She welcomes me with her glowing warm smile, just in time for breakfast, banana/tofu/oat pancakes and a iced fresh ginger and lemon tea. We’re sitting down with Manuela Furtado, owner and director of BIRDSONG, a press office in Lisbon, whom I’ve known for ages, and who, besides being a creative entrepreneur, is all about style, very much her own!
I first met you when you were working at Portuguese Marie Claire…What did you study? How did you end up there, you were so young!
Yes, that was my first job. I had finished my Fashion Design degree at IADE, and I thought I needed extra technical information, so I did a year and half course at CIVEC in industrial pattern making, and since I had to do an internship, I did it with Filipe Faisca, the fashion designer. At the time, the Marie Claire fashion editor was leaving, and the new editor, Isabel Escaja, who’d been my teacher at IADE, invited me to be her assistant. An amazing opportunity, one that I couldn’t pass up, since I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted to be a fashion designer. I knew absolutely nothing about magazines, and learnt it all from Isabel, and stayed for 5 years until the magazine closed. I absorbed so much in these years, from styling to fashion journalism, and it was when fashion in Portugal was picking up. A time when model agencies opened, press offices were beginning to pop up, heaven, because at that time we had to do our shopping for the editorials from the actual shops! It was very different, nothing was digital, I still have a lots of contact sheets, prints etc….!
At that time, the magazines travelled for fashion shoots, where did you go?
Yes, it was fantastic!! and it doesn’t exist anymore. In January we went abroad, somewhere exotic and warm, to shoot the summer issues. There were so many opportunities then, no one travelled as much as today, so from hotels, travel agencies, to airlines, in exchange for a write up promoting them in the magazine, we’d get to go to warm, faraway places. We normally went with a whole production team, and managed to shoot 4 or 5 editorials.
What was your favorite trip during those times?
Places I’d never been to such as Senegal, the Dominican Republic, and places that I loved because of the special teams, that’s what made it amazing. The most fantastic was a trip to Kerala! I’d been to India several times before, but this work trip was special; loved it sooo much. I ‘ve got a special memory with Pedro Claudio, ( a photographer that recently died), I’d worked with him before but on this trip I got to know him better and his special sense of humour, and the group energy was truly special, 3 models and just 3 of us, Antonia Rosa, Pedro and I as the budget was reduced. These trips enriched my life but also I made lifelong friends from these experiences. At Marie Claire I met my ex-work partner Isabel Carmona, also Isabel Pinto photographer, and Miguel Viana, the hairdresser, both my great friends to this day. I worked with and was lucky enough to do so at the time fashion was beginning in Portugal, the first professional fashion photographers emerging such as Pedro Claudio, Ines Goncalves, Carlos Ramos, Mariana Viegas, Adriana Freire,( I’m sure I’ve forgotten some people), but they were exciting times.
Looking around in your house, and I’ve known you for a while, you’re very eclectic and exotic in your taste? You mix textures, colours…Did these travels consolidate this?
This has always been “ME” , it was born with me, I love this style, as I’m multicultural, half German and half Goan. My mother is German and my father is from Goa. They met in London, my mom was working there, perfecting her english, and my dad was there also for work reasons, and it was, still is, a true love story. They met, fell in love and got married! They moved around a lot, London, Geneva, Lisbon, I was born in Switzerland, and later we moved to Portugal when I was five. My parents never stuck too much to either of their cultures, we were closer to the portuguese culture, to our neighbours, to our new cultures so I feel like a world citizen. My mother as a German, blond and blue-eyed, totally embraced the exoticism of India, she learnt to cook incredible curries, and when she went out she normally wore gorgeous saris. When we travelled to India she brought back very colorful pieces so very early I mixed and matched styles and cultures. Later, when it became a style, it’s was already ” my own”, not forced as I’m really attracted to bright fabrics, prints , flowers, and all that of African and Indian origin.
After Marie Claire closed, your next step was going ELLE magazine, right?
Yes, with my partner Isabel Carmona, we got along super well, professionally we were always in sync. We did a lot of styling together, we were both fashion assistants, so it was a natural evolving process. At the same time, we began styling at ELLE and doing styling for advertising too, in a semi-freelancing mode. Then, there were very few, if any, fashion press agencies, only in Paris and Madrid. We already worked directly with Mango press office in Barcelona, and there came a time when they asked us to recommend an agency to represent them. We didn’t feel that there were any so the idea came to start our own!! We called ourselves Arranca Corações, this year, it’s our 20th anniversary! After a while, Mango decided that they wanted to use us, so we had one person in the press office and we carried on at ELLE, and we had the best of both worlds. So in reality, Mango was our first client, and still is to this day, I’m proud to say!!! Presumably because they are a satisfied client…!!!
The agency began to grow…
Pepe Jeans and NIKE joined us soon after, and are also still with us, the work at ELLE continued, and soon there was a natural separation of things, the agency began giving us more work, the clients more demanding, so I began to work more in the press office and Isabel, more on the styling side, although we both did a little of both. In 2005/2006, we decided to leave ELLE, and make the agency grow. For my part, I’d done this for years, carrying bags shopping for shoots, working in the cold in winter and in the heat in summer so I was ready for a new challenge. Soon, Isabel and I decided to split, and I created a new agency, keeping our original customers and called it Birdsong.
It’s not as glamourous as everybody thinks it is, is it? Always opening boxes, picking the clothes, unpacking, carrying to the shoot, packing again….and re-doing it again all over for the various brands! Every month…
So true, because the result is glamorous, and the lifestyle looks exciting too, because we travel to enchanting places etc, and in a way it’s true. How lucky we are to travel and work with people we like and appreciate professionally, it’s such a privilege, but it’s really hard work.
Yes, picking your own team, working with same minded people, creating beautiful images…
Waking up super early, and all the research that goes on behind the shoot in a magazine. What are the trends, who are the people to work with now, being on top of things, having a plan, planning the whole season, something I don’t see happening in the magazine world now, it was really intense. The questions we had to ask were: how are we going to explore this theme? How and where are we going to shoot this?
I think that this also happened because we traveled, and to shoot 4 or 5 summer issues in a week, things had to be planned to the hilt. One had to program each month carefully, because even if you were in Brazil, one couldn’t shoot in the same location 3/4 months running.
Sure, sure, we had to have several options of locations, and all this was done before we got on a plane, we had to give the readers a varied themes. We even did some drawings of the clothes we had to shoot, used polaroids to program the issues. Obviously, on the day, some things went wrong and we had to improvise but there always a plan.
But there more freedom, if something went wrong, the last dress didn’t fit, we could shoot a magnificent palm tree, in black and white, and the magazine would publish it! I fear that now it’s not the case at all….
Nowadays it’s all super commercial, in those days we could shoot a double page, where the model was in one corner and the other two thirds was scenery or a blue sky. We had authorisation to do this, and although it wasn’t easy, our opinions were heard. If it made sense, there was an understanding that it wasn’t only a model with clothes on her back but it was a dream, a photographic essay, so the work of the photographer had to be respected too!!! This is so that the images can ” breathe”, that dream-like quality is not lost. Then there are all the other fashion pages, with the more “informative” shopping pages, like a catalogue, where to buy, how to wear it unlike a fashion editorial, where the artistic side is very important.
Everything now is a lot more rushed, I see people shopping for a shoot the day before,there’s not much planning and the way they hand back the clothes is not the same as 10, 15 years ago. There’s is a lot less care in all they do, but it’s a sign of the times, there’s no time for the extra care. This is in regards not only to the clothes, but also with the images, the research, and although there are still great things being done, there is a lack of quality all round. For sure this partly due to the very small budgets that they have compared to us back then, so only the very creative and dedicated can really stand out.
I always associate you with a creative environment; styling, home decor, food, jewellery, so if you had to change your course now, what would you do?
It would have to do with food, gastronomy, not me cooking exactly, but something connected with gastronomy in general. I have a lot of culinary references, especially from my mother, a German that at 20 discovers India and its flavours, and spends a while learning from her husband’s aunts how to make a perfect curry. Not easy as these ladies never revealed their secrets, they protect the recipes for massalas forever! I think they don’t actually know the exact measurements but do it so well for so long, that it’s perfect. So my mother learnt the hard way… At 6 months I ate a little rice and curry, so my taste buds were initiated at a young age! My mother also cooks german dishes such as sauerkraut with german sausages, knoedel, similar to a gnocchi, in soup, spaetzle, a type of pasta typically from Austria, Hungarian goulash, she cooks everything amazingly well! I regret not paying enough attention, but lately I’ve become more curious about different and exotic ingredients, I watch all the cooking shows, follow chefs exploring new techniques and products. The chef at Noma for instance, truly explores all the plant based options. All this is creative to me, as anybody that searches for newness, is creating something original!! I’m not extravagant, I just like simple new things, like an algae for instance!
That said, I love my clients, and whilst I’ve got a a lot clients in the fashion world, I’m now aiming at current markets. We work with lifestyle, so from a book, to a car, music, food, art, all in connected so it made sense to move into other fields. Our clients in fashion are: Mango, Louis Vuitton, Pepe Jeans, Nike, Butterfly Twists, Cheap Monday, but we also have Diageo Reserve, specialised in spirits, with Lima Smith, wines form Douro and now cars, with SEAT. This was a learning curve, it enriches us by walking on untrodden paths. Most fashion brands now realise that lifestyle is a part of our world and that one has to go beyond clothes and associate the brand with music, collaborations with artists, sportsmen, musicians and even street artists. For instance, Lv, is connected to sailing, books architecture, collaborations with artists, creating unique pieces, city guides, .
Manuela’s summer essentials: flat dressy sandals, denim shirt, jeans, white canotta, Birkenstocks, long colourful patterned skirt.
Hope you enjoyed this interview, stay tuned for more interesting career women!
p.s. Been on vacation, so sorry for the erratic posting!