On Bulls, Love and The Dark Soil of Spain: Carlota Barrera

Carlota Barrera SS19 Campaign

Surrounded by bussing crowds, the warm sun baking above him, dust sweeping the arena below, he leaps through the air, his feet losing touch with the ground, his muscles tensing. He loses for a moment the feeling of being in the world. Landing, feeling his regained grip with the floor, the pull of his weight towards the ground and his muscles slowly relaxing for a moment, before getting ready to tense again in the upcoming turn, his senses return to him; he remembers where he is. The noise of the crowd becomes a distant roar: like thunder, miles and miles away. A pearl of sweat rolls from his eyebrow into the corner of his eye. With dirty hands he wipes it. He looks up and sees the beast, a bull. Its fur shimmering in the sun, every drop of sweat a diamond in its own right. For a second he was lost; now he is back. He now lives in the world again, humanly, with love, fears, hope. 

“Isn’t cruelty quite an essential part of it”, I asked Carlota Barrera, over a glass of wine a late afternoon in London. We are on the topic of bullfighting. “Isn’t it essential to the narrative? Does the cruelty not emphasise the beauty?”

We are discussing her SS19 collection The Matador and The Fisherman, her debut at Madrid Fashion Week. She is the most recent recipient of VOGUE Spain Fashion Fund’s ‘Who’s On Next 2019’, receiving a €100.000 prize. Anticipation for her next collection, SS20 to be shown in Madrid in July, is high. 

I first met Carlota at her AW19 presentation Water’s Edge, and I knew I wanted to talk more with her the minute I met her. With eyes as dark as her hair, and the charming body language of a comfortable cat, she walked slowly towards me, hugged me and exclaimed “Gustav!” I was surprised she recognized me. Her lips were red, her voice was calm and slightly deeper than I imagined. When the presentation finished, she hugged me again, and said so long.

I have spent a long time thinking about how to accurately write about Carlota’s clothes. It is gentle, yet powerful, and masculine, yet delicate. It is excellent craftsmanship, something I have long missed in contemporary menswear. But Carlota plays with something deeper. She asks: what is it like to live humanly?

The Matador and The Fisherman takes what we might call “functional clothing” – uniforms, work wear, traditional dress – and picks apart the elements defining each piece. It asks what can we learn about ourselves through a careful examination of what centuries of living – tradition, if you will – has made us? 

“I really, really admire the shape of the male body,” she says. I add, that conveniently these two men, the matador and the fisherman, have the best bodies.  

“Yes! But it is because it is not an artificial strength, which involves weights or gym machines, but is achieved by lifting, moving, your own body.” 

Carlota Barrera SS19 Campaign

The male body is of great importance in all her designs: her collections consist of a combination of sweaters hugging the body tightly, and silk shirts delicately falling on the shoulders, exposing the chest. Tight tops and corsets with cutouts revealing skin and nipples, and trousers cut as stoically as Greek columns. There are deep greens, burnt reds and cracked whites, and khakis and browns which makes you think of dried fruit, fields with black soil and open blue skies. There is the now famous hay matador jacket, which encapsulates perfectly the sleepy, dusty agricultural towns of Spain, whilst simultaneously pinpointing the importance of bullfighting to the local DNA. There is swimwear, inspired by the ‘20’s, making you long of thoughtlessly running into cold, blue waters, and feeling the prickling of saltwater in your eyes. Of lying in the sand, the warm white sand, watching the salt dry on your arms into flakes. 

There is a continuous story told between her SS19 and AW19. 

“I had a lot of things I wanted to put in the SS19 collection which I couldn’t, so I put them in the AW19, with a different approach.”

“Living in London is darker than Spain, it is a different feeling. Water’s Edge reflects that, whilst building upon the previous collection.” She looks to her own past, continuously reworking items into the present. Whereas The Matador and The Fisherman had bright reds and embroidery with pearls, Water’s Edgesubtly uses rope, buoys and steel carabiners as accessories. Models, looking like they just returned from a midnight swim. 

Carlota grew up in the rural north of Spain. By the coast, where her dad had a boat. A small fishing boat, it was called Carlota but he sold it: “I grew up going to the beach, catching tiny crabs and putting them in buckets”. Like most Spanish children, she also grew up around bullfighting. 

“I find it horrifying and fascinating at the same time,” she says, looking at her wine glass. Her lipstick has left a mark at the rim. 

As a kid, “it was horrifying, and I hated it, and I still do, but at least now I have understood that there’s a tradition: I don’t understand the act, but there is a tradition.” 

Tradition is a double-edged sword. It can be a rope we walk along at the oceanfront, one eye on the sun, and the other on the horizon: a guiding continuity, offering security and perhaps reassurance. But it can also be a heavy anchor, plunged carelessly into the sea, weighing us down, keeping us still. 

And she is right about bullfighting: one cannot deny that this somewhat pointless display of violence exhibits the very essence of human development. The display in itself is secondary to something bigger: a manifestation of human nature. The constant conflict between man and the nature within him. His choreographed embrace of the vacuum between peaks of superiority and moments of complete desperation. This conflict is ever-present: it is there, in the tension of linen rubbing slowly against the skin. Discreetly, in the aching heel of a foot that has been trapped in a leather-soled shoe all day. It is the violence of clearing out forests for industry; of acquiring precious gemstones to put in rings; of fishing and hunting for fun. It is the tension that exists between theatre and talking plainly, between purpose and reflex.

So, does the cruelty emphasise the beauty? Do we need salt to the sweetness? Will the memory of beauty, be burnt as clearly in our minds without the accompanying violence? “We have to find a way to keep doing it, but without all the damage to the animal, without the cruelty,” she says. “I try to do the opposite: I try to preserve nature, rather than fight it.”

And that of course, is the other approach. To seek a truce with the forces within. From this decision Optimism is born, and in Optimism lives Romanticism. Insisting on romance, Carlota maintains the functions of the clothes, its cultural value, but rids herself of the violence required, even expected, by her figures. And such, the story between the fisherman and the matador becomes romantic.

“These two strong men also have a delicacy about them: they’re capable of feeling things,” she says. “They see themselves in the other person, and realise they feel the same.”

“They become closer to each other this way: the fisherman stops killing, and turns into a swimmer. The matador turns into a dancer: bullfighting without cruelty.” They fall in love. This is the choice he is faced with, the dancer, the swimmer: between reclusion and action, between fighting and leaping. 

Carlota Barrera SS19 Campaign

Carlota’s clothing is an exploration of the traditions which define us, yet a critical look beneath their surface. It is an inversion of ‘the male gaze’, by which I mean the iconography of the (often gay) male designer who objectifies the female body. It demonstrates a love for the male physique. And, it contains a keen awareness of gender, sexuality and the highly politicized stage on which identity unfolds today. But beneath it all, her clothes explore the tension between man and nature: the push and pull factors which affect who we end up being.

Although it sounds like Carlota subscribes to a particular male ideal – men, cut straight from blocks of marble  – nothing could be further from the truth. Water’s Edgewas a decadent display of the different men and queer people surrounding and essential to Carlota’s brand identity. But is that so weird? Hasn’t her story so far attempted to humanize, romanticise otherwise stereotypically male characters? 

Carlota’s clothing is a move from archetypes to unicums, from superficial ideas to universals. She situates herself in a line of menswear designers, who are critically engaging with their past and relating it to the present – few however, do it as beautifully as her. 

She comments on the universal battle between man and nature: between theatre and talking plainly, between romance and violence. She allows romanticism, hope, to seep through her collection, delicately orchestrating an honest image of men leaping off the cliff, and diving into the sea; she dances effortlessly with the bull. 

Carlota Barrera is showing at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Madrid on July 5 2019. You can find her @carlotabarrera and on www.carlotabarrera.com