After she graduated from Kingston University London and gathered experience in a fair-trade fashion business in India, Portuguese Joana Duarte decided to found her brand Béhen, which means sister in Hindi. In this interview, the designer points out why, for her, sustainability has more to it than just operating in an environmentally conscious manner. By supporting numerous, mainly female-focused, social projects with her brand, Duarte intends to spin human connections and positivity throughout her network.
Furthermore, she wants to narrate untold stories, passed through her vintage sourced fabrics and the women manufacturing her embroidery in small communities. Béhen’s last Spring/Summer 2021 collection focuses on femininity, transcending delicacy and softness through detailed embroidery, floral elements, and a mellow colour palette. Today Duarte is ready to present her Fall/Winter collection through Moda Lisboa tomorrow at 9:30 pm – you can't miss it!
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Your brand Béhen operates sustainably, ethically, and with zero-waste. Why are these principles so important to you?
It started with an existential crisis during my master’s degree in London. I was very into political art at the time and it quickly evolved into an interest in ethical production within the fashion industry. I started to question myself and my role as a fashion designer in a world full of industry-related problems. The truth is, I never wanted to create a brand, it sort of created on its own! For me, the question at the time was “how can I merge fashion and social causes? While having a low impact on the planet?.” This search for my purpose as a fashion designer took me to India, but, honestly, I went to India looking for Portugal.
The truth is nothing is 100% sustainable and personally, sustainability is not just about the materials used or if it's zero waste, it is about the people involved and the impact that a project can have in other communities - if it can contribute positively to others. That is the true essence of fashion, to contribute, improve.
You have interned at a fair-trade fashion company in Jaipur (India). How did that experience impact your way of approaching a new collection? What were your daily tasks there?
I was mainly developing block print patterns. This required me to visit the artisan’s facilities in a nearby village and to learn everything about the block print process and its specific requirements. During my free time, I volunteered in the slum area of Jaipur in a Center for child education and women empowerment, where I met beautiful ladies with amazing sewing and embroidery skills. They are still waiting for my return and to bring a bit of Béhen there.
Can you explain how an average day in your life looks like?
Most days I find myself surrounded by antique tablecloths and bed covers while drinking tea with my grandmother and talking about how beautiful hand-embroidery is. Also reading WhatsApp messages from women from all over Portugal who send me photos of their wedding trousseau and listening to voice messages of their hopes and dreams.
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The majority of the fabrics and textiles you use are sourced from flea markets from all over the world, as well as from your grandmother. Your troves include bed covers, tablecloths, or curtains. Why did you choose to acquire your material in this way? In your opinion, what does re-used fabric enhance a new item of clothing?
I guess I didn't choose the materials but the materials chose me. I remember since I was very young, I used to visit flea markets with my parents. So, it’s been a part of my life since I can remember.
Discovering the Portuguese bed covers only happened after my time in India, where I learnt about the importance of passing down sarees from one generation to another. I found the same belief in Portugal with 'enxoval' as we call it in Portuguese or trousseau. The concept of trousseau is very important in my family. When I was little I used to choose the colours of threads and the drawings for my grandmother to embroider. One day, my grandmother told me, “Someday this will all disappear, no one wants this anymore,” and suddenly Béhen was born. I believe that working with antique materials and re-using them is sewing new stories with plenty of magic.
All of your garments are manufactured by women in small communities all over the globe. How did you come up with the idea to fabricate your clothes in this distinctive procedure? What advice would you give other brands who want to approach a similar process of production?
It takes patience! The women that I work with are not factories, they need time and loads of attention. It’s very different from producing in a factory and way more challenging. The reason behind producing in small ateliers with these communities of women is not a plus to the project, it is a project on its own. For me, it’s giving these women an opportunity and impact on their lives in a positive way. They are from all over the world but living in Portugal! They all have different skills, some of them are even embroidery masters.
Also, having a relationship with the people who make our products is one of our core values. We believe that fashion became atomised, losing its essence and its power to connect people. Our mission is to bring people back together and we truly believe that fashion can do it.
In your Spring/Summer 21 collection, you incorporated plenty of lace, embroidery, floral details, and bodycon shapes. What inspired you to design such a feminine and delicate collection?
I have been doing research on the concept of weddings for some time now and that was the main inspiration. As part of the process, I heard many women telling me their wedding stories and love dreams which helped me to connect with what it means to be a woman.
It’s undeniable that we as women share a mutual feeling that goes beyond words. I felt the same in India with women that didn’t even speak English and the same in Morocco with an Amazigh tribe. We simply connect, we are sisters, a community, that is why Béhen means sister in Hindi.
At the moment, my work is clearly connected to different aspects of what it means to be a woman. Our next collection will be very different because it is a different phase in the wedding, it's the honeymoon.
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The colour palette of your S/S 21 campaign is very vivid, bright, and playful, making it very light-hearted, romantic, and passionate. Can you describe your intention behind your choice of hue scheme? What was your main inspiration?
The bed covers and table cloths that I find during the months that I am developing the concept are crucial to define the colour palette. The truth is I am sort of dependent on what other people are selling, if no one is selling pink bed covers then I have to adjust the palette or completely change the narrative, but that's the fun part. It’s like fruits and vegetables you have to work with according to the season. If something is not available or I cannot seem to find it then it’s because it‘s not the right choice.
For your capsule collection with Levi’s Portugal, you used a specific marbling technique to upcycle deadstock denim items. Why did you choose to apply this explicit method? Can you elaborate on the process?
My first thought for the Levi’s project was a very Portuguese item, present in every Portuguese household. The traditional 'Azul e branco' or 'blue and white' soap. It is the emblem of a nation but it is also a treasure on the verge of extinction. Although it is a 'miracle-maker' in many women’s books, it is a symbol of the struggle related to female labour.
To represent the soap and its effect on the water, I invited the artisans at the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation in Lisbon, who opened the doors for us to enter their mind palaces and peek into the piles of fantastic secrets and marvellous execution manuals they keep. In an environment of co-creation, these master explorers of traditional crafts taught us how to transpose an ancient marble painting technique into a new canvas: denim.
It’s not only a powerful symbol of women and working class’s efforts and struggles, but of revolution as well. The outcome is a capsule collection of fifteen new pieces of clothing where 30% of the revenue of each purchase will go to Príncipe Foundation, dedicated to conserving and protecting the biodiversity of Príncipe Island, in the São Tomé e Príncipe archipelago.
With Béhen, you support social organisations as well. For instance, you collaborated with Aga Khan Portugal – a foundation supporting social coherence in communities shaped by migration – in one of your first projects. Why did you choose to team up with this organisation? Apart from this, what other causes in society do you care about?
As soon as I finished my master’s in London (right after my journey to India), I came back to Portugal and started to look for organisations and smaller groups of women who were learning how to sew or embroider. Similar to the centre that I volunteered at in India, but this time, in Portugal. I was doing research for many months until someone advised me to contact Aga Khan. Thankfully, it was love at first sight and we still collaborate. Apart from working with them and other smaller ateliers in Portugal, we do have a smaller project inside Béhen where we support Syrian children education with 5% of each sale.
We try to do our best to collaborate and partner with other projects. In our first collection, we partnered with a waste valorisation cooperative in Príncipe Island, in the São Tomé e Príncipe archipelago to develop beads from recycled glass catch on the seaside.
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Why do you think fashion can be a change for good?
Personally, I think fashion is one of the biggest industries in the world with a tremendous influence on what happens globally. Imagine if every brand could have a positive impact in a certain community or if there were more collaborations with local artisans and artists? But things are changing, and designers are more and more aware of this, so the future looks bright!
In the future, what will be your next steps with your brand? Are there any upcoming (social) projects?
Although the brand was officially launched in the middle of a pandemic, the goal was always to become international – an example to the industry that fashion can be good. I wanted to create an international community of women who are in some way connected to the project as well as generate more jobs and opportunities worldwide.
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