Nataša Čagalj is one of the most prominent Slovenian fashion designers, who has been pushing the boundaries of prestigious fashion houses such as Cerruti, Lanvin, Stella McCartney and Ports 1961. In a candid interview with Delo’s Vesna Milek she talks about her first experience of London bohemian scene, turning down the job offer from the fashion house giant Yves Saint Laurent and working with the likes of Victoria Beckham and Stella McCarthy. The original interview was published in Delo’s Saturday edition on 16 November 2019.
Dressed in a snow-white shirt and camel-coloured trousers, one can see at first glance how much attention Natasha gives to shape and fabrics. She looks fragile, delicate, infinitely gentle, with porcelain skin and vibrant blue eyes, speaks softly, with a crisp voice, but what she says is somehow at odds with how it sounds. In more than two decades at the top of world fashion, she has developed, in addition to creativity, another, solid, determined side of her personality that knows what she wants and knows her self-worth. I give everything so I also ask for something back, she says with a smile.
The fashion designer Peter Movrin said Nataša Čagalj is not only a big name in the world of fashion, it is also the heart that everyone wants to have in their studios.
Peter has been saying suspiciously nice things about me lately but it’s true that I have had wonderful associates in every fashion house, from Cerruti, Lanvin, Stella McCartney or at Ports 1961, and that I have parted ways with CEOs or brand directors on good terms… My guide is not to burn bridges, I like to build them. Fashion is, in fact, a very small industry, the same person you worked with years ago is waiting for you around the corner. There are things that naturally hurt you a lot, but when you get up and move forward, you see that those were the things that made you stronger. And it’s not a cliché. In this industry, you have to be strong enough to focus on people who are inspiring, not those who want to extinguish that inspiration in you.
What inspired Natasha as a girl?
I admit that, as a girl, I felt that I had something special in me that I wanted to share with people, but on the other hand, I had doubts that I really wasn’t anything special. This contradiction, the eternal doubt that pushes you forward. I was always doing something, drawing, designing … Because I didn’t have a stroller for my doll, I made a baby stroller out of a cardboard box, and I improvised a lot. And I think improvisation is still an advantage in my work today. I always loved to draw; mom hung my baby drawings on the wall, that was the first impetus. My first little exhibitions in the kitchen on the wall.
Has winning the Smirnoff youth design contest opened the world to you?
I used to be very attracted to London, whenever possible, we went there with friends for a short trip … I subscribed to the then cult magazines I.D. and Face, which were my window into the world in the 90’s, I read them as a bible. Because of these magazines, I knew everything, not just fashion, but cultural, artistic and music scenes, too. And all the people I admired came from St. Martins. Me too, I told myself. I was invited to the (Smirnoff youth design) international competition in Dublin where I met Judy Blame, a punk iconoclast and stylist who looked after Björk, Neneh Cherry, Boy George, Massive Attack… Since he worked a lot for Face and I. D. magazines, I knew his work well. There I also met Susie Beak, who, as she said, fell in love with my clothes, wanted nothing else to wear. She is now Susie Cave, the fashion designer and Nick Cave’s wife. Anyway, a new world has opened up for me in Dublin, they took really good care of me, I got the feeling that I could create something. And then I went back to Štore, opened my mailbox and saw a postcard. “I love what you did, you should win. Please stay in touch.” Signed by Judy Blame. Of course, I visited him in London. It was my first contact with a bohemian creative society of its kind, he was living in some sort of commune that was frequented by Björk and Neneh Cherry.
If you wanted to create in fashion at that time, knowing Judy Blame was a privilege. He instilled confidence in me, and I still remember the moment I first saw that building (St Martin’s College) on Charing Cross Road… I really wanted to study there. And I have to say, if it wasn’t for my boyfriend (and now husband) Mitja, who sold his car so we could go to London, I wouldn’t have done it myself.
You were considered one of the best female students at the school that taught the likes of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and others...
Well, someone else should be talking about that. Louise Wilson, one of the most influential figures in the world of fashion, is a professor of fashion at Central Saint Martins college, a cult school of design. She was a very special woman and knew how to work with anyone in the way she thought would be most effective for him or her. She was harassing some of the students, humiliating them, making them cry with brutal honesty. Louise undresses you first, so much so that you are embarrassed, confused, brought to tears, and then you become what you really are…for life. She knew how to instil in us to grasp the importance of preserving what we really are, believe in that and seek it.
You will be ridiculed, criticized, belittled along the way, but if you believe in what you do, if you are honest with yourself and give your best, you will be able to go survive those times that would otherwise break you.
How did you experience Nino Cerruti, a design icon, a philosopher in the fashion world?
He is a wonderful man, and we have kept in touch to this day. When I was named creative director for Ports 1961, he sent me a congratulations note. He loved me very much, he had a paternal attitude towards me.
Peter Movrin told me not to ask you about Victoria Beckham. Why not?
Probably because the Slovenian media announced years ago that I was going to work for Victoria Beckham, even though it was unofficial information, but the journalist got it from private circles. This could have caused me business problems. And also because, since then all the Slovenian media keep asking me about her. For two years I was a consultant for Max Mara and Victoria Beckham, but I didn’t want to hang that on the poster.
Is she an interesting woman?
Victoria? She’s super. Very sharp, determined, but at the same time very entertaining, she can laugh at herself, that’s all I can say. When we signed the cooperation agreement, it was the first time in my career that I had to sign two contracts, the second was a commitment to secrecy.
At the time, were you aware what was happening to you?
Not really, it was my job where I wanted to do my best. Then came the existential problems, a desire for motherhood that was not compatible with the wild pace of work in the fashion industry.
Women in the fashion industry delay maternity for as long as possible but you have decided otherwise.
I had a good boss. Cerruti is an Italian, old-school gentleman, a warm, family-friendly man. And when I told him we were expecting a baby, he was genuinely happy. He said I get a raise when I get back from maternity. And when I came back, he was no longer the owner. It hurt us all.
After a year and a half at Cerrutti, you were invited to Yves Saint Laurent, a pretty quick career jump.
Yes, at that time, I was called by Alber Elbaz for Yves Saint Laurent, and without false modesty, I must say that they made a great effort to get me to join them. That was a big deal at the time, all my friends told me to accept the offer. But there would be one of four equivalent designers, at Cerruti I did everything by myself. I decided to stay there, I admit, also because of Cerutti’s warmth. When Cerruti had to sell his business, it was he who called Alber Elbaz, who was still a little angry with me because I had rejected his offer the first time.
But he still wanted to work with you?
Yes, he was already with Lanvin at the time, and wanted me with him. But since maternity leave is only three months in France, I knew that I would not be able to work the same pace I did before I had my eight-month-old daughter. I was ready to reject him again. Then, following the advice of a friend, at the meeting I calmly said I only wanted to work four days a week. Four days a week? He was surprised, never having heard of such a thing in fashion. But then he agreed. And when we went down the stairs, he told me, you know, Natasha, a lot of people in the fashion industry wouldn’t even want to work with you because you became a mom. And then I said to him: It is possible, but that is their problem.
How does Stella McCartney come into your life?
Maybe it’s better to ask how I got into her studio. Louise Wilson gave Stella my number. We met in London, where she had her business offices near Portobello Road. We clicked immediately. Stella is an extremely warm person with clear values, a vegetarian, an animal rights activist, an ecologist.
How did you feel about the difference in approach to fashion in London or Paris, or in Stella McCartney's studio, say at Lanvin?
I’ve worked with male creative directors who need you not only as a fashion designer who creates a vision with them, but also as a woman since sometimes men look at certain things differently. So, for example, I told, say, Alber, this is wonderful, but no woman will be able to sit in that … Or oh, this material is too warm for her skirt.
Stella has a different principle, she was surrounded by women’s team, the concept was focused more on building a wardrobe. A candid, intuitive approach to what a woman would wear next season. You build a wardrobe, a vision. At the time I was working with her, Stella had four young children, so I was pretty much left to myself. I did a lot of special projects myself, Gap Kids, including New York City Ballet costumes, when Paul McCartney did Ocean Kingdom and I went to rehearsals, trying out costumes and experiencing that world in different way, behind the curtains, backstage … That was great.
Why did you leave Stella McCartney after seven years?
Stella and I could work forever, we had a great understanding, but there comes a time when you have to move on. I told her that at the age of fifty I could no longer give her what her brand needed. We also started having serious conversations with our family to relocate to Slovenia. A longing for a peaceful life in touch with nature.
That was when rumours emerged that you would become the creative director of Mura?
That was in 2012, yes. The two owners at the time invited me for coffee in London. And that was all. At the same time, I was invited to take over as creative director at Ports 1961. They actually called me a year earlier, but I declined. Then Louise Wilson convinced me to meet them again anyway. They offered me good terms and agreed with my wish to open a studio in London. We decided to return to London after two years of living in Slovenia.
For the first time, I had the opportunity to put together a group of creative people myself, everyone took it as their brand, there was a lot of enthusiasm, creative energy, no one took it just as a job. Really, a very special experience that I’m very proud of.
You left Ports 1961 after more than four years. Is now finally the time to start your own story?
Four and a half years of great challenges are behind me, working with extraordinary people, and when I look back, I see that we have crossed many boundaries, I am happy. But I feel it’s time to move on. I want to create my own brand, because I’ve always dreamed of it. Now I’m going to take the time to think a little, to rest a little, because in recent years I haven’t had the time to really rest. Because I really want to create something of my own, something I can leave to my kids, I don’t know. For once in my life, I would like to be fully responsible for what I create, be it success or failure.