On the surface, Madrid is possibly one of Europe’s most attractive capital cities. It’s all elegant, wide boulevards, colourful plazas lined by frescoed buildings, striking wrought-iron balconies on historic mansions and Italianate Baroque royal residences. Its neighbourhoods have distinctly different vibes, from the quiet, leafy, upper-class Salamanca to the landmark and enigmatic Barrio de La Latina, and there’s an almost palpable sense of celebration and community come Sunday when the whole city turns out to socialise in the markets and cafe terraces.
But behind the facades, there’s a creative community of artists, designers and makers at the forefront of Madrid’s fashion scene doing exciting things in workshops across the city.
Madrid is a fashion hub: its commercial history is intertwined with the industry. It’s the home of world-renowned leather handbag makers Loewe, formed in 1846, and is where Amancio Ortega founded the Inditex fashion group, encompassing brands such as Zara, Bershka and Massimo Dutti.
“It’s a really exciting time for Spain”, explains my guide, Jo Wivell, as we walk through the surprisingly sleepy, sun-dappled streets of central Madrid on a Friday afternoon. It’s exciting, she says, because there’s a new kind of couture on the scene: it’s an ‘old meets new’ affair in which young, progressive designers are incorporating old techniques and traditional crafts into their pieces.
She’s giving me a one-day taster tour of seven-night textiles, food and fashion trip meeting some of Spain’s top artisans. Our first stop is with silk painter Claudio Fonseca.
Tucked away on an unassuming street (Calle de Cervantes) not far from the city’s main art galleries, his shop – Lola Fonseca, named after his mother who started the family tradition of silk painting – has a modest, whitewashed front and a simple window display.
Inside, though, an entire spectrum of colours is on display as silk scarves, shawls and ladies’ tops hang delicately on the railings. It’s all kisses and the quick babble of Spanish greetings when we arrive – it’s Jo’s established relationships with the artisans that give this tour its edge – and I immediately clock the plain white silk stretched out on frames in the workshop behind the counter.
“This is how he starts,” explains Jo – Claudio’s English is limited, so she translates my questions. “It starts with a piece of white silk and he paints on the intricate designs all by hand.”
He picks out some of his favourite pieces and spreads them out before us: a life-like giraffe on a pastel blue background, a haunting cluster of silhouetted trees set against a grey sky and a cosmic depiction of stars in nights sky.
These are exquisite pieces of fine art, but Claudio isn’t pretentious with his talents. He clearly has a sense of humour as he shows me some simpler designs: one just has the word ‘scarf’ written across it in Spanish (“the self-aware piece” he calls it), and another has a portrait of Disney’s Snow White with a rude joke next to it.
“It’s a labour of love,” Jo says, explaining what the many artisans we’ll meet have in common: passion for creating exceptional pieces. Claudio’s really is a labour of love: it can take him days to complete just one scarf, and when they opened an online store they sold out so fast they had to take it down. Now people from all over the world flock to his tiny shop to buy his wearable art.
A short stroll west I find myself ringing the doorbell at CapasSeseña. Another tiny boutique, the bell is there in case the cape maker is upstairs cutting fabric in the workshop.
“They make all their capes on these premises,” explains Jo as we’re buzzed inside, “and it’s the only shop in the world that sells just capes.” It seems like a niche market to me, but a cape from CapasSeseña is a coveted item for many a celebrity visiting Madrid. Michael Jackson had one, Picasso is allegedly buried in his, and all the Spanish royal family own CapasSeseña outerwear.
The Seseña family have been supplying Madrid’s high society with these quality capes since 1901. It all began with traditional men’s velvet-lined capes with silver clasps, but today they make all kinds from bomber jacket-style for ladies to trench coat styles for the modern man.
The shop assistants here pride themselves on their ability to pick the perfect cape for whoever walks through the door, and so I fall in love with a dark mustard number lined with emerald green velvet. I feel my bank card quivering in my pocket; this one’s 440 Euros, but it’s an investment, right?
It becomes clear that high fashion here isn’t all about bling and showing off your wealth. The vibe is understated luxury complemented by exquisite craftsmanship and exclusivity. “The scene in Madrid is all about couture and craftsmanship, and sustainability is the word on everybody’s lips,” says Jo.
The final stop on our tour has all of this in spades. Tucked away in a pretty little courtyard, shared with offices and apartments, Andres Gallardo’s workshop is a light, airy, minimalist space. His creations, set inside glass cases and on busts along a whitewashed wall, are striking: a unique blend of leather, metal and ceramics make up the jewellery, handbags and belts designed by himself and his partner, Marina Casal.
“The porcelain comes from Lladro,” Marina explains, translating for Andres as he talks us through the collection of ceramic flora and fauna mounted on leather accessories. The pair began making jewellery from broken vintage porcelain, but after winning accolades in Paris in 2012, they started commissioning bespoke designs from one of Spain’s most respected ceramics producers. The leather they use comes from traditional workshops in the Andalucian village of Ubrique, where skilled artisans have had to learn new techniques to encrust the handbags with the porcelain pieces.
Andres Gallardo encapsulates everything that’s great about Madrid’s fashion scene right now: they’re using traditional producers and suppliers, helping to keep some of Spain’s greatest artisanal practices alive, and blending them with ultra-contemporary designs.
Shopping here is more than just buying products – you’ll come away from Madrid’s boutiques with artworks that tell a story and have a long history, no matter how new they are.
Places to stay
Have a fashionable stay in Madrid at the Only YOU Atocha or Only YOU Boutique hotels. Both have striking interiors designed by world-renowned Lázaro Rosa-Violán. The Atocha, close to the city’s main train station, has a New York loft style vibe and a barber, bakery and bar in the lobby. The Only YOU Boutique is set in a historic mansion and has sumptuous furnishings, a light-filled atrium lobby and an exceptional Thai spa.
Tuck into a slice of history at Botín, the world’s oldest continuously running restaurant where slow-cooked lamb and pork are prepared in an 18th-century wood oven. It’s said that Spanish painter Goya was a pot washer here and Ernest Hemingway was a patron.
Mercado de San Miguel is a fabulous food hall serving up the best of Spanish snacks: there’s cheese and wine at Pinkleton& Wine, oysters at the Daniel Sorlut oyster bar and freshly fried calamari at the El Señor Martín Fish Cart. For a sit-down snack stop, head to Casa Gonzalez near Lola Fonseca for bread, cheeses and light tapas.
For exquisite pastry, try Hojaldrería. A small but elegant restaurant with decor that subtly nods to the intricate layers pastry, try the beef wellington “burger” (there’s no bread, just pastry) and you won’t be disappointed.
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© This article was first published in June-July 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.