LISBON, Portugal — "I was never the new hot thing. Which is great. Booming too quickly is dangerous, because it can only last for so long." So says Portuguese designer Felipe Oliveira Baptista, who, this year, is celebrating the tenth anniversary of his eponymous label, as well as the 80th birthday of sportswear giant Lacoste, where he has been creative director since 2010 and helped to give the brand, best known for its crocodile-emblazoned polo shirts, a fresh urban twist. "I like the idea of building something slowly, but which is here to stay," continues Baptista, who is here in Lisbon to open a retrospective of his work at MUDE (Museu do Design e da Moda), Lisbon’s fashion and design museum.
Baptista’s work for his own line is almost the antithesis of the skinny, rock’n’roll look that dominated fashion throughout the 2000s. Instead, it plays with sportswear and graphic, architectural lines. Meanwhile, his collections for Lacoste blend classic lines with touches of streetstyle. “I like dichotomies, streets and luxe, strong and fragile, sexy and bold," an eclectic taste acquired through travel, he says.
Felipe Oliveira Baptista was born in 1975 on the Portuguese Atlantic archipelago of the Azores and grew up in Lisbon. He travelled to Brazil every summer to visit members of his family and because his father was a pilot and spent a lot of time abroad, the young Felipe developed a veritable fascination with faraway cultures.
Baptista moved to London, aged 18, and enrolled in Kingston University, where he studied architecture and photography before graduating with a fashion degree in 1997. “In the end, fashion felt more fast-paced, more energetic and I realised I could inject design and architecture into it,” he says. During his time in England, Baptista also developed a taste for underground electronic music, especially drum and bass, and a love for sportswear.
After school, Baptista spent four years at Max Mara in Paris and Cerruti in Milan, before going to work for designer Christophe Lemaire, where met his wife-to-be Séverine, then Lemaire’s sales manager, who was instrumental in encouraging him to develop his own label.
He presented his first collection at the Hyères International Fashion and Photography Festival, where he won the top prize. The following year, he also received the Andam (Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts et de la Mode) prize from a jury headed by Carine Roitfeld. It was the very first time a designer without a single retail collection under his belt had won the award, which provided Baptista with the seed money he needed to launch his label, hand-in-hand with his wife, who went back to university (at the Institut Français de la Mode) to learn the skills she needed to manage the business side of the label, while Felipe focused on design.
In 2005, Baptista was awarded the Andam a second time, another spectacularly rare occurrence. And that same year, he was invited to show as part of haute couture Week by the Fédération Française de la Couture (though not being a haute couturier).
But despite the industry accolades, slow growth lay ahead for the fledgling label, which, at the time, ran on only three full-time employees and generated only €1.1 million (about $1.5 million) in 2008, according to market sources. ”It was a slow and slightly frustrating period,” recalls Baptista. “Nevertheless, it allowed me to explore numerous influences, which a young designer immediately under the spotlight can’t afford to do.”
By all accounts, Baptista kept the business afloat by taking on consultancy work, including collaborations with Nike and Uniqlo, who appreciated the designer's graphic, sleek silhouettes and sense for functionality. "I have always loved and accentuated the functional aspect of garments; they are a shell, a protection. Clothing is the body’s first home," he says. These projects also helped him hone his marketing skills and sense of brand buiding, “something that proved vital later with Lacoste,” he adds.
In 2009, Baptista, eager to grow his business commercially, began showing on the Paris ready-to-wear schedule. The following year, Christophe Lemaire announced his departure from Lacoste — a company founded in 1933 by René Lacoste, a top-ranked tennis player nicknamed "le Crocodile" — to take the creative helm at Hermès and succession rumours went flying around Paris. Few suspected Baptista to be choosen for the role, however.
Half a dozen finalists were asked to propose how they "would modernise the brand, whilst respecting its heritage and its international dimension," Baptista recalls. The management at Lacoste liked his proposal. "I’m fond of uniforms, sports, nature, which are all things that rang true to the team."
But taking the creative reins at Lacoste, a global licensing business with a turnover of over $1 billion, was “as challenging as it was exciting,” Baptista recalls. “The more I worked on the pitch, the more I felt what Lacoste and my own brand shared.” The house wanted to re-energise its womenswear offering with a more modern definition of luxurious sportswear. “I got the feeling I intimately understood Lacoste, and proposed a healthy, athletic, slightly androgynous woman, which rang true for them. Lacoste, to me, is a mix of heritage and universality, both democratic and desirable.”
Signing with the French brand was “a very, very special, intense moment; my wife and I drank until the wee hours of the morning,” Baptista recalls. But soon afterwards, he clarified his vision for the company’s ready-to-wear: to create clothes with “a sense of easiness and understated chic; practical clothing that can be worn everyday, around the clock; designs that could both reinvent and reinforce what Lacoste means today.”
His first show for Lacoste — also his menswear debut — was well received, particularly for its frill-free, high-tech cuts and smart references to the brand’s archives. But Baptista soon staged a challenge to the creative direction the brand had taken under Christophe Lemaire.
When Lemaire was recruited, Lacoste was overexposed and had been re-appropriated in a way that was out of sync with its bourgeois heritage. But while Lemaire successfully restored the brand’s preppy, androgynous touch, Baptista went against the grain and decided to celebrate the urban popularity of le Crocodile. “I like what the streets do to fashion. It’s a vital and fascinating twist on luxury that needs to be appreciated,” he says. “Lacoste is a brand that cuts across class, nation and age, and I wanted to reconcile all those different segments into one modern, sporty, sleek product,” adds Baptista, who says management had been pleased with his choices.
In 2011, the company reached record wholesale revenues of €1.6 billion (about $2.1 billion). But a year later, following a rift between two generations of the Lacoste’s founding family, the company sold to Swiss investors Groupe Maus Frères SA, ending the label’s French pedigree.
As for his own brand, Baptista continues to explore uniforms and refine his aesthetic. Interested in technology, he has been contrasting new materials like laser-cut fabrics and machine-made prints with intricate hand embroidery. His Spring/Summer 2014 collection was “a Kafka-esque look into military uniform.”
But is there a Baptista woman?
“It’s not about creating a stereotype and putting her on a pedestal, but giving women a sense of power, of fierceness, of self-worth when they slip into my clothes,” he says. “Women deserve to be treated better than to transform themselves into mere trophies.” The business continues to grow slowly but steadily — the designer declined to reveal specific revenue figures — and now has 60 points of sale around the world and 10 full-time employees.
But the pace suits Baptista. He hasn’t hired a single designer to help him, still creates entire collections himself, and is only willing to expand if he can keep this kind of proximity to the creative process. There are rumours of a menswear line, but “if I start a new line, I don’t want assistants to be doing it all. I want to be fully involved. What’s the point otherwise?”
“In fashion you need proximity and time.”