ELENA CARDONA is a freelance senior bags and accessories designer based near Barcelona. For over 15 years, she’s worked with some of the best known luxury brands in the world, including Margiela, Lanvin, Hermes, Lemaire and Isabel Marant. Here, she gives an insight into how the Coronavirus crisis has affected her work on a personal level, the situation in Barcelona, and how she’s using her skills in a surprising way to help frontline hospital workers…
Elena, many thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, especially at such a challenging time.
You’re based in Spain, at the centre of one of the biggest European outbreaks of the virus – how has the crisis affected you on a personal level?
“I think all of us have only realised what was going on little by little, gradually. 2 months ago, I couldn’t even imagine that the crisis in China would affect my personal life in such a way. However,
when people in Italy began lockdown, that’s when I became scared. I have a lot of work contacts and friends in Milan, Florence and the Veneto, and it sounded like a nightmare.
2 weeks ago, I headed to the Pyrenees with my husband and kids, where we were more isolated, but every 24 hours we were receiving bad news; first, the schools closed, then there was the alarm raised to go on lockdown. We came straight home, and since then we are all confined – I haven ́t been out, only to walk the dog. The children are following school from home. There are moments of fear, sometimes I feel worried.
My priorities have been changing, day to day. At the beginning, I was more focused on the things that I never have time to do and dealing with my children and homework, and also trying to catch up on the news constantly, but I felt there was too much overload – email, Whatsapp, TV, constantly. Now I just focus on a couple of things each day, then try to relax and speak with my parents or the people I know that are alone at home.”
Has your professional work suffered as a result of what’s going on?
“Yes, I have had job cancellations due to the Coronavirus crisis.
In January, I was in discussion with a French House to start a freelance project, working on handbags for their show collection, then suddenly, 3 days before going to Paris for a meeting, they told me that the project was cancelled due to budget restrictions. I went there anyway and met them, so they could explain the reasons for this decision, and it was actually linked to the crisis in China (at the start of the Coronavirus outbreak).
Since the beginning of the lockdown in China, the Chinese were simply not buying any luxury product, and of course, they were not travelling to Europe to buy, either.
Currently, Chinese consumers represent between 60 and 70% of clients for the luxury fashion market, so I could understand the fear – and rapid halt to projects – from the brands I had been in talks with.
The client – like many other companies – decided to freeze the recruitment of any additional freelancers, until the crisis is over.”
How about friends of yours who also work in fashion design – how are they being affected? Have most people seen a downturn in work, or has anyone actually had an increase in work?
“For the freelance designers that are not in the middle of a long contract, we feel scared about when new projects will appear, and how this downturn will affect us long term.
Many of my Italian friends that are working as in-house designers are now working from home, but they are scared as they understand that the economical struggle that the fashion Houses are experiencing will have an impact on them very soon.
Their way of work has been affected massively, and nobody knows whether fashion shows will take place or not, but some brands keep launching prototypes (which I don ́t understand, because as everybody should stay home under the new lockdown measures, I’m not sure who in Italy or Spain would be going to the factories to launch any new shoes or handbags prototypes?).
For the suppliers and factory staff, it is another panorama altogether. Most of them are forced to stay home due to the closure of the factories, and some companies have fired half of the workers already.”
You’re working on a really different project right now, sewing hospital gowns for medical staff on the frontline of the crisis – can you tell us more about this? How were you approached for this project?
“When the crisis first began, there were lots of private citizens, normal people, that were working on producing masks, etc.
Of course I wanted to help in some way, but my feeling was that these initiatives were not going to be that useful, as masks and gowns need to be sterilised, etc.
As things turned out, a guy from the district council contacted me as he was organising the production of gowns and masks for the local hospital, in a suburb village of Barcelona. It seemed that this hospital was really going to have a problem in not having enough supplies and gowns, so they looked for people that could sew, do patterns, etc. I am still impressed by the capacity of the authorities, how proactive they have been to research and find suitable people for such a project. When they asked me to help I was really happy to volunteer, of course. They brought me the material (it’s a kind of plastic material, that is washed and clean) and I worked on the patterns by looking at You Tube tutorials. They are actually very easy to make, so I’ve been sewing like crazy for the last 4 days to make a little production of 40 gowns so far.”
“Yesterday, a police officer took the gowns away to sterilise, before taking them to the hospital. Now I have another tonne to do, but I need to take a day off.”
On a creative level, are you still trying to stay motivated design-wise?
“In the beginning, when freelance work first took a downturn, I was quite frustrated. However, once I understood that nothing was probably going to appear in the next weeks/months, I decided to relax and work only on personal creative projects. My aim is to get really inspired, explore new ways of creation. I don ́t know if this work is going to be in my portfolio or not. I don ́t even know if what I’m working on will become an accessory or a piece of jewellery.
I’m just giving myself permission to create, without the pressure of having to make it commercial.
Now that I realise that the current situation may take months, not weeks, to end, I need a firm purpose and not let go of my creativity, and I’ll focus on this personal project as much as possible.
The last few days, between producing the gowns, and looking after the kids, it has been very, very difficult to find the time, but I’ll try to continue the best I can.”