Putting art first – Nelson Santos brings fashion and art together

To have one creative career and achieve success is remarkable, to have two is practically unheard of – but for Nelson Santos that’s exactly what’s happening. Having made his name as a fashion designer, he has also set out on a parallel career path in illustration. When you take a look at the work altogether there is a synergy between the two. If you take the clothes he designs in particular there is a sense that the creativity, the art, the illustrator in him is always at the forefront of the ideas, and that the fabric adorning the human body simply happens to be his choice of canvas.

Nelson SantosA design by Nelson Santos


Having finished his education in Fashion Textile Design on a high in his native Portugal, where he won an award in his final year which would see him move seamlessly into work with other designers, Santos made the bold decision to move to London instead, feeling his work was “too crazy” for the environment he was surrounded by. The move was astute. For all the praise he received in Portugal, the resounding feedback was that there simply wasn’t the right market for his work – interesting, dynamic, and vivacious as it is, where did this dramatic fusion of fashion and the oddities of life, fit in the market? London, of course! …

Illustration by Nelson SantosIllustration by Nelson Santos

In no time at all, the work that was deemed “too strong” in one place was featured at the White Cube gallery, all at once justifying the move that had seen Santos arrive in a country with “no friends”, but allowed him to “keep true to what I like to do.” Ever the true artist he explains, “I waste money to create work, but I am happy with what I do.”

Illustration by Nelson SantosIllustration by Nelson Santos

Design and illustration are inextricably linked for Santos, which makes the duality of his work less of a surprise. A man who often finds himself designing costumes for performers, his work takes inspiration from the everyday – people he sees in the street, their quirks, even the elements that are a little bit ugly, and he fuses them all into the weird and wonderful. In a blaze of colour and flair it is something of a metaphor for life.

Illustration by Nelson SantosIllustration by Nelson Santos

What it is not however, is mainstream or particularly wearable for Joe Bloggs on his or her way to Tescos, and this is where Santos both finds his market and his limitation, because ultimately his work isn’t fashion, it’s art, but it’s that most unforgiveable of arty things – it is surprisingly accessible thanks to its roots in reality and its persistent undercurrents of both humour and pathos, “I think you can have a strong image and make it fun at the same time. Most of my inspiration is from people in the street. My images are strange in terms of body shapes and proportions. For me the idea of beauty is not what the magazines show; I look at the weird parts of people and my images put all those strange elements together. I think the world can be beautiful.”

Design by Nelson SantosDesign by Nelson Santos

Which brings us onto the other element of Santos’ work which merely adds to its sense of intrigue – whether illustration or design, there is always a narrative, and this is a personal touch that ensures that whether working to a brief or his own spec, his work is always identifiable: “I research, I read, and create a story that comes out through the drawings and the clothes.” Nonetheless, alongside the exuberant creativity there continues to be this sense of pragmatism – something which I am not entirely sure that the self-deprecating Santos is even aware that he possesses.

Acutely aware that costumes have to be comfortable (not a prerequisite when it comes to fashion), he is also aware that his work is not to everyone’s taste, “Fashion people often think I’m too arty, and arty people think I’m too fashion. I hope someday we can all come to an agreement. I think I am an artist who works with fashion as a base. For me design and fashion are art forms.” What is particularly special about Santos I find, both as an individual and through his work, is that despite the ostentatiousness of creating one-off pieces of clothing as walking, living, breathing art, his approach is one which shows creativity as something of considerably wider importance than the aesthetic.

Design by Nelson SantosDesign by Nelson Santos

On a recent project which saw him mentoring adults and children who struggle with mental illnesses, he galvanised his belief that art can have a “very positive impact on people,” explaining, “I worked mostly with kids and each one of them has a different issue so you never really knew what was going to happen. I got there and you could see they thought I was this guy who was dressed funny. I told them to draw what they were feeling, and after a while even the drawings were relaxing. They started with the very heavy lines you produce when you are nervous and then began to loosen.”

One thing you certainly feel when you speak to Santos is that he is willing to give you the most rare commodity of all – time. Considering his answers and taking time to talk, it is no wonder that on the same project he identified with one child in particular, explaining, “There was one kid who was nervous of showing his drawings because he thought they were weird, and I showed him my website and said it was ok – he’s not the only one who draws weird things. By the end he was talking to me, and he said he never really talked to anyone.”

On which note, Portugal’s loss appears to be London’s gain – at least for now. Talking wistfully about the potential to work in Berlin where offers are on the table, and various other creative centres across the globe, he concludes with a smile, “moving from London is not in my plans, I really love London”. Which is just as well for those of us who are here, ready and waiting to see what the man who is straddling illustration and design will do next, and who seems to have found his spiritual home in the process.

by Bonnie Friend 

About The Author

Glass Online arts writer

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