‘Utopia’ – Portugal’s Fashion Showcase, Somerset House, London

Encountering Portugal’s national tree, the Cork Oak, on recent visits there reminded me that cork has many uses besides sealing wine bottles. Cork products are made from the outer bark of the tree, the only tree which regenerates so it can be restripped around 17 times in its 200 year lifespan. Cork is used in clothing, shoes, furniture, surfboards and even in the aerospace industry where it is used to insulate rockets and prevent them from burning when they enter and leave the earth’s atmosphere. So I was definitely intrigued to find out how this tree would be incorporated into a fashion installation at Somerset House last month. 



Portugal Fashion‘s Bloom was founded in 2010 as a platform to support young Portuguese designers. Every year Bloom showcases emerging designers as part of the International Fashion Show during the British Fashion Council’s fashion week in London. This year Portugal Fashion teamed up with Portuguese company Amorim, the world’s largest producer of cork products. The collaboration aimed to raise awareness to the potential of cork as a raw material of choice for design and architecture and to the work of young Portuguese designers. This project was funded by both ANJE (the Young Entrepreneurs Association of Portugal) and aicep Portugal Global (Portuguese Trade and Investment Agency).

SerpentinePavilion2012AiWeiwei:Herzog & De Meuron

Serpentine Pavilion 2012 AiWeiwei: Herzog & De Meuron

Amorim‘s last major creative outing in the UK was the 2012 Serpentine summer pavilion whose cork interior was designed by Ai Weiwei and architects Herzog & De Meuron. As the architects pointed out, cork is not only super durable and moisture resistant but can be ‘easily cut, shaped and formed.’ The cork pavilion is now part of the private collection of British steel magnates Usha and Lakshmi N. Mittal. Amorim have also provided the cork flooring for Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the da Vinci Museum in Milan and the Nezu Museum in Tokyo.



For ‘Utopia’ at Somerset House, three tonnes of cork was used by set designer Miguel Bento who worked with curator Miguel Flor to create a fantastic, textured structure in muted browns and greys. The environmentally friendly installation complemented the fashion designers’ attempts to draw attention to ecological issues and social responsibility in their use of both recycled and upcycled materials.

Detail from UtopiaPortugalFashionPhotoPaulAllen

Detail from Utopia Portugal Fashion

Clutches from MindTheCork at ClerkenwellLdn

Clutches from MindTheCork

‘Utopia’ provided the ideal backdrop for five emerging Portuguese fashion designers—Hibu, Pedro Neto, KLAR, (UN)T, and Estelita Mendonça to showcase their environmentally inspired designs. Estelita Mendonca’s inspired use of pieces of camping tents and blankets created sporty outerwear meant for men but which will appeal to women as well. Likewise, Hibu duo Marta Goncalves and Goncalo Pascoa used recycled canvas to create beautifully structured unisex garments. Klar used recycled elastic bands and materials from Portuguese factories.

Also on the fashion front, designers like Stella McCartney, Yves Saint Laurent and Manolo Blahnik regularly use cork in their clothing, shoes and accessories.  And at the less pricey end of the market, I recently discovered London-based company Mind the Cork who produce lovely accessories. I was sorely tempted to buy one of their funky cork ‘leather’ clutch purses at the new concept store Clerkenwell London.

Words: Joanne Shurvell

Photos: Paul Allen and Miguel Flor

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