The New Folk Generation

Chris Cotonou in conversation with Alejandro Gomez Palomo

“I have a lot—and I mean a lot—happening right now,” Alejandro Gomez Palomo tells me from his atelier in Córdoba. Spain’s most innovative young designer, and the founder of Palomo Spain is preparing a new collection that encapsulates spring, summer, and winter. “It is for all-seasons, as we’re all finding a new rhythm in life since the pandemic,” he tells me, “then I have another collaboration with Puma which I think will be more beautiful than the last.” If that wasn’t enough, Alejandro is also constructing his renowned studio, which plays host to musicians and performers from around the world, to add more space. 

I know Alejandro’s work primarily through Palomo Spain, and as a journalist who operates in the world of fashion, through stylist friends who have called on his gender-less designs to dress the likes of Harry Styles and Rita Ora. But it isn’t only his celebrity credentials that impress—although, I should mention that defining moment when Beyonce wore Palomo when presenting her twins on Instagram. Palomo excites me because his vision is so quintessentially homegrown. Ask around the society types in Madrid, and they’ll tell you that his aesthetic continues to define the way fashionable people dress in Spain. The bold colours, extravagance, and well of inspiration—from Sally Potter’s Orlando to flamenco dancers—are both progressive and, as Alejandro puts it to me most beautifully, folkloric, in a way that feels as though it could only have emerged from the imagination of an artist that grew up in Spain: one who wants to uphold the culture in new ways for a new generation. It’s refreshing to see, particularly as a Brit who is used to watching our heritage fashion houses become progressively more American or Italian. Alejandro speaks about his Córdoba lovingly, as though she is a beautiful passerby. And then there is his work with Rosalía, Spain’s most famous international export, who through their collaborations Alejandro helped create an image that the entire world now recognises. There are countless accolades and awards, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now. But what I was curious to learn about by speaking to Alejandro was his sense of place: his connection to Córdoba, and more broadly Spain, and the way our identities inspire distinct ideas. I am under the impression, as so many are, that he is largely responsible for a whole new Madrileña movement that hasn’t been this cool or interesting since the nineteen-eighties. So, this is Alejandro—one of Spain’s most influential designers of today.

Chris Cotonou – I was surprised to find you lived in London, my hometown.

Alejandro Gomez Palomo – Yeah, I lived in London for six years for my studies at the London College of Fashion and then Central Saint Martins. I lived around the bohemian Bethnal Green and Roman Road areas. East London was more fashionable then. It had a scene that I felt a part of. I guess I saw the end of an era because it has changed ever since.

C.C. – And now you live in Córdoba?

A.G.P. – I’m in the village of Posadas just outside of the city. You could say it is the Bethnal Green of Córdoba. It’s the only place with a creative vibe.

C.C. – What is it about Córdoba that inspires what you do?

A.G.P. – Well, firstly it’s the place that I originate from, and although it isn’t the biggest city, it has a lot of history. Córdoba also has a special antique culture. It was the capital of the Arabic Al-Andalus, so at its peak, it was like the New York City of its time. A lot of what we consider ‘Spanish’ was invented here: from the colours, patterns, musical-influences and the ways of dressing—so Córdoba has remained an exciting setting for those seeking inspiration.

C.C. – Like much of Andalusia.

A.G.P. – Sort of. It’s different here to the rest of the region. Andalusians are known for being loud and outgoing, and while that’s true, there’s something unusually discreet about Córdoba’s people. The alleys hold many secrets and interesting characters, and I think this comes from our history. In Spain, the Jews, Muslims, and Catholics were persecuted at various times, and Córdoba was one of the big melting pots. So secrecy and discretion are in our blood.

C.C. – Aside from being your hometown, what brought you back?

A.G.P. – It’s hard to say, but I think I wanted to connect with everything that made me who I am…if you know what I mean. I left Córdoba to live a cosmopolitan life in London, and while I enjoyed it, I was always searching for my roots. I was constantly asking myself why: Why was I different to the people around me? It’s one of the reasons I became a designer, as part of a journey to discover who I am. 

C.C. – So you always knew you would return some day?

A.G.P. – Actually, I never intended to stay. I came to visit family, and while I was here, I started producing coats in a small office space, and one thing led to another, and I ended up making a collection in 2016 that was well-received, and I just never left since then. I suppose you could call it fate.

C.C. – I’m curious to know if you consider your vision Spanish or specifically Andalusian. 

A.G.P. – I look at many different regions in Spain for inspiration, but it always has an Andalusian heart. I was brought up in this bright and colourful world with the references of the South: the flamenco and religious iconography. I would go to church with my family and marvel at the glamour of the embroidery and the decorative splendour. It was, like, the only reason I wanted to go to church when I was a kid.

C.C. – So the Palomo Boy aesthetic has its roots in religion? How funny.

A.G.P. – Even now, I see the processions, the Roman armour and the feathers and the velvet and emeralds…and

C.C. – You mentioned your family. Did you have a happy childhood?

A.G.P. – I’m lucky to say I have really supportive parents. It’s tough to grow up gay here, but I have good memories and always felt free to express myself. I wanted to dress Barbies as a child, and I used to prefer sitting with my grandmother and helping her make clothes to pass the time.

C.C. – Your first steps in becoming a designer. 

A.G.P. – Exactly. As an only-child, my parents realised I was different and into other things. But I think they found it quite cool, and as a teenager, I would lean into it, wearing the craziest clothing. But I had the urge to leave Spain because I thought I would be more free somewhere else.

C.C. – Those years abroad must have given you a good perspective on what makes Spanish fashions so unique.

A.G.P. – Indeed. What I learned is that it’s not as self-defined as Italian or French. Here, fashion is whatever your neighbour is wearing and there are plenty of fast fashion brands who just imitate what we see from abroad. But I think Spaniards are stylish. There’s a certain warm Latin flair for women: polkas, lace, eyeliner…a type of magical movement. It’s like Italian women but more careless in the best possible way.

C.C. – And what about the men?

A.G.P. – Actually, it’s always been more posh and proper. You can see it if you walk around Madrid, this preppy style. It’s funny because everywhere else, skinny jeans seem to have disappeared, but not here. I remember buying a pair in London, and everyone told me they were for women.

C.C. – So the Palomo Boy is your way of trying to change that?

A.G.P. – No. I’m not trying to change their style, but it has definitely had an impact here. I can see that it affected how some parts of the country dress. It’s sensual, independent of the person’s sexuality. Of course, it’s most prominent with the generation and scene that I am a part of, especially in Madrid. All of my friends are dressed in the manner of the Palomo Boy now. It is what I call the New Spanish Modernity.

C.C. – It also influenced Spain’s music scene, most famously with Rosalia.

A.G.P. – Yes, and we had such a beautiful journey together. She’s left Spain now, but I miss those days… designing her costumes for the videos. Back then, she would visit my small studio in Córdoba, and her image came partly from how she would adapt her look to me. Now, it’s a little different, of course.

C.C. – She’s your most famous Spanish muse. Do you still keep in touch?

A.G.P. – Of course. I saw her recently, and we still have a lot of affection for each other, and of course, I’m proud to have been a part of her journey and, indeed, to continue being a part of this new wave of Spanish artists that she comes from.

C.C. – That new wave has such a distinct style.

A.G.P. – That’s because, in Spain, we’re observing our folkloric roots but through a modern lens. There’s now a sense of pride in this generation. We grew up in an economic crisis, and so many of us left for places like London to find work. It was only there that we realised how special our culture is—giving us fresh eyes to see it in a new light. For some it’s music. For me, it’s fashion. But we’re all revisiting the forgotten cultural tropes and using them as inspiration.

C.C. – So it felt like a responsibility?

A.G.P. – It was important to me, in particular, because I couldn’t think of another Spanish design house in the past ten years that has tried to elevate these folkloric elements that are ours—and rather, they seem to prefer copying the Italian or French fashions.

C.C. – A lot of this folkloric pride began with the filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Have you worked with him yet?

A.G.P. – I got the chance to meet Pedro, and he did ask me for a particular dress for a scene in one of his films, but sadly it couldn’t be used. But I’m sure I’ll feature in his movies at some point.

C.C. – Do you have more ambitions to design for the screen or theatre?

A.G.P. – Yes, I really enjoy that kind of work, particularly ballet. I designed a costume for a 

project called The
at the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris and was unprepared for the scale; the same goes for the New York City Ballet at the Lincoln Centre, where I made ten costumes to be used against Solange Knowles’ first ever ballet score. 

C.C. – What was the reaction to that like?

A.G.P. – It was beautiful. The reaction was phenomenal. I designed ten special dresses that were colourful and dynamic, but I also wanted them to be serious. We used half a million crystals in pinstripes, dazzling the audience. I remember watching the dancers, following their routines, and pairing the designs with that sense of movement. When they performed, I was overwhelmed with emotion.

C.C. – Are you a melancholic, sentimental person in some ways?

A.G.P. – I am, yes. I always search for the magic in the moments of my life. When something is in the air, when emotions are heightened. In Córdoba, there is a feeling that sentimentality is ingrained in us because modernity is obsolete—even if you try to look for it. It is nostalgia. You can get swept into a feeling by the simple scent of lemon, or of the small and old taverns that I grew up around.

C.C. – Sometimes, though, the big city—your fashion scene—calls you.

A.G.P. – Of course, Córdoba is different to Madrid, and I need both for various reasons. But every Friday, I’ll go to the city to let my hair down and stay for the weekend…party and soak up the energy of my scene. Córdoba is quiet, and the Spanish arts and fashion crowd I am a part of—my good friends in the creative world—are in Madrid.

C.C. – Where do Madrid’s current scene hang out?

A.G.P. – We have our spots for sure; you can find us at Club Malasaña, and there’s the famous Cha Cha Club party that I’ll attend on Friday night. This week, I’ll be there. But once that’s over, then it’s back to Andalusia. Back to Córdoba. Back to work. Back to the colours, and the lemons, and the old taverns…

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Chris Cotonou in conversation with Alejandro Gomez Palomo