It is at Museu do Traje in São Brás de Alportel that we can find the artisan and designer Maria João Gomes. Maria João has lived in the Algarve for 11 years, after having passed through France, the United Kingdom and the USA, but she feels like an Algarvian at heart.
It was in the Algarve that she recovered an ancestral art and took it to the catwalks of Moda Lisbon, Portugal Fashion and even to the catwalks of Paris. With great pride in her work, she says what distinguishes Palmas Douradas is the extravagant designs and she has shared her thoughts with The Portugal News.
According to Maria João, basket weaving was considered as something for old people, but she started to do different pieces, that didn’t exist on the market, with an extravagant design, like mandalas, hats, bags, among others that she modernised with her own hands and great creativity.
Palmas Douradas was the name she chose for her brand. “A very Portuguese name that reflects well how our palms are”, she says. ‘Palmas’ because the basket weaving uses palms leaves from the Algarve as raw material and ‘Douradas’ because golden is the colour that palms acquire.
Maria João works with palm leaves that she picks in the wild, a thing that “nobody does anymore”, according to her. “We find the palms in the wild, I then put them to dry and every day I turn them over. It takes 10 days to dry and then the palms are cracked - cracked means that the palms are separated one by one, after they are put in bundles. Then, when I want to work, I put these bundles in cold water to remove impurities”, she said, adding that then entire procedure is 100 percent natural.
“In the beginning, people saw this as ‘well she is wearing an extravagant hat on the street’, without really giving it any importance, but when I did the Moda Lisbon show, people already started to take it more seriously. And last year I participated in Fashion Portugal in Porto. I also work with architects and decorators, I do a lot of home decor”, she tells The Portugal News.
When I asked what inspired her, she answered actresses in the 30’s and 40’s. “At that time, women didn’t leave home without a hat, it was practically a social obligation and I really like to be inspired by them, but of course I modernise this a little. Sometimes I see a hat and it gives me an idea for another one, it’s like a springboard, I jump from one to the other and I have more ideas, sometimes I start making a piece with an initial idea and I end up changing it completely”, she said.
“Sometimes I make a hat and my daughter asks: ‘Oh, mum, who’s going to wear that?’”. But, there is always someone who will love it. “I do very extravagant pieces and people like them very much and even the Portuguese - which I thought was going to be more complicated - indeed in Lisbon and Porto I have to say that we have ladies with a lot of style”, she said.
And when it doesn’t work for day-to-day use, it can be used to decorate the walls of the house. “I realised a long time ago that a piece does not have to have a utility, it can only serve for us to see because we like to see. It always has a utility - brightening the eyes”.
Regarding the difficulties she faces as an artisan and designer in Portugal, she criticises the way that many people want to position her work as an “old persons thing”. “Last year I refused to go on a TV programme because they wanted to put me working on the floor. In other words, I want to modernise basket weaving, and people have to realise that we can do very fashionable and modern things, but I still have the feeling that they always want me for being that old lady from the Algarve doing the basket weaving. I have worked so hard to get out of there, that is not my place”, she regrets.
“The palm has always been little publicised and considered as a poor thing. I think my work has made it known and valued what is ours”, she said.
Every piece she makes is unique and 100 percent from natural and Portuguese resources. “What I really wanted was that palm leaves would be used in fashion shows and the Portuguese designers were more interested in the natural resources that we have in Portugal, without going to get everything abroad”, she concluded.
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