Young Spanish designers reclaiming traditions

Young Spanish designers are reclaiming their "Spanishness": age-old traditions, religious imagery and even the colour black, which centuries ago was a signature of the country's all-powerful monarchy.

Young Spanish designers reclaiming traditions
A visitor at the 'Modus' exhibition in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel Bouys.

That is one of the messages at the “Modus” exhibition currently running in Madrid, which explores the influence of Spanish history and tradition on global fashion, including up-and-coming designers. 

“It's a very important moment (for Spain) with designers like Palomo Spain, Leandro Cano, ManeMane, who are reclaiming Spain's position in fashion,” says exhibition curator Raul Marina. “Young designers are making noise again, and they're doing so via  inspiration that is totally Spanish.”

Black and side hoops

Take black, a colour that has come to symbolise French chic as epitomised by Coco Chanel's 1920s little black dress.

Its use in fashion actually originated in 16th century Spain. Before that, it had been a difficult colour to wear. After multiple washes or through constant use, the dye would just subside and turn into a greyish, brownish mush.

But then Spain conquered the Americas, and more specifically Mexico in the 16th century. There Spaniards discovered a tree called logwood. It held a secret – from its wood could be made an intense and lasting black dye. 

At the time, Spain was a major economic and political power. King Felipe II adopted that intense black as his own and the fashion statement soon spread.

The monarchy was “a reference for all its European counterparts, as was its austere black gown which would become the expression of maximum elegance,” Amalia Descalzo, an expert in clothing history at Spain's ISEM Fashion Business School, writes in the exhibition booklet. And so it has continued.

Foreign and Spanish designers like Cristobal Balenciaga embraced black in their creations and the younger guard are doing so too, in their own way.

On show at Madrid's Sala Canal de Isabel II is ManeMane's black bodice and skirt, complete with a hat typical of the southwestern region of Extremadura, where brand founder Miguel Becer comes from.

The same century that Spain promoted black, it also created the “verdugado”, a structure worn under a skirt that held it into a fashionable shape. That fashion statement also spread Europe-wide.

Later Spain unleashed another trend — the “guardainfante”, loosely translated as “infant-guard,” side hoops that extended the skirt at the sides. “They said it hid ladies' pregnancies,” says Marina.

The quirky “guardainfante” was famously immortalised in painter Diego Velazquez's masterpiece “Las Meninas.” That influence is visible in Juanjo Oliva's yellow, bell-shaped velvet dress, on show in the exhibit.

Bullfighting, flamenco

Then come Spain's world-famous exports — flamenco and bullfighting have inspired designers from other countries.

A Givenchy bullfighting-style jacket made out of black velvet with arabesque-like red embroideries and pearls.

 A black Lanvin dress with a cascade of ruffles and cream-coloured polka dots inspired by southern Andalusia's flamenco tradition. “It's often said that internationally, foreign designers have soaked up and felt prouder about Spanishness than us,” says Marina.

But that's changing, he adds. Religion, tradition are making a comeback. Palomo Spain, whose flowery gown was worn by Beyonce in July 2017 for her first shot with her newborn twins, has a short white silk dress with a halo-shaped headdress on show.

Leandro Cano's white tutu-shaped dress with flower prints — as once worn by Lady Gaga — takes inspiration from the reign of King Felipe III. ManeMane's creations on show are influenced by craftwork from Extremadura.


Fashion consultant Marta Blanco says there is an “awakening” in an industry she feels was marked by a sense that “anything Spanish harked back to the Franco regime.”

But 43 years after the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, that's waning. “Someone like Leandro Cano can get inspiration from Spanish bullfighting, from religious imagery… without it evoking fascism,” says Blanco.

She believes there is also an “awakening” among Spanish consumers who feel “pride” in their country. Spain's superstar chef Ferran Adria created a global revolution in gastronomy, Spain won the World Cup in 2010, Euro in 2008 and 2012, Rafael Nadal is a major tennis star, Spanish brand Zara is everywhere.. “That creates empowerment,” says Blanco. “Ferran Adria took away our insecurities, and now it's happening in fashion.”

READ MORE: Barcelona's Senegalese street vendors present own clothing line


In Spain, migrant-designed trainers kick against system

Set up by migrants, the Barcelona Street Vendors Union has just launched its own brand of trainers in the hope of "changing the rules of the game".

In Spain, migrant-designed trainers kick against system
Trainers are on display at Top Manta, a clothing line created by migrants in Barcelona. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

When he left Senegal, risking his life to make the dangerous boat trip to Spain’s Canary Islands, Lamine Sarr never thought he’d end up selling fake goods on the streets of Barcelona.

Known as “manteros” after the blanket on which they lay their wares, these street sellers live a precarious life, always on the lookout for the police.

So Sarr decided to do something different: he helped set up the Barcelona Street Vendors Union. 

“As we were always selling counterfeit products, it gave us the desire to create a brand with our own designs and our own clothes,” explains Sarr, 38, inside the union’s shop in Barcelona’s Raval neighbourhood.

And the name they’ve given the trainers is “Ande Dem”, which means “walking together” in Wolof, the most widely-spoken language in Senegal.

Behind the project is Top Manta, a clothing company set up in 2017 by the union, which is mostly made up of sub-Saharan Africans.

“When we first created the brand, we thought about trainers. We thought it would be easy but we didn’t have the means,” Sarr told AFP.

And what better way to kick against the system than by giving those who are known for selling fakes on the streets of Barcelona their very own brand of shoes, made locally in Spain and Portugal.

The project has been two years in the making, with the manteros working with two local artists to create trainers made from sustainable, vegan-friendly materials that that are produced in small local workshops rather than mass-produced.

With a robust sole, they come in black or tan with a strip of colours “reflecting Africa” and the Top Manta logo: a blanket, that also represents “waves” of the dangerous sea crossing many brave to reach Spain.

A migrant from Africa works at Top Manta, a clothing line created by an association of African street vendors in Barcelona. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

Launched earlier this month with a thought-provoking ad on Instagram where the collective has 63,000 followers, the trainers retail at 115 euros.

“Life is not like a trainer advert. We know the race is full of traps,” says a woman’s voice-over footage of police racing after a migrant and wrestling him to the ground.

“It’s not about just doing it, it’s about doing it right,” she says, in a slogan with a clear spin on Nike’s Just Do It campaign.

Insurmountable red tape

Sarr says it is impossible to work as a street seller and not have problems with the law.

For the union, the main aim is to get the manteros off the street where many end up no thanks to Spain’s immigration laws.

In order to get residency papers, the law requires non-EU citizens to prove they have been in Spain for three years, to show a one-year work contract, have a clean criminal record and more.

“How can you be in a place for three years without doing anything? I couldn’t believe it,” said Sarr who didn’t tell his family in rural Senegal that he was leaving for Europe.

Following a week-long sea crossing, he arrived on the island of Fuerteventura in 2006, eventually making his way to Barcelona.

But it was only two years ago that he managed to leave his life as a mantero after the union helped him to obtain his papers, as it has done around 120 others.

Today there are around 100 street sellers working in Barcelona, according to City Hall figures.

It was the disappearance of tourists as a result of the pandemic that put an end to Oumy Manga’s five years working as a hawker on the streets.

Oumy Manga working at Top Manta in Barcelona. Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

Wearing a colourful turban that matches her dress, this 32-year-old is focused on making a t-shirt at the Top Manta workshop where African tunes mingle with the rattle of sewing machines.

She is currently finishing a course in dressmaking as well as learning Spanish and Catalan.

“I don’t like selling, that’s why we’re here: learning things so we don’t go back on the streets,” says Manga from Senegal, who sewed masks and other protective gear at the start of the pandemic.

‘An unrealistic law’

Some 25 people work in this basement workshop which they acquired with help from City Hall which has backed several of the union’s initiatives.

“The underlying problem comes from migrant influxes and a law on foreigners that is unrealistic,” says Alvaro Porro, who is responsible for head of the commissioner for the Social Economy at Barcelona City Council.

“In the end, it’s the cities who have to cope with the situation no thanks to a law that we cannot change.”

If she had known what was awaiting her, Manga says she wouldn’t have left her homeland. “It’s very complicated, being here five years without papers or work.”

Still without papers, she’s hoping things might change given her new-found ally, the sewing machine. “I’d like to carry on sewing, that’s my profession,” she says, dreaming of one day designing her own collection.

For now, it seems Top Manta has a future: so far it’s sold all of its first batch of 400 pairs of trainers and is now preparing to order another.