Clements Ribeiro: Couture with a cutting edge

HUSBAND-and-wife team Clements Ribeiro thought they were too different to design together, but their special chemistry, Scots fabric and a rebellious streak have given their couture the cutting edge , finds Ruth Walker

Ignacio Ribeiro and Suzanne Clements, of Clements Ribeiro. Picture: Complimentary
Ignacio Ribeiro and Suzanne Clements, of Clements Ribeiro. Picture: Complimentary
Ignacio Ribeiro and Suzanne Clements, of Clements Ribeiro. Picture: Complimentary

Long before Chanel announced to the world just how good Scottish cashmere can be by rescuing Barrie Knitwear in the Borders last year, another label was quietly championing the nation’s craftsmanship and the yarn that is now acknowledged as the best in the world.

Back in the mid-1990s, Clements Ribeiro “re-discovered” Scottish cashmere, introducing it to a new generation by giving the traditional woolly a T-shirt treatment, splashed in vivid, irregular, multi-coloured stripes and embroidery detailing. It was enough to ensure the fashion world’s year-round love-in with cashmere and the husband-and-wife team were marked out as true style visionaries.

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Add to that the couple’s liberal use of tartan and plaid in their seminal Punk Trousseau collection of 1998 and they could almost be considered honorary Scots. Which would make their runway show – which opens this year’s Edinburgh International Fashion Festival in dramatic style, amid the frescoes of Mansfield Traquair – a triumphant homecoming.

“We are very fond of Scotland,” says Inacio Ribeiro, when we meet in a quiet cafe in Notting Hill near the couple’s home and studio. “I don’t think our womenswear would have been so successful without the knitwear – so many people know us because of that – and that wouldn’t have been possible without Scotland. We come up regularly, mostly to the Borders.”

Slim, with a little grey peppering his temples and chin, Ribeiro retains his exotic Portuguese accent, though his English is almost faultless. He returns to Brazil often, where his family still live – most recently he was back for a family wedding, and immediately after Edinburgh he will be back again with his son to spend a couple of weeks there.

“We were asked to come to the fashion festival last year but couldn’t do it because we were in America at the time, so this time we didn’t hesitate,” he says.

Their autumn/winter 2013 collection – the one that will show in Edinburgh – is a homage to that early love letter to Scotland. “We call this collection Punk Trousseau Redux,” says Ribeiro. “That collection was so seminal to us – punk stood for the rebellious part of it, and trousseau for the femininity and the fashion side – and it was where we managed to get all the elements for which Clements Ribeiro is best known together for the first time. So it has very strong personal significance.

“It came about because we are relocating our archive and became quite nostalgic for pieces that had worked particularly well, especially the mini kilt. So much so that the mini kilt is the leitmotif of this entire collection.”

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Ah, the kilt. Great for rugby matches and weddings. But, I tell him, few Scots can look at tartan as a serious fashion fabric; it’s just too, well, Scottish.

He smiles. “We think about tartan as something down to earth. And the fact that it was appropriated by the punks only made it more successful because it managed to be two things at the same time: something extremely rebellious and something grounded. Also, through time, it has become very versatile: you can do evening dresses in tartan, you can do whatever you want.”

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The collection stands out for another significant reason: all the models wear flats – fabulous black winkle-picker ankle boots with silver buckles. “That started last summer,” explains Ribeiro. “We put every single model in jelly sandals, of all things. Not just flats but really cheap and ordinary plastic sandals. We had lots of fashion editors come backstage talking about it. It made the collection completely different because you could see the proportions in a very different way. Not to mention that women were really grateful, because we were using comfortable shoes for once.”

Ribeiro left Brazil at the age of 23. Destination Central St Martins. On day one he met Suzanne Clements and their friendship was sealed over daily Tube journeys into college – both running late, she got on at Lancaster Gate, he at Notting Hill. Then one summer she appeared on his doorstep in Brazil. It was her birthday. He got a cake, they went clubbing, love bloomed.

A year after their 1991 graduation, they got married – Ribeiro’s visa was up, so it was either splice or split, Clements has said pragmatically. But, even then, the two had no plans to design together. They are so different: she the creative tornado blowing through their lives, leaving chaos in her path; he the organised, introspective one. How could it ever work?

“We’re different in background, we’re different in temperament, even in tastes,” says Ribeiro. “I mean, the clothes I used to design in school were radically different to Suzanne’s. So it was a very unlikely combination.

“We’re both very creative,” he adds, “but we’re creative in very different ways. Suzanne finds systems and order incredibly stifling. Her creativity is incredibly intuitive and not at all disciplined, but ultimately in fashion you have to have that because there are very vivid deadlines on the calendar. That’s where I step in. I’m very good at collating ideas and making them work to that calendar.”

Their partnership has, he says, developed and been perfected over time, and he describes them now as a “two-headed beast”. “She instantly gets what I’m trying to do and, likewise, I’m very good at second-guessing her. She’s actually incredibly organised, and has incredible vision. She’s an oracle.” So, in fact, it is the things that divide them that make them stronger.

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Then there are the things that unite them: their children Hector, 14, and Violet, six. And their shared love of travel. “We’re both gypsies, Suzanne and I,” he says wistfully. “If we could, we would travel all the time. It’s one of the things we love about fashion, that trips to Italy, France, Hong Kong, Japan and America are just by the by – they come with the business. But on top of that, when we can, we do trips of our own, and then we make sure they’re very different from the business trips. So we do road trips – we’ve done four or five in America, one in Norway, a five-week road trip in Australia, we’ve driven from Morocco back to London.”

These adventures inevitably inspire their clothing, bringing global influences to their already eclectic, bohemian melting pot. Their AW13 collection is, he says, “infected by our recent trip to America. One of the pieces that opens the show is based on an American quilt, but we’re always very eclectic and do a jumble of different things. The floral print is a typical floral from Brazil called chita. But I think what travel does most is give us an openness of spirit.”

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That adventurous spirit led them, in 2000, to revive the house of Cacharel, which at that time was a little-known label with very limited distribution. “It went from being a tiny label you could only find in Belgium and Italy to international overnight with our collection,” says Ribeiro. “We were with them for seven years and could have stayed longer, but it was a difficult company to work with, ultimately. Season by season the budget was slashed, and it came to a point where we thought, ‘We can’t stay here anymore.’”

More recently they signed a licensing deal to grow the company, but that too went wrong and they have since shrunk things back to a more manageable size, whereby the couple retain control, with no investors breathing down their necks. It’s a situation they’re happy with for the moment, but that’s not to say they’re reluctant to expand. Last year they collaborated with high-street brand Evans to create a range called Swan, and that collaboration has continued into this year.

And, perhaps because they are in the midst of refurbishing both their London home and a new one in Shropshire, they are now looking at introducing homeware to their design portfolio. “Definitely,” says Ribeiro. “It’s something we are incredibly drawn to. We’d love to do wallpapers and curtains and fabrics. And though it’s something that is actually very difficult to make money in, we are actively pursuing it.”

Certainly, with a fiercely loyal customer base and celebrity fans including Adele – who wore their little black number to pick up her Brit award last year – Nicole Kidman, Kate Moss, Bonnie Wright, Eva Green, Jarvis Cocker, Ewan McGregor and Michael Stipe, their longevity seems assured.

But with that gypsy spirit they’re unlikely to sit still for long. “Both Suzanne and I have a very low boredom threshold,” says Ribeiro. “I would love to work within a very narrow vocabulary and do endless variations on that. Honestly, I admire a lot of designers who are able to do that. They find a small range of things they love and they are able to do that beautifully, season after season. For better or worse, for me that is unattainable.”

Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley

Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, 19-27 July (www.edinburghinternational