The Real Raul

WORDS Sarah Ann Murray

Portuguese designer, Raul Leal, talks Fashion, Fado and Freedom.

The year was 1968. The place was Atlantic City. Women from all over the U.S came to protest the Miss America competitions and campaign for equal rights. Keen to take ownership of their own bodies, they began burning items of repressive clothing such as bras, girdles and high heels. The burning of the bra forever represented one pivotal moment (of many) in the history of women’s liberation. 

With this, we’re reminded that fashion is much more than the clothes we wear, more than the simple apparel with which we choose to cover our skin or keep us warm. 

Fashion holds a mirror up to society, a reflection of our liberalism or conservatism. The fact that I can throw on a men’s blazer and a pair of boyfriend jeans would’ve been unheard of a mere three generations ago. In the last few years, we’ve seen many designers send gender-neutral looks down the runway. Fashion has found its freedom, or rather freedoms have come through fashion.

This fluid approach is at the heart of Portuguese designer, Raul Leal’s vision, “people ask me if I do men’s or women’s clothes. I just do clothes,he explains.

Born in Tavira and trained in Lisbon, Raul Leal is a Portuguese designer inspired by Portuguese culture and history. He designs with a love of clothes and the powers they harness. He sees clothes as an avenue to freedom, to feel good about ourselves,“dress true to who you are! It’s the first thing people notice about you,” says Raul. 

His passions and influences are weaved into his designs. His love of fado music is apparent when he talks passionately about the likes of Amália Rodrigues – the Queen of fado – who broke the rules and lived a life with no boundaries. This rebellious sense of freedom inspired his creations. “She was a very avant-garde lady for her time. She was always smoking, and drinking, with big hair. She was controversial.”

I asked how he knew designing would be his life’s calling. He reflects again on his other hugely impactful influence. From the age of four, Raul was a keen ballroom dancer. Even at that young age, he would style both himself and his dance partner, profoundly decisive about what each should wear. “I danced ballroom from when I was three and that influenced so much in my life and my fashion,” he explains. “I was always surrounded by many forms of art. I designed my own and my partner’s clothes. I was very sassy with the lady who made the costumes! Now I do a lot by myself, but that’s how it started for me.”

Whilst Raul’s dancing shoes are tidied away, his creations still sing the saudade passions layered within the tingling notes of fado. The way he designs is through the look and feel of assembling fabrics into creations, a little like the way designer Halston also created his garments. “I design in the opposite way to many people. I start by draping the fabric and then I go to the paper. It’s easier for me to see my designs visually.” 

For Raul, like a tender fado song, his creations are a sincere moment of emotion. “Since I was young, my Grandma, my Mum and my Auntie have always listened to fado. I love referencing our culture. I like to bring the emotion, romance and saudade of this music into my clothes. The history of Portugal too, the 25 de Abril revolution, when we had to fight for our freedom. My family always told me, ‘you have to fight for what’s yours’. But I was always so free within my own family that I felt the need to fight for others who didn’t have this freedom. So I used my fashion to talk about homophobia, racism, trans-phobia, without highlighting the negativity, but rather celebrating the progress and freedom we have made.”

Check out Raul’s window showroom at the Designer Outlet Algarve in Mar shopping. His designs are also on Instagram and look out for an exciting Algarve fashion event in the summer where Raul will be showcasing some of his latest designs.

Sarah Ann Murray is a fashion director, stylist & journalist.

 Instagram: @_raulleal_


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