of Ports 1961
Anyone looking to make clothes would do well to take a long look at the career of Nataša Čagalj. Bolstered by the rigors of Central Saint Martins, exceptional mentorship, and dedicated work at such fashion houses as Stella McCartney and Lanvin alongside Alber Elbaz, the Croatian-Slovenian designer has steadily and undeniably made her mark upon the zeitgeist since her 2014 appointment to the role of Creative Director at luxury label Ports 1961, with collections whose sophistication and femininity maintain welcome freshness and creativity season after season (along with the brand’s effortlessly knotted take on the slip-on sneaker, seen just about everywhere on just about everyone).
A success story built upon integrity, experience, and an even keel is rarely told with any degree of truth — yet for Čagalj, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. Ahead of the Spring-Summer season, we sat down with designer for a glimpse into her process and larger world view.
In your most recent collection, some pieces were printed with the personal photographs of your team; in the collection before that, you emblazoned your fabrics’ composition and country of origin across several looks. Has this celebration of behind-the-scenes elements always been a part of your design ethos? Where did it come from?
Yes, it has. It has always been about celebrating the process of making and the teams behind our collections. Being open and transparent in the way we work has always been important to me.
You benefited from a mentorship by the brilliant Central Saint Martins professor, Louise Wilson, who sadly passed away in 2014. Can you speak a little to how that experience shaped you as a designer?
It shaped me in a big way as I came from a small country with a very different background, and she basically stripped me naked and made me confront my core and identity as a designer. Louise was warm, caring, supportive, encouraging, challenging, brutally honest — exactly what everyone needs. She was that and so much more. She has been a part of every career decision I have taken.
Have you become a mentor in your own right?
I have always shared my knowledge and given guidance to my teams as I believe in nurturing the next generation.
When Ports started in 1961, founder Luke Tanabe stated his mission as creating perfect everyday shirting for his wife. I’ve noticed that the label has followed a similar attitude of useful-yet-luxurious everyday clothes, and yet with each collection there are also elements of the fantastic and opulent. How do you balance fantasy and reality in your designs?
It’s part of the story-telling as a Creative Director to create a sense of fantasy in fashion shows, but I make real clothes for real women, and this is what gives me the most happiness: seeing my designs on the people that wear them in everyday life.
Your career offers a narrative of exceptional steadiness in a zeitgeist that tends to focus on meteoric ascension. What were the key steps that you took on the road to where you are now?
I just followed my heart and instincts. Nothing was forced. From when I moved from Slovenia to CSM to when I moved to Paris… I was a sponge, absorbing and learning from the brilliant people I worked with and building on my experiences in each chapter.
You command a unique approach to the sneaker, with your signature knotted “Bee” slip-ons providing a low-key, neutrally feminine option for women around the world. How do you see this evolving over the next few years? What can Ports contribute to a narrative so dominated by hype — and, for that matter, by male voices?
It’s about designing from the heart. For this, the Bee sneaker was designed with exaggeration, where the bow became enlarged. For the Pre-Spring ‘19 sneaker, the laces were multiplied. Function became the decoration, but still keeps its original purpose.
Much has been made in recent years of the question of men designing for women vs. women designing for women. In an age of increasing gender fluidity and proliferating female designers, this remains a sticking point within the context of fashion, where collections are almost universally gendered and separate. Do you think that there is merit in womenswear being designed by women? How would you approach designing menswear?
Designing for women as a woman is a very real approach as you think about the practicality of everyday life. But with the way we live, our uniform of modern living is less and less defined by sex than by lifestyle. Men wear trousers, so do women. Women wear shirts, so do men. It’s all about what I relate to as a lifestyle and I would approach it in the same way for menswear, too.