Paula Canovas del Vas is creating an escapist fantasy with clothing
The CSM grad and rising designer's SS21 scrapbook is inspired by the transportive, reality-eschewing energy of her favourite films.
Photos courtesy of Paula Caonvas del Vas.
Paula Canovas del Vas is not so much in the business of creating clothing as she is in the business of creating worlds. Crafting alternate universes — far removed from the stuffy runways of Paris — for her clothes to inhabit: virtual realities filled with larger-than-life models, secret Hausmann apartments puffing with incense and stuffed with handbags and shoes, surrealist instructional cooking videos. And the world of Paula Canovas Del Vas is expansive. “It’s a mix of things, a mix of influences,” the designer tells me, of her eponymous label, before the conversation turns to jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, jumps to the art of shibori and takes a detour through the films of Jodorowsky and Filho. “I like going to the cinema and watching these films that transport me, take me elsewhere. I want our fashion to do that, in a sense.”
Paula was raised in Murcia, a town in southeastern Spain on the Mediterranean. Although her mother owned a wedding dress atelier — “it sounds really cliché, but I’ve been in an atelier since I was a child” — growing up, the designer never considered fashion as a prospective career. “I wanted to do something deeper. I was more into cinema, literature, architecture,” she elaborates. After a rather disappointing internship in the latter field, however, Paula’s mother brought the burgeoning designer to Central Saint Martins. And after checking out the institution’s library — “I understood there was depth behind it all, research is a massive part of it” — Paula changed her mind. She enrolled at CSM for not only her BA, but her MA, as well.
Between interning at Gucci (during the storied transition from Frida Giannini to Alessandro Michele), assisting costume designers and working as a pattern-cutter (“just really hustling all the time”), Paula won a research trip to Japan, which she recalls as a highlight of her MA studies. “We spent three weeks in Japan, researching all types of craft techniques. We did a course of shibori, went to Okinawa to do glass-blowing. I was accumulating all this information. Still, now, we feed off a lot of the things I had time to do while in my MA,” she explains. “I have a passion for learning and research. I’m kind of geeky, in that sense, where I want to absorb as much as possible in any field, really, that’s got to do with the visual arts and fashion.”
It’s this desire to learn, to try on new things, that continues to guide Paula. Following an experimental presentation at Palais de Tokyo during her MA, the designer opted for the more conventional route to debut her autumn/winter 19 collection: a runway show at Paris Fashion Week. “Afterwards, I realized that the show format didn’t relate to my vision, what I wanted to say,” she explains. “I don’t relate to the dynamics of a runway show: the idea of the audience being so passive; that all this work, all this research and all these hours are just thrown into a show that only a few people will see. It just felt so perishable.”
Looking for something more unconventional — “more us” — for her follow-up spring/summer 20 outing, the designer and her team dove head-first into the world of virtual reality. Paula was introduced to the concept through a friend who had recently produced an immersive reality film. “I saw it and I was like, ‘Woah, the possibilities of these are incredible.’ So I started doing more research into VR, going to galleries that were offering VR experiences. But everything felt so tech-y. I wanted to do something that brought a bit more life to the medium, a bit more reality,” she laughs.
The result was “See, Saw, Seen”, a multi-person, room-scale VR installation, produced by the Paula Canovas Del Vas team in collaboration with No Ghost studio. The installation featured giant models, looming, peering, inspecting the onlookers. “I wanted to reverse the roles of the typical fashion presentation, and have the audience being watched, being looked at. Very often, when I ask friends what being a woman feels like, it’s this idea of being observed and surveilled,” she says of the installation’s feminist-leaning concept. “That presentation felt right. It resonated with our vision: that you can showcase fashion in so many more ways than just a girl walking up and down a catwalk.”
Expanding the world of the label evermore — “but going back to something that doesn’t involve technology” — for their autumn/winter 20 presentation, the team created an abode for the Paula Canovas Del Vas woman. “We asked ourselves what the flat of the label would look like. We wanted to invite the audience into that world,” she explained. Paula borrowed her friend’s “crazy old flat”, situated in Paris’ Place des Vosges, and sent guests key-shaped invitations.
“I wanted the presentation to be not only visual, but to incorporate all kinds of senses: smell, taste,” the designer said. “We collaborated with chef Zelikha Dinga, who made replicas of our bags from meringue, so the guests were literally consuming the bags, very physically. The meringues were hanging from these trees, together with the real bags, so sometimes you wouldn’t know which one was real or which one you could eat.” The designer also collaborated with a tea master, Dambi, who created a unique brew and special incense for the occasion. Ceramic artist Jack Wooley crafted teacups fitted with the label’s viral, duck-footed Diablo shoe. “Everything in the flat was curated. Even the toilet had this ambiance,” she laughs.
Conceived during the pandemic, Paula’s most recent spring/summer 21 outing harnesses the same transportive, reality-eschewing energy of her favourite films. The collection’s starting point: “We asked ourselves, ‘Where would we rather be?’ The weather was absolutely terrible in London, at the time, and we all wished to be on a sunny beach in south Spain; we were all craving the sea.” So, from drizzly London, the team began research on Ibiza interiors, summer-wear, “the classic things.”
“And then it developed into mushrooms,” the designer said. “I was reading a book on the history of mushrooms in Europe. How priests used to take mushrooms in Roman times and how linked it is to spirituality.” Psychedelics, the ultimate out-of-body, out-of-reality transporter, right? Paula commissioned her grandmother (“an amazing painter and a very important figure in my life”) to realize the collection’s mushroom prints and patterns. In true beachgoer fashion, the team reimagined its signature Diablo shoe as a sandal, a mesh water shoe. Popcorn sweaters bloom with tropical flowers, mesh minidresses and miniskirts in splotchy tie-dye-leaning patterns, cartoonish sun hats, starfish bralettes. “I felt that the world needed something that felt a bit light. People are looking for an escape for what we’re facing,” the designer explains.
In a precarious time, when elaborate presentations or even standard runway shows remain a far-from-feasible reality, the designer decided to show her latest collection via lookbook — of course, with a Paula Canovas Del Vas twist. When I speak with the designer over Zoom, she’s just finished editing the label’s SS21 scrapbook, which will be printed and distributed to coincide with the collection’s launch. The book features a hodgepodge of official lookbook imagery — shot and styled by friends Ben Beagent and Tereza Ortiz — mixed with photographs shared between the team throughout the design process, as they all worked from home under quarantine.
“The book is everything important to us: food, films, music and literature.” And heavy on the food, it is. “We’re obsessed with food in the studio. And tea,” Paula says. “We always take a good break. I live 30 seconds from the studio and everyday we cook from home, a proper, nice meal because I think it’s so important to eat well. It has such an impact on the work you put out.” Sometimes, quite literally. As Paula was cooking for the team — trying out recipes from an upcoming collaborative cookbook with chef Zelikha Dinga — she realized that the pleated pants she’d been working on for spring/summer 21 resembled the folds of the dish’s courgette flowers. In the scrapbook’s pages, these pants sit across from a shot of those very courgette flowers Paula had been preparing. A parmesan-topped bowl shares a spread with two mini-skirted looks. Sketches and behind the scenes shots, some literally screen-grabbed from the iPhone Photo app, abound. Wooden lasts sit in Diablo sandals on the studio’s work tables. A Spotify snapshot of Shinzo No Tobira’s “Mariah” occupies a two-page spread. The scrapbooking format seems like it was tailor made for Paula’s uncompromisingly maximalist vision.
And although the world of Paula Canovas Del Vas often dips into the realm of fantasy, the latest collection’s scrapbook format is also a means of bringing the label back to reality — if only for a moment. “It’s been very challenging, but I’m very proud of our small team for putting together the collection during quarantine,” the designer says. “I think that it’s important to show people what it takes to create garments. Because they take time, they take effort and actual people make them. We’re a very small brand; we don’t have the budget that Prada or Gucci have, so, with what we do have, let’s make the most of it and show that we do this with very little.”
As an example of the team’s down to earth mentality, she points to one of the label’s most elaborate productions. “Even when we did [“See, Saw, Seen”], the virtual reality installation, we made a room that had these white cubes. Each cube had a peep hole, and through the peep holes was a recreation of our studio. The viewer could see the whole making-of, the scraps, the random sticky tea bags on a work table.”