PARIS AND LONDON—It can be a bit daunting stepping into some of the boutiques on Rue Saint Honore, one of the French capital’s most upscale shopping streets that includes Tom Ford, Chloe and John Galliano. Over-stylized windows, stark racks and sales assistants that often barely acknowledge a new customer’s presence can make for a rather unpleasant excursion.
But Ports 1961 is an entirely different experience: the windows outside are welcoming, and upon entering the shop the perky sales assistants offer customers tea or coffee, there are chairs to sit and check out the upcoming season’s look-book and the clothes are not cluttered on the racks but spread out, giving a feeling of space and airiness. “I really wanted to create something where people do not feel intimidated,” Natasa Cagalj, the Slovenian-Croatian creative director of the brand, said during an interview later in Ports 1961’s design studio in London.
After obtaining an MA in fashion from London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins, Ms. Cagalj worked for Cerruti in Paris and then moved to Lanvin where she was the right-hand to Alber Elbaz. After that job, she worked for Stella McCartney for seven years as the head of design before moving back to Slovenia to freelance for a two years, working with brands including Max Mara and Victoria Beckham.
In 2014 she took the job with Ports 1961 and moved back with her husband and two children to London. Ms. Cagalj herself is cheery, open and welcoming so it’s little wonder that the flagship store in Paris (the brand also has shops in Shanghai and Hong Kong) resembles its creative director. She spoke with she-files about her career, how fashion insiders love the brand and the difference between working with female versus male designers. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC: Tell me how you got interested in fashion?
CAGALJ: I grew up in a family where everybody was interested in looking good and having nice clothes, especially the Croatian side of the family. I started to make clothes myself as a teenager. [But] my first passion was product design. I wanted to study design at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana but I also applied for clothing and textile design, and I got in. I always say everything happens for a reason, so probably it was the right thing for me to do.
Why did you decide to do an MA in London?
I only wanted to go to Saint Martins and I got in. Even before I finished my degree I got a few job offers, one was for Donna Karan [but I did not take it]. Narciso Rodriguez was leaving Cerruti and the new creative director, Peter Speliopoulos, needed a design assistant, someone fulltime in Paris while he was based in New York. So I landed this job in Paris not speaking a word for French and having to take care of all the things in his absence. I learned on the go. I spent my first four years there. Then I started working for Lanvin, when Alber was appointed creative director. It was amazing experience to be a part of that. Then my husband got an opportunity to work in London, Stella McCartney called me at this time and we just decided, “Yeah, let’s go.”
How was that to work for a relatively new brand but also to work for a female designer?
She had, before I had arrived, quite a junior team of people. I was appointed at the same time as Marco Bizzarri, who is now the big boss at Gucci, and so with him also, lots of senior people started to be appointed, which was great. And that helps when you build a brand like Stella McCartney. It was a great thing to work with her—it was the first time that I worked with a woman. The two men I worked with before, I was the woman to tell them “How are you going to wear this, you are going to suffocate.” Whereas with a woman, it was the first time I started to look at designing as a wardrobe and it taught me a lot. Not by choice or any rules, but Stella surrounded herself with women. We were mostly a female team at the time. And there were different generations, different tastes, different approaches and it was very great to work on a team like that.
How would you describe the difference of working in fashion between Paris and London?
There is a big difference. I would say to anybody who wants to work in fashion there is no place like Paris to learn the craft, when you work in those ateliers, you work with people who work with the greatest designers. It is an amazing thing to work with those people and that is what I treasure the most from my Paris experience. Then coming to London, you do not have that really but everything is possible, everything is free. It is not this Parisian house mentality and I must say that I had a mixture of feelings in the few years after I arrived in London and I missed a lot of things in Paris professionally. But after those few years, when you clean yourself of that, you think, “Oh my god, it is amazing here, I will never go back.” Because it is so much more lightweight, there is no pressure of any heritage, of any history, of anything pre-conceived.
So how did you come over to Ports 1961?
When I was freelancing back in Slovenia I got a phone call from my former professor at Central Saint Martins, Louise Wilson who became a dear friend [she died in 2014]. She said, “I met the CEO of Ports 1961, he is really nice and I think you should meet with him.” So I told her, “I cannot say no to you.” So I met with the then-CEO and I started to think about it. It was a neutral brand in a way: not too much heritage, not too much known about brand. And I thought maybe I could do something for the brand.
Was it hard going back after freelancing?
I was having a bit of a cleaning process, going back to roots to when I was studying with my, “Who am I? What do I stand for?” And being slightly removed from fashion, you think it might make you weaker but it made me stronger and made me more opinionated, more myself.
You have the stores in Paris and in Asia. Are there plans to open something maybe in London or Milan?
London, it is still being planned [for]. I hope that we expand our retail business because that will help us a lot. People do not know us so well so when you open a shop, even having pop up [store] helps a lot to get the word out. We are like the fashion insiders’ brand. When designers come to Paris we have a massive increase in sales because they come to look at our fabrics, which are top quality.
Have you ever seen someone wearing your designs? What is that like?
It is amazing. It happened to me in London, I could not believe it. I was driving to pick my kids up at school, near Covent Garden. And I saw a really cool woman on the street wearing our coat from the very first season, the pompom one, which at that time we did not order much, maybe eight of them in total so it was super rare. I managed to take a photo, though it was really blurry. I could not believe myself and I remember thinking, “Oh my god, I have made it now.”
Photos courtesy Ports 1961: 1) Ms. Cagalj; 2) and 3) Ports 1961 Spring/Summer 2017