Far from the mainstream fashion hubs, students in coastal Spain are forging their own creative paths.
When Lola Dopico started recruiting models for her students’ annual fashion show, she didn’t expect such an enthusiastic response. “The flyers drew so much interest from people in the town,” says the teacher, who spearheads the master’s programme in fashion design and creative direction at the University of Vigo’s Pontevedra branch. People from nearby towns signed up to model and the school’s photography students also volunteered to shoot the collections. “It felt like a real team effort.”
The close-knit community found in the town of Pontevedra, and within its college, has been a key part of the programme’s success, offering students the opportunity to forge connections with anyone who shares a mutual interest in craft and design. The small city of 83,000 is located on the craggy coast of Galicia, just above Portugal and approximately 60km from the region’s capital, Santiago de Compostela. Founded in 2003, the school’s fashion programme – which covers everything from screen printing and graphic design to sketching and tailoring – was developed by the university’s art department when staff realised that there were no fashion courses in the region. Starting a fashion programme with international ambitions in a small coastal city seemed like a bold choice at the time.
“We’re not London, not even Madrid or Barcelona,” Dopico tells monocle. But while it’s often difficult to be far from the big fashion capitals, the distance is also proving advantageous and helping to set Pontevedra’s students apart. “Big cities are great but they’re also closely tied to trend-based cycles. In a place like Pontevedra, trends matter less, meaning that students can go about their creative processes from a perspective that feels more artistic.” For the most part, theirs is a more personal approach to fashion and design. “It makes them look inward, toward their own identities,” adds Dopico.
The presence of Zara-owner Inditex in the region (its headquarters are about an hour’s drive away in Arteixo) has also opened up new career opportunities for graduates and raised the profile of the local fashion industry. It’s no wonder, then, that the University of Vigo’s master’s course is turning into a hotbed of creativity, drawing in students from around Galicia; an average of 20 enrol in the programme every year. Equally, many go on to work for global fashion houses based in Milan or Paris.
Eduardo Outeiro, who teaches a class on microfusion (a manufacturing method in the jewellery industry) thinks that part of the appeal lies in the lifestyle that Pontevedra has to offer. “You can’t directly access the mainstream here,” he says. “Living in a small city also means that you have more time for personal projects. Everyone lives close to where they study and the library is nearby. In Galicia, it’s not hard to move around.”
Having more time for self-reflection translates to more autobiographical projects. “Students look at topics such as identity, family or the villages where people come from,” says Dopico. Pontevedra is famously peaceful: in 1999 it banned cars from most of its streets. “There’s a reason people come here to raise children,” says Alfredo Olmedo, who teaches on the course and works on Galician clothing brand D-due alongside Charo Froján. For the most part, teachers and students at the school seem to have tapped into how quality of life can support creativity. This slower pace of living also fosters familiarity and more personal connections between students and teachers. Sitting at a café in the city’s Old Town earlier that day, Olmedo spotted a clothing rack filled with dresses and could name the student who designed them with a glance.
Olmedo and Froján have been teaching on the course since it began. For both designers, the programme is interlinked with the area’s history in manufacturing. “Many tailoring and textile businesses, including that of my parents, cropped up in the 1960s, partly because of travel,” says Froján. “At the time, people had started going to cities like Paris and bringing that knowledge back here. But as the years went by, they began to disappear.” Teaching is a way of preserving that heritage and helping to keep the local industry alive.
Galician businesses such as Inditex, also founded in the 1960s, are playing their own part. The firm has gone on to become the world’s biggest fashion retailer (founder Armando Ortega’s net worth is estimated to be €71bn) . It’s impossible to escape Inditex’s influence at the university. The school’s employment rate is high: about 60 per cent of students secure jobs at Inditex. “Many go to Zara or Zara Home,” says Dopico. While others have gone to Spanish brands outside Galicia, such as Bimba y Lola and Adolfo Domínguez , a Galician native whose brand is now based in Madrid. Inditex is by far the top employer.
Most students look for entry-level jobs at major Spanish labels because starting their own brand is hard – particularly when you’re in a small city. “We don’t have access to a lot of materials and textiles,” says Olmedo, recalling his own experiences with D-due. “It’s harder to make yourself seen or heard.” Yet Olmedo acknowledges that these challenges are making his students bolder and more eager to find new ways to stand out. “The silver lining is that those hindrances force people to be a little more creative and a little more modern with their work,” he adds.
The university’s students, who are preparing to submit their projects for assessment when monocle tours the school, don’t shy away from bold designs, while their creative references range from medieval folk tales and the mundanity of everyday life. In one of the school’s classrooms, Jorge Hurtado is putting the finishing touches to a design. “I’ve always been drawn to nature,” says Hurtado as he fluffs up the blouse’s balloon sleeve, shifting the mannequin towards the sun to see how the light hits its corners and seams. “I was inspired by the shape of jellyfish because I’ve always been drawn to things that are detailed.” He picks up his notebook and flicks through sketches of creatures that look as though they have been plucked from the bottom of the sea. “It’s crazy how much we still don’t know about the ocean,” he says.
Lara Cortes, another student, was curious about a different kind of unknown. “We don’t know much about how women lived in palaces,” she says, pointing at a gown she is working on. “When I was first creating these designs, I was interested in how femininity was perceived in the past.” Cortes designed whimsical silhouettes which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a castle, as well as grungier styles to suggest what women in the medieval era would have looked like if they had had more freedom to dress and act how they wanted.
“International travel shouldn’t be overlooked but studying fashion in a more rural region also has advantages”
For students such as Cortes, designing clothes is as much a sociological exercise as it is a sartorial one. This approach resonates with the school’s broader teaching philosophy. Here, students are encouraged to maintain a grasp of different disciplines by attending a variety of classes and accessing materials and resources from other courses. For instance, students can use graphic design, painting and even photographic facilities to supplement their fashion education. For Alba Vidal, who had studied film in Santander prior to moving to Pontevedra and joining the fashion programme, access to this kind of equipment is what sets the course apart. “I’ve really enjoyed working with the screen-printing machines,” she says. With a majority of the students coming from non-fashion backgrounds – some studied languages, translation or art prior to joining the programme – the curiosity to experiment with new formats is strong.
When invited to join the judging committee of the November 2021 student fashion show, Celeste Chipperfield, art consultant and daughter of architect David, could sense this experimental spirit. Living in a city like Pontevedra, she says, has something to do with it. “The influence of international travel shouldn’t be overlooked but studying fashion in a more rural region also has advantages, especially in today’s fast-evolving society, where the focus is shifting away from consumer culture and moving closer towards the sustainable circular economies that can be more easily achieved in smaller communities.” She spends much of her time in the region to help with her family’s foundation and restaurant, Bar de Porto.
Given the fashion industry’s increased appreciation for circularity and responsible manufacturing, Pontevedra and its growing talent pool are looking at a bright future – and attention from the international fashion community is bound to increase. After all, building a sustainable brand is a lot easier in a smaller community, where items are sourced locally. Producing at a slower pace, without the added pressure of adhering to seasonal whims, allows designers to tap into a more creative place, while consumers can prioritise quality over quantity. “The challenge with being in a small city has been keeping up with the changing fashion seasons,” says Dopico. “But in some ways the focus on seasons is disappearing anyway.”
As for creativity, the students of Pontevedra are proving that it can flourish in a small city just as much as it does in an established fashion capital – if not more. Olmedo often brings the life and work of Italian painter and print-maker Giorgio Morandi to mind. “He barely left the neighbourhood and the house he was born and raised in,” he says. “But Morandi’s art was also incredibly cosmopolitan; to this day the fashion world still looks to his prints for inspiration. In the end, what really matters is your sense of self.”