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FASHION

Meet Spain’s up-and-coming fashion designer taking haute couture back to the pueblo

Thanks to a combination of the pandemic, shifting attitudes and technological advances it is now easier than ever to work remotely. Álvaro Villalobos meets a Spanish designer who has gone back to the pueblo.

Meet Spain's up-and-coming fashion designer taking haute couture back to the pueblo
Photos by Cristina Quicler / AFP

Trained in Milan, up-and-coming Spanish designer Nicolas Montenegro has dressed Beyonce and Kylie Minogue, but with the pandemic, he’s gone back home to his village to launch his own brand.

Thanks to the internet and air links “there is no need to live in a big city,” the lean 31-year-old told AFP at his atelier in Lantejuela, a village of some 3,800 residents about an hour’s drive from the southern city of
Seville.   

Sketches and fabric samples cover one table while wedding dresses are piled high on another in a room decorated with family photos. His three employees, all local residents, are busy cutting fabric.

Going back to his village, which is surrounded by asparagus farms, is part of a global trend.

A combination of the pandemic, shifting attitudes and technological advances that make it easier than ever to work remotely, are prompting waves of people to move out of large cities and permanently relocate to more sparsely populated areas.

After studying at Milan’s prestigious Istituto Marangoni, Montenegro worked for four years at Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana where he dressed big names including Madonna, Beyonce, Kylie Minogue and Melania Trump.

Then in 2018, he moved to Barcelona to work at Yolancris, where he designed the spectacular pleated tulle dress worn by Spanish urban music singer Rosalia to the Latin Grammys that year.

But when the pandemic hit in March and a strict national lockdown was imposed in Spain, Montenegro decided to move back to Lantejuela to be closer to his father who had cancer, and who died in November after catching Covid-19.

Online fashion shows

Encouraged by his father, Montenegro launched his own brand and first collection of wedding dresses called “Abril”, or “April”.   

His sober, elegant gowns which mix vintage classics with a daring splash of exquisite cotton lace and dramatic bows have sold in Spain, Britain and Greece for €2,500 ($3,000) a piece.

Montenegro is now preparing an autumn/winter ready-to-wear collection.    

This time, his inspiration is drawn from the exotic tapestries decorated with tigers, deer and peacocks that his father brought back after his military service in Western Sahara in 1971, at the time a Spanish colony.

Montenegro plans to promote his collection in Madrid as well as online, a medium which has more scope than traditional fashion shows which “are over very quickly”.

“You don’t have time to enjoy it, and then everyone forgets,” he added.    

“I launched the wedding dress collection online, I made promotional footage and each dress had its own video,” said Montenegro, calling this approach much more “functional”.

‘Helping us a lot’ 

His venture has boosted the local economy, which has been hit hard by the pandemic despite being home to generations of expert seamstresses who make flamenco dresses and children’s clothing.

“He is helping us a lot because there is nothing else” here, said Estefania Ponce, a 38-year-old mother who works at the atelier.    

Unlike his Spanish peers who have found success abroad with unisex clothes for men, Montenegro — who as a child liked dressing dolls — focuses on women’s fashion.

He says his role model is his friend Alejandro Palomo, the 28-year-old designer behind the popular Palomo Spain brand which mixes Spanish traditions with modern twists.

Thanks to Palomo, Spanish designers “are once again being looked at abroad,” said Montenegro.

Palomo also has an atelier in his hometown of Posadas, located about 75 kilometres (45 miles) from Lantejuela.

“Without the village, we would be nobody,” said Montenegro.

By AFP’s Álvaro Villalobos

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BUSINESS

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.

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