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Photo Credit Imna Varandela
Interview

Cecilia Portela

08.29.17

I was deep into my summer wardrobe when a friend introduced me to Cecilia Portela’s collection of timeless, sustainable clothing and I immediately began longing for her cotton shirt dresses and silk skirts to traipse about the Hamptons for the remaining weeks of summer. Matka, which has several meanings in multiple languages, is a type of silk used throughout the collection that Cecilia discovered during one of her first trips to Nepal. She never intended on developing a line of clothing, but that’s exactly what happened a few years ago when she fell in love with raw silk. She met a tailor in Nepal and eventually many other artisans who continue to produce her collection today. Sustainability, ethical practices, and artisan-led are the cornerstones of Matka.

Interview

Do you have a strong design background – what inspired your initial love of clothing and textiles?

I haven’t studied fashion design. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and before creating Matka I worked as a Production Manager for top fashion photographers in Barcelona. I always knew what I liked, disliked and what I missed when shopping for clothing.

During my first trip to Nepal I saw an opportunity to create and produce, in an ethical way, the pieces of clothing that I had always wanted to have in my wardrobe, combining 100% natural fibers with simple, timeless, and effortless designs. I can’t remember the first time I was intrigued by clothing and textiles, but I’m sure it was at a very young age. I’ve always enjoyed looking into my mother’s and my aunt’s closets and retrieving pieces from past decades.

I sense that my passion for textiles increased when I traveled to countries like Turkey, Morocco, Peru or Bolivia, and I witnessed how handcrafted textiles were actually made. Now that I’ve created Matka, my main commitment is to support hand weavers in Nepal and slowly expand it to other countries.

How did you arrive at the name Matka?

I was first introduced to the world of handwoven silk in Nepal and I discovered that there wasn’t just one but many different kinds of silk. The variety that caught my eye at first, due to its thickness and roughness, was Matka silk. That name somehow became part of the project and I immediately felt attached to it.

I later discovered the word Matka meant ‘mother’ in Polish, Czech, and Slovak; ‘womb’ in Macedonian; and ‘journey’ in Finnish. Meanings that I believe close a beautiful circle.

Tell us about the Spanish fashion industry? Are you close with other designers?

I honestly find it quite difficult to answer the first part of this question as I don’t personally include Matka in the fashion industry. Matka was born as a ‘creation platform’ not as a fashion label. I consider it a very personal project focused on provenance, materia and shape. It grows and evolves organically and it neither follows trends or the rules set by the industry, such as making pre-seasonal/seasonal collections and sales. Sometimes I think that making clothes could be almost considered secondary as my main interest is specialising more and more in yarns, weaving techniques, natural dyes, and ancient cultures. I feel grateful to be surrounded by talented, nourishing, creative, and like-minded people, such as designers, photographers, art directors, architects, ceramicists, weavers … In Spain and abroad.

 

What do you enjoy most about traveling without a predetermined plan? Has that ever posed any challenges?

I feel more at ease having the freedom of staying longer or leaving earlier from a place depending on how I feel or what/who I find there. This obviously has its pros and cons. The price of this freedom is the sometimes uncomfortable uncertainty of not finding transportation or a place to stay, or paying more for a flight back when I only booked one way.

A few years ago a one-way flight to Montevideo turned into a 9-months trip around 9 countries in South America. When I left Barcelona I did not know neither the countries I was going to visit or the time that I was going to be away from home. I made decisions day by day, I could not have done a trip like that any other way.

I’m not a fearless person, I’m very aware of dangers, but I generally trust and so far it has worked out quite well. I can see this confidence decreasing with age but I try hard not to let fear take control.

When I travel around Europe I usually plan and book things ahead, though. It’s just a matter of budget and safety.

How would you define conscious consumption within the fashion industry?

Conscious consumption is a thoughtful process that takes into account quantity, quality and ethics. At least some of these questions should come to our mind when purchasing a new garment:

Do I really need a new piece of clothing? Most of the times the answer is ‘no’. What role is this new item going to play in my wardrobe? Will I wear it once, never, or in many occasions?

How long will it last? A few weeks, months or years?

What material is it made of?

Who made it, how, where and in which conditions?

I find a lot of people currently obsessed with things “Made in Spain” but I invite them to look into how those products are made. Locally made is definitely a step forward, but it is not a guarantee of ethically made.

Does the exclusive use of all natural fibers have a large impact on the production process – about how long does it take to produce one garment?

I have never worked with synthetic fibers so I wouldn’t know the difference. Working with fabrics that are hand woven does make the biggest difference. The time spent producing one garment varies a lot depending on different factors: fabric and garment designs, if the fabric is exclusively dyed for a piece, etc.

These are the approximate timings for each step:

Hand weaving: 7 days to dress the loom (warping) and 1 day to weave 5 – 6 meters of a plain fabric / 2 – 3 meters of a complex design. (Matka garments take from 2 to 4 meters per piece).

Hand Dyeing: 1 – 2 days depending on the amount of fabric.

Hand cutting and machine sewing: For example, our oversized dusters take 10 – 12 hours per piece, trousers take around 6 hours.

How many local Nepalese artisans do you work with?

At the moment I’m working with two families of weavers (8-10 people in total), one family of dyers (up to 4 people involved), and 2 master tailors who, at times, hire 2 – 3 tailors to help them out with finishes. All of them live in the city or in the valley of Kathmandu.

What do you think are some of the key elements to creating a seasonless garment?

One of the key elements is obviously the materials used. Most of Matka garments are made with handwoven silk. Silk is well known for its temperature regulating properties, it helps keeping the body cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It’s ideal for all climate conditions. Matka pieces have simple shapes and can be easily layered as well. Using neutral colors is very important too, they are timeless and easy to combine with anything.

There are very few Matka items that are exclusively for A/W or S/S. I will soon introduce a heavy woollen wintery coat and it will be an exception in the collection.

How often do you introduce new styles?

I work on new designs when I go to Nepal. This happens once a year. My stays there usually last between 4 – 6 weeks and work is very intense and non-stop. I gather with the master tailors to work on patterns, with the weavers and dyers to make new swatches, and with the button makers to see what’s new.

During the rest of the year, I place orders from Spain using the same designs with different fabrics. I sometimes request small design changes, but not too many as it has been proved to be a bit confusing for the tailors.

How would you describe a Spanish woman’s personal style? How closely is it associated with her lifestyle?

Hmm … It’s hard to answer this question as there’s not just one woman, the same way there’s not just one style. Spain is such a plural country, it would be unfair to focus on just one group. I’m not aware of a specific “Spanish style” that would apply to all of us. Personal style and lifestyle I guess go together most of the times.

Would you ever consider opening a brick and mortar location in Spain or elsewhere?

I love the idea of having a house / studio / shop – all in one – but this would imply commiting to a place, and I’m not sure I’m ready to take that step yet. I was born in Santiago de Compostela and, after studying and working in many other cities and countries, I came back here. It’s quite charming to live in a small historical town, but for some reason I don’t see this as the last stop in my journey.

What are your favorite Matka pieces to wear while on your travels?

I always pack some thick silk trousers and a skirt (such as the Raw Silk Midi Skirt). I give both more or less the same use. They are extremely comfortable and can be worn with espadrilles, sandals or winter boots. With a shirt or a woollen jumper. In any ocassion, any time of the year.

A collarless or oversized shirt made in fine raw silk is basic. They are featherweight, versatile and wash really well. Since I introduced jumpsuits to the collection, mine come with me anywhere I go. It does take some room in the suitcase, so if that’s an issue I wear it on the plane.

Depending on the trip, I take a long sleeved dress if I’m not expecting too much rain, a pleated belted dress if I want a ladylike touch, or a loose square dress for any climate, any event. I try my best to travel light, so in this case I tend to choose.

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