By nature, I am massively prone to generalisations. Maybe it’s a child of immigrant’s thing. Or maybe I’m just wired wrong. But as a kid, in a new country with a new language and Post-Soviet parents who were so foreign they may as well have been aliens, stereotypes helped me navigate life.
Several decades on and it appears that nothing has changed. On my way to the Bulgari Hotel to meet fashion designer, Emilio de la Morena, I revert to form. We’ve never met, but I peg him as a “fashion type”, which means I am really expecting air-kissing followed by fashionable-froideur. As I said, maybe I’m just wired wrong.
Emilio sits expectantly at our table, wearing the anonymous garb of a fashion designer. T-shirt and pants, black on black and, his Sarkozys of choice, chunky sneakers verging on creepers with a heavy rubber sole. However, his ensemble is where the stereotypes end.
He greets me in a manner that belies the cool indifference that his austere choice of clothing would suggest.
Emilio slides into his chair and says, “that’s funny that you were in Altea”. “I go back every summer to San Juan but I am dreading the next time. I’ve been vegan for a year now. Spain is just such a temptation.”
Sometimes being interviewed gives subjects a certain premeditation when you meet them. Not Emilio. As he continues, it becomes clear that he has a quality which is exceptionally rare in our modern world. He is completely unawkward. I suspect that he excels at blind dates.
At 45 he is a grown man. But his face belongs to a younger one. It is a sympathetic guileless face, with twinkly dancing eyes. Being Spanish, he has the characteristic Spanish openness combined with a Latin mischief. There’s something altogether childlike in the warm sincerity of his smile – it gives him a certain vulnerability, making him one of those rare people you inexplicably feel protective over.
“You’re vegan?” I ask surprised.
“Well I had this intern who now lives in LA. Her partner, Jorge, works in pharmaceuticals. All the research, all the studies, it all points to a plant-based diet being best for us. And when you eat plant-based, you start thinking more about animal welfare and questioning why you should contribute to their suffering.”
“I’ve lost 18 kilos without doing a thing…it’s been such a full-on year and the diet has helped ground me.”
Emilio de la Morena – the Early Years
In many ways, Emilio de la Morena is a Renaissance man who could have been many things in life. He spent four years preparing a portfolio to become a sculptor. His parents however had other ideas.
“‘You’re so good at biology’, my mother told me… My parents were convinced I had no future as a sculptor and pushed me towards medicine. Before I knew it, I was studying at Alicante Medical School. I lasted three months.” he laughs.
He ended up doing a degree in Economics, studying a year in Germany and a year at Edinburgh University.
“After I graduated I took a job as a management consultant in London. It sucked me in that life, I don’t know how I ended up doing it for seven years” he reflects. “Now I look back, it almost felt like I was drugged, living that life day in and day out. Ultimately it got to a point where I knew that I had to get out and do something creative – something for myself”.
I tell him it’s refreshing to meet someone who didn’t always “know”. So many successful people seem to have some uncanny premonition of their vocation almost in utero. It makes the path to success seem deceptively linear. Instead it shows that it’s ok to find yourself, to discover your talent. The journey is important.
He admits that he has always loved fashion. As a child he would make little dolls and would sew dresses for them.
“I had one blonde, one brunette, a redhead. And then I would hide them. My parents had this brick wall with lots of spaces between the brickwork and I’d cram them in there” he says.
“Why did you hide them?” I ask.
“I didn’t want my parents to see the dolls and to know I was gay”
“Did you always know you were gay?”
“I didn’t know what was gay or not gay. I only knew that when I went to see Star Wars, I fancied Luke Skywalker!” he tells me, a mirthful glinting laugh escaping from his lips.
“You always kind of know though”, he continues. “My parents didn’t see it straight away. I remember they once bought me a doll. I took off the head and played football with it. They were so pleased, like I was a real boy’s boy.”
“I hid it for a really long time. I came out when I was 26.”
“26?!” I exclaim. “That’s such a long time to have to pretend. Surely your parents must have known?” I say.
“My parents didn’t know” he says with amusement. “Although I did ask my mum – ‘How did you not know?’. I used to come into the living room twirling, dancing, doing gymnastics”, he laughs, “and my mother would order me to go outside and play football!”
“It was a different time” he muses. “I even had a long-term girlfriend. We were together for a few years and I loved her. We’re still very close.”
As I listen to Emilio’s candid recollections of his childhood, I can’t help but smile. Not only is he refreshingly forthcoming, he is also a fantastic story-teller and has a talent for making even the mundane witty and entertaining.
“I later met my partner, Mike Carey and we worked to create my brand. Mike’s mum used to be a seamstress and made dresses for Princess Anne – she worked for us in those early days. Mike is so smart, he is also a management consultant and has this amazing brain. He is not only my business partner, but also my best friend.”
Together, Mike and Emilio share a son, called Benjamin, who they co-parent with his two moms. “When we started in the business, Mike said to me, ‘Look, I’ve always wanted to be a dad and I met this couple who really want to be mums.’ Then Ben came along”
I ask Emilio if he was there for Ben’s birth. “I was in the hospital but not in the delivery room” he tells me.
“He was such a big baby – 5 kilos! They had to do an emergency C-section. The doctor said, ‘This is the biggest baby I’ve delivered this year, so let’s call him Big Ben!”
“He is so handsome” he continues beaming with pride. “He has amazing green eyes that he got from him mother, who is from Zimbabwe. He is on a music scholarship at school and is such a talented musician.”
Emilio tells me how every parent contributes in their own way to Ben’s upbringing. For his part, he takes him to an exhibition every Saturday.
Emilio speaks about Ben in the same way he speaks about his mother and father – with a particular light in his warm dancing eyes. Listening to him you can’t help but get the sense that family is everything.
The Making of a Brand – Emilio de la Morena
Whilst matters of the heart are always more interesting to dwell on, we realise that we’ve digressed.
Returning to the subject of Emilio’s big fashion breakthrough.
“I quit my job as a management consultant and and enrolled myself on the prestigious menswear degree at the London College of Fashion. I was thirty at this point. There were about 400 students for both menswear and womenswear and I was picked to do the runway.
I then applied to the MA at St Martin’s and was accepted on the course. However, I secretly wanted to do womenswear, which was something I mentioned to the course director. She gave me a chance to present my portfolio and I’ve never looked back.”
“On graduating I worked for Jonathan Saunders for a year as brand manager.” (Jonathan Saunders closed down about 4 years ago). “I then applied for Fashion Fringe”, he continues. “I was one of the final 10. Erdem ultimately won. But my brand and his are the only ones still around, from all the contenders.”
I ask him what kind of fashion he was doing at the time.
“My early collections had an Avante-Garde, deconstructed vibe. I loved Yamamoto and my early work had a completely different aesthetic to today’s pieces. We did a first collection. The British Fashion Council came and I won the New Generation Prize. By the third collection I was invited to show at London Fashion Week.”
“My clothes were being shot by I.D, Dazed and Confused. Edgy sorts of publications. It was early in my career and there were still things I hadn’t thought about. I started working with the stylist, Sarah Richardson and one day she asked me, ‘Emilio, who is your woman? Who are you designing for?’”
“Since then, I’ve evolved as a designer to find my creative identity. My work is inspired by Spain. By sexy Spanish glamour. Flamenco, colour, Spanish women. My woman is sophisticated, chic, but sexy. And by sexy, I mean body-con. And by body-con, I don’t mean flaunting everything you have. It’s more about dressing to look your best. To show off the body you’ve worked so hard on. To make you feel amazing”.
“I do six collections a year. So as you can imagine, there’s a lot of thought which goes into what the look is for every season”.
I ask him about the business side of running a fashion line. He obviously has a loyal fan-base, how do you keep clients in something as transient as the fashion business? Just look at all the amazing brands who have either closed down or have gone out of business.
“That was an important question for me” replies Emilio. “The business model of completely reinventing your style as a designer every season isn’t sustainable. You need a signature. You need to show that you value and understand your customer by being true to your own style. If you give them a new style identity every season, you are essentially looking for a new customer every season.”
“I am obsessed with the female form”, he continues. “As a society we think so much about feminism and what is right and what is wrong. But really, empowering a woman is all that matters. As a designer, I want my women to love their figure and who they are. My women are strong, glamorous and confident, a lot like Dina (he says referring to my mother, a die-hard Emilio devotee). I bring tailoring and cut, similar to what Alaia and Cristobal Balenciaga did – but in a way that’s very Spanish. Spanish women are strong. They really wear the trousers in Spain. So I bring that into my collections. And colour, colour is everything. My women want to wear colour.”
“It’s so refreshing to see a designer use colour”, I tell him. “I mostly shop for cocktail and evening wear online, and the modern aesthetic is always to underdress rather than overdress. Part of that, is a muted colour palette and generally colours which don’t wear you. If you want to wear colour, it’s unfortunately brands like Versace, Pucci or Cavalli who do those bold gorgeous shades, but their style isn’t really me”, I continue. “It’s amazing when you find a designer who loves colour but also understands that sex-appeal is about cut and fit, not about skin. That’s why I love what you do”, I tell Emilio.
“Colour is everything to me. And not just in fashion”, he tells me. “Whenever I’m feeling down, I go to the Tate Modern. One time, there was an exhibition of Miro…”
“I hate Miro”, I interject sharply.
“I wasn’t the biggest fan either. Until I saw this exhibition. It was a room with these huge yellow triptiques. I was standing there and looking up at this luminous colour and thought wow. It made me feel better. It really was colour-therapy”
“I try to bring the same to my collections. It’s about using colour in the right way. You need enough of a colour palette to cover all the possible skin tones. With my private clients, I get so excited when we work on a design which will be unique to them – something which not only flatters them, but also allows them to be happy. Clothing you can dance in, eat in, feel comfortable in”
“How do you design clothes for normal women, who aren’t models?” I ask.
“There are clothes for the show and clothes for the customer” says Emilio. I try to achieve that perfect fit for my clients. For example, my dresses tend to be high waisted, which is so much more flattering and also slimming. I will always take at least 2cm for the waist, and sometimes I’ll even take an extra centimetre. When making clothes, I always remember who my customer is – it’s real women who want to look their best”.
The next day, I attend a dinner organised at Bo Lang in South Kensington to celebrate Emilio. The restaurant is packed with beautiful women, of different ages, shapes and nationalities – many of whom are wearing his designs. To behold this crowd is to witness a master at work. Each woman is uniquely beautiful, in perfect tailoring which preserves her individuality and elevates her unique style. There’s nothing overdone or gimmicky in these clothes – they are very much a reflection of their creator. Bold, ambitious and strong, with a certain latin flair.
Photography – Max Lewisohn