace from the islands to try to transpose it onto machine embroidery. It was from her that I learnt the roots and the basics of all the techniques, although I later progressed in London, working independently. And so today my work is exclusive. It is my lace and not the one from Peniche or Vila do Conde. 
One of my greatest quests has always been to modernise and evolve handicrafts in order to attract people to this field. Nowadays, it is difficult to continue with doilies, tray cloths, towels, trousseaux... Trousseaux are no longer even a product type that is around these days. Therefore, it is necessary to modernise. We have a Joana Vasconcelos who proves that knitwear applied to the arts can be appreciated. So why can’t a little piece of knitwear applied to a jumper have value? Fast fashion may be one of the causes that justifies this devaluation, since it has been changing the notion of the value of clothing. It is therefore important to update things to make them relevant. Passing on this teaching is equally fundamental. So much so that I have agreements with universities to host interns, while in Portugal there are no faculties that have a fashion design course with knitwear. It’s amazing that we are in a country where 70% of exports are knitwear and there is still no college course in knitwear. 

At what stage does sustainability come in?
Sustainability is applied right at the beginning of the production chain. Now, the environmental aspect is consolidated from the use of waste, without forgetting that, as we are a small brand, we produce in smaller quantities and, therefore, we produce consciously. But we also invest in sustainability linked to knowledge. In the process of communicating the emotional value of the piece, for example, we can be sustainable and, if we are, the buyer will be more careful with the use of the product. 

What is the intrinsic mission of your work?
Let me say that, right from the start, I wanted to make my pieces recognisable. And I want to continue to do so, because that’s how you create a lasting project. I would like it for the brand not to die with me and, in fact, one of the goals I have is to make people fall in love with these craft techniques again, to learn how to do them. That’s my mission.  
P. Ugo Camera
Was it you who brought the tradition of handmade knitwear to the country?
There are colleagues of mine with other types of more specific techniques in modelling, sewing and experimentation. It makes me feel sorry, because Portugal is small and we end up suffering for its size. The market is small and it’s difficult to expand. I think we have already achieved something, proven by the growth of our textile industry, which is the recognition of ‘Made in Portugal’. People are already beginning to see big brands producing in Portugal. Nevertheless, the design business has not yet evolved as expected. We need to start selling our brands. Portugal would profit much more if the cost price was from here, as well as the brand. It could make a big difference for the country. It is true that we have some brands that have made the Portuguese industry evolve, such as Vilanova and Parfois, but more is needed. We have the know-how, the people. If we let all this fade away, it will be difficult to have someone to work in this field in a few years’ time.  

Do you follow trends?
I follow them in order to keep myself informed, because, as I said, I don’t want the brand to die with me and, therefore, I don’t want it to become outdated. I can say that I am aware of trends, but what I always try to do is develop an original look. This is my own creative development, which in the end is done looking inwards rather than outwards. 

If you were to collaborate with a Portuguese designer, which one would it be?
Although she is not a designer, I would like to partner with Joana Vasconcelos, because lately I have been working in the field of art and decoration, which are areas that give me a lot of pleasure.

"It is my lace and not the one from Peniche or Vila do Conde”
P. Ugo Camera
What can you reveal about the brand’s latest collection?
I have been exploring the origins, going back to the initial techniques. In the latest collection, I played with volumetry and 2D. The collection, which will be in the shops from August, was the result of a simulation of gradients, stripes and crochet flowers. Basically, as if I were thinking again with my 5-year-old head. The next collection, which will be presented at Portugal Fashion, between September and October, will be the evolution of these first ideas, transforming them into everything I have learnt so far. 

What is the state of Portuguese fashion?
We are at a turning point. My generation were warriors, because we went through the 2008 crisis, which dragged on uncompromisingly in Portugal. Therefore, those who created a brand during the crisis have a great deal of madness and passion in the mix. Nowadays, we have a new wave of designers with a different streak. While in my generation we were technical, today everything is directed towards marketing, photography, styling... I think we can succeed if the two worlds come together.   

Do you consider yourself the knitter of tomorrow?
I do. I consider myself, my team and everyone who is part of this project. 
Joana Rebelo
T. Joana Rebelo


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