of the gypsy
The fact that talent, that ability to understand and do a job, can be considered innate –or not!– is too long an argument to start it here. But what no doubt you come up with since birth is genius, and Morabel Morales Berbel, has a great deal of it: be it for her pioneer attitude within show business fashion or for her character, totally apt to deal with extreme situations: in the dispatch notes she gives her clients, she says: “Money won’t be returned under any circumstance: wedding cancellation, death or anything else.” She has found herself in predicaments of so many colours that would cover the whole Pantone ® range.
Forerunner of striptease fashion in our country, stylist of TV programme Lluvia de Estrellas and first designer of Club Matinee, in the last twenty years Morabel has designed the craziest haute couture dresses for gypsy weddings at an international level.
When you show interest for her vocation, she talks about other lives, of an atman with great expertise that comes from very far back. Although for such a pragmatic person, staying in the spiritual world is irreverence. Her fantasy fashion comes from an almost industrial sphere, full of dresses with such long tails that they need wheels to support the weight; she has to deal with crowns and volumes similar to those of modernist architecture translated to the 80s glittery world. When you see her designs you realise she had already invented seapunk even before the term was coined. She revolutionised gypsy brides and scandalised its priests, who have had no other choice than to get use to their more and more extravagant outfits.
We wouldn’t be surprised to find her at a TriBeCa penthouse, getting dresses ready for the tours of her neighbours Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, but she has never even moved from her native city. She welcomes us at her home and atelier in Sant Adrià del Besòs, where she has lived since she was born, in 1969.
When did you become interested in fashion?
I was always interested. I think in another life I was a seamstress, a dressmaker, or however you want to call it. My mum couldn’t sew a button, but I started when I was eight. I made disguises for my niece, who’s only two years younger than me. I remember I used to grab newspapers and fitted them around her body. I would make pleats, cut the neck… The first one I did for her was from The Beauty and the Beast. A princess dress with newspapers. I knew how to sew but I didn’t know why.
And when you started designing, was it all down to intuition? Didn’t you look for patterns?
No. I remember buying Burda magazine –full of patterns– and not getting it, but it did give me a general idea. That was when I started making slim-fit dresses for my niece. I saw they had stripes, pleats and other motifs I tied to imitate. Maybe the pleat wasn’t where it was meant to be, but I placed it instinctively, to show the body.
Then I started studying at the Felicidad Duce school, when it was in calle Madrazo. I was fourteen and they didn’t want to take me, because I was underage and hadn’t finished school; but my parents signed the authorization and so they ended up accepting me. There was no one else my own age. I studied, at the same time, fashion, industrial pattern grading and pattern design.
Did your parents always back you up?
My whole family did. Although even if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have cared, I would have done the same [she smiles]. My mother wanted me to study any other thing, she thought a seamstress was going to be just a seamstress forever, someone who could do nothing else.
You could do it all!
It’s not that I could, I loved it! I think that I was able to study at Felicidad Duce because it was different times, now it would be unthinkable. It was down to my parents’ insistence. Imagine, it’s a three or four year degree and I finished it in a year and a half! I was working from home already, I made skirts for the neighbours, blouses…
I remember that, at school, the first thing they showed you how to make was a basic skirt. It’s where all the rest come from, and I don’t mean I was exceptionally gifted or anything, but I knew how to make it. I made all the sizes on the same day. People spent a month making skirts, but within a week I had already made all the possible transformations there could be: the pleated skirt, the yoke skirt, the floaty skirt, etc. They’re the same thing; all you have to do is cut the patterns.
My final project show was a wedding one, because I loved fantasy. I didn’t study, like people do today, how to design clothes for show business. There they taught you how to make normal garments, and within the most imaginative ones there were wedding dresses or night dresses, and I chose the wedding ones!
Sounds like a premonition, did you make any traditional wedding dresses?
Well, I did but my own way. Although, in my opinion, la brides should always wear white. If not, they shouldn’t marry.
Who was your favourite designer back then?
Karl Lagerfeld. I’m a great lover of black and white, and he still works with those colours today.
It’s Chanel’s first idea, reformulating the servants’ clothes and turned them into elegant outfits. And did any street style catch your attention?
No, I’ve always preferred famous designers.
Do you read fashion magazines?
The first magazine I ever bought was ¡Hola! Especial Moda, but that was more than twenty years ago. Now I don’t like any of them, I see nothing new. The last one I had was Collezioni, an Italian fashion mag including catwalks and trends. But the two last issues left me cold, so I haven’t bought it again.
How did your career start?
When striptease arrived in Spain, the sister of my sister-in-law worked as a stripper and since it wasn’t something accepted, the girls didn’t know where to go to get their clothes. It was the fantasy style I liked, so I made her first dress. It was a set of jacket and trousers with a golden bra, long before Madonna ever wore it. From then on, many strippers came to see me from all over the country for me ot make their clothes. That’s when I started with showbiz. I was well paid, because they were the first girls and they could charge between fifty thousand and one hundred thousand pesetas per strip tease. They paid whatever I asked, but when the boom passed away, they wanted to pay me less and I didn’t accept it.
Then I started to design outfits for ballroom dancing. It worked the same way, I made one and then other people started coming. One of the dancers wanted us to become a partners, but since I always prefer to do things on my own I didn’t accept. That left me out of the game, but I always knew how to get out of situations.
After that, I studied make up and started working for films, TV and adverts. On TV I worked for programme Lluvia de Estrellas, around 1995. I started as a make up artist, but any time something went wrong I worked as a stylist. They liked me and I started doing it myself. We would shoot for three days and then I would come back to Barcelona, I’ve always preferred to live here.
My work has always become popular because people started telling each other about it. I’ve done all sorts of things, from wet T-shirt contests in discos to the first male underwear catwalks. I worked for Amnesia nine years, in the summer. I make the collections in the winter, always following my own criteria. You need to trust your taste, and I’m good at what I do. I was also the first designer of Club Matinee and did all the design for Blanco & Negro or Ibiza Mix, for la Veneno’s music videos, etc.
Do you remember any collection you particularly liked?
At the time, I liked them all. But I’m a perfectionist, and later on I always find mistakes. I couldn’t choose just one.
And how did you end up in the gypsy fashion world?
I come from Sant Adrià and there’s lots of gypsies here, as you know. A neighbour asked me to design all the dresses for her granddaughter’s wedding. That Sunday I already had three gypsy families to design dresses for. I had to leave it all, because they’re very demanding, and they have also been the audience who has best valued my work. They start crying and have even kissed my hands sometimes! Of all the jobs I have, it’s the most satisfactory. If not, I would be doing something else.
I get visits from families from all around the world. Where I sell the most is in France Portugal, but I’ve had people coming from China, Australia… I designed outfits for the Gipsy Kings, who are now in North Carolina. I made the wedding of the year, in Majorca: the mother’s dress, the bride’s dress… I can end up making all the dresses for the same wedding.
So you understand it: I’m the Chanel of the gypsy world. And I’m not the one who says it, they say it. They take selfies with my sign, on the door, with me… And when I ask them the kind of dress they want they completely trust me, they tell me to do whatever I want.
Which are the rules to make a gypsy wedding dress?
It depends on where they come from. They’re all gypsies, but have different traditions. Most of all, what makes them different from a traditional bride is the amount of jewels and volume size. First they wear a white dress, with which they go to the church or to mass. Then, they choose a nightgown, which is the one full of details and jewels.
Like those full bodies you make? I think they’re spectacular.
These bodies are only worn by Catalans, because they’re the ones allowed to show more flesh. Although now, all styles are getting mixed up. This would have been unthinkable in Madrid some years ago! They’re more into classical white. In France, what changes is that the wedding dress has no tail, they prefer a lot of volume or something fitted. In Spain, nothing too tight, a mermaid cut at the most. For instance, if they ask for a princess style that means they want a lot of metres of fabric, and if they want something sophisticated, it means wrapped around the body. Even though they’re all gypsies, and they all love bling-bling, they have very different styles depending on their provenance.
Is there a Morabel characteristic that only your dresses have?
They’re very sexy, and I like them tight. Lots of pastors blame me when they see brides dressed like that; I’ve made them so much modern! I design them more and more extreme each time, they want something extra y and in the end they might end up looking like they’re going ot the Rio de Janeiro carnival. I also give them advice on make up and hairdo, for the crown to fit properly.
And does the whole family presence the fittings?
I don’t let them, I don’t want to. When I started making dresses for them, everybody came, grandparents, aunts, etc., and they all dictated how the dress had to be like and how deep the cleavage could be. The bride had to keep silent, but today they’re in charge. Now it’s strange for the whole family to appear, although mothers-in-law always come, and grooms do to, sometimes.
Who has more to say about the dress, the mother or the mother-in-law?
The one who pays.
It’s strange for the groom to be able to see the dress!
They don’t do it because of a male chauvinistic thing, it’s just that they’re very primp and they want to dress like the bride. I usually make clothes for both members of the couple.
What do the men want for their outfits?
They’re quite similar; they usually wear white, like the girls. And usually, when they change their suit, they try to combine the next one with the second dress the bride wears. Sometimes, when girls choose a second dress in pink, they don’t want to wear the same colour. They won’t be less manly for wearing pink, but they choose instead something golden with pink gems. But there’s only one male chauvinist out of every hundred, now, they’re changing a great deal. In the same way they accept homosexuals now too. In fact, I designed the clothes for the polemic wedding in Sant Adrià in which one of the guys was submitted to a handkerchief virginity test. They didn’t do it as a mockery, but it was a mistake. Five years ago this wouldn’t have been possible.
Do you go to dress them on their wedding day?
And are you then invited to the ceremony?
They all invite me, but I have attended none. I have enough with what I’ve got here.
And has any non-gypsy bride come to see you? And do you make dresses for them?
Yes, as long as she pays. Lots of quinquilleras come, they’re gorgers who have been brought up as gypsies.
How long do you take to make a dress?
From one day to there months. I have a team of six or seven seamstresses and I design the patterns, make the budgets, etc. They do as I tell them. I ask a minimum of four months to make a dress and when there’s less work we make tails and frills for the high season.
From March to November it’s high season. But now I already have around thirty weddings programmed. It’s not that they’re all going to be held in the spring, sometimes they trick me with dates. Sometimes they advance them. I try to make the deadline and then they can marry whenever they want. Before I use to trust them, but then I found that we had to be up working for thirty-six hours to finish. I take the money and start working, in case they try to fool me –because they will– and in that way I have the job half finished. It’s not the same having to finish it completely in a hurry than having it half made.
Apart from the commissions in our atelier (where you have to ask for an appointment), I have a shop with outfits for guests, and we make those when workload is low. Here we do look at trends, and I always opt for the sexiest. For instance, I’m inspired by Elie Saab, an Iranian designer living in New York who plays a lot with transparencies. I also follow the Victoria’s Secret shows.
Who are your favourite designers now?
When it comes to fantasy, Thierry Mugler is my favourite. For my own clothes, I love Roberto Cavalli and Versace, although lately I’m wearing a lot of Tom Ford. I used to dress sexier before. I’ve shaved my head, I’ve dyed it purple… They would get scared of me and insulted me. I’ve been a revolutionary. Think that a transsexual working for gypsies is very strange, but they accept me. It wasn’t so tough for me.
I’ve been offered to appear in all TV shows, but I’ve always declined. This is the second time I agree to being interviewed. I don’t trust the questions I will be asked, I’m not interested where they get their money from, and I don’t want to be asked about gypsy customs, because I don’t ever go into that. Send in a specialist! Why do they perform the handkerchief test? Ask a gypsy, not me!
Olé! We’ll stop our questions here, then, many thanks Morabel.
When we step into the atelier, we see that the wall behind the counter is full if signs: