Ana Patrícia Rodrigues studied contemporary art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, travelled the world and worked as a media consultant for the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos. In 2013, she traded the art world for the knit fabric industry and with her two brothers, Miguel and David, she is now part of the second generation leading the factory, which was founded by her parents in 1982. Located in Barcelos, in the north of Portugal, the Pedrosa & Rodrigues factory produces and develops knitted garments for brands such as Helmut Lang, Diane Von Furstenberg, Tom Ford and Neil Barrett.
Our tour of the factory starts in the showroom, amidst coffee, jokes and smiles that characterise the Portuguese warmth and hospitality. Ana begins by recalling some childhood games she used to play in the factory… The first words she typed on the typewriter, the clothes she made for her dolls, hide-and-seek in the warehouse. She was still in kindergarten but she already knew the compositions of the products, the fabrics and different washing instructions. This has always been her second home, but these days the game she’s playing is different: working hard to make the Portuguese contemporary clothing industry renowned worldwide.
Her days are spent researching new trends, fabrics, techniques and finishings, in order to come up with innovative solutions, especially tailored to each customer. This process spans from the approval of the first draft through to the final product being sent to the stores. Only the niche and most detailed products are made in their factory. After the initial cutting, the pieces are sent to 25 subcontracted factories in the region. Overseeing all operations we find her mother, Sabina Pedrosa, who joins us on this journey through the history of the family business.
This year Pedrosa & Rodrigues is celebrating its 37th anniversary. How did it all begin?
SABINA It all started the same way most Portuguese companies in this sector do: in my mother’s garage, with only seven workers, including me and my husband and with some money my grandmother loaned us. In the beginning, the most important thing was to pay off this debt and work tirelessly. After three years, we began to be recognised as a successful brand.
ANA It was the equivalent of today’s startups, which start in a garage with borrowed money. In the 1980s my parents had that vision. In 1982, they began working with circular knits, as subcontractors for large companies in the region. Today, we are the ones working with a network of 25 small factories in the region.
How did you achieve such success?
SABINA With extensive learning and motivation. We were exploited by some companies, but we were also fortunate to start working with a factory in Porto that taught us a lot and encouraged us to take the next big step. And, of course, we have always had the best suppliers and a good, dedicated team, which has made us grow immensely.
I never thought our three children would work with us. But today they love it here! Each one has given this company a great boost in their own way.
We have some conventional customers and others who like to push boundaries and think outside the box.
Now you have your three children managing the business.
SABINA Exactly! I never thought our three children would work with us. When they were teenagers, they were even afraid to come to the factory because they knew I would make them help us to fold some shirts. But today they love it here! Each one has given this company a great boost in their own way. David has a technical degree focused on the textile industry and he is a great people manager with incredible social skills. Miguel is an architect and he’s very good at conceptualising the product and getting things from plan to action. Ana really likes to relate to people and develop projects. We make a great team.
Ana, during the visit to the factory, you told us that you like developing conceptual products the most, because they allow you to explore your connection to art, the area you’ve studied.
ANA No doubt. I use a lot of what I learned in my training in this job, especially when it comes to interpreting different aesthetics. Just as an art history class teaches you how to differentiate styles, here I can almost instantly understand whether a piece is designed for a conservative woman or for someone looking for hype. This helps us to develop a narrative and tailor our service to each client. We have some conventional customers and others who like to push boundaries and think outside the box. What I like the most is being able to work in these very different realities.
Do you believe that your aesthetic sensibility helps to attract “hype” brands and brands with a more differentiated and demanding product?
ANA I believe my biggest contribution is taking the contemporary side of Portugal to our customers. Because, deep down, I not only represent the company’s 40 years of experience, but also a generation of entrepreneurs who speak the same language as our customers and designers, who are Millennials like me. When I visit a client, I understand right away the cultural references of the products they want to develop. We all grew up in the same globalised world, watching the same cartoons, listening to the same songs and living in the same cultural universe.
SABINA It is very important that our clients see this, because Portuguese people are very humble and carry very old insecurities. Since this new generation took on managerial roles in the company, the customers respect us more and more and see us not only as producers, but also as business partners.
Is creating your own brand part of the plan?
ANA There are a lot of people who ask me that, because we have the factory and we are in the perfect position to do it. But I believe the best part of our job is to be able to work for 30 different brands developing such a differentiated product. One minute we might be producing a super cute infant bodysuit for one brand and the next minute developing an S&M t-shirt for another. It’s through this work that we have the chance to traverse such diverse aesthetic universes.
Which brands do you currently work with?
ANA We work with luxury streetwear brands from the American market, with a lot of hype, mainly from the skateboarding universe. In the highest market segment we work with Diane Von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang, Tom Ford and Neil Barrett among others. Then there are other European brands such as Whistles, Philosophy, Dorothee Schumacher, Sessùn, ME+EM, Holzweiler, Wimbledon and Orlebar Brown. In fact, today I’m wearing a pink suit by ME+EM. It’s very funny, because I’m not only a supplier but also a customer of many of our partners.
What is your strategy to reach new customers?
ANA We always keep an eye on the market, what people are wearing, what is relevant to the brands and which ones are peaking at the moment. Once we realise which brands are creating these waves, we try to reach their managers and introduce our services.
Does the customer come to your showroom or do you visit them?
ANA We welcome the customer to our showroom or we visit them, but only after we thoroughly prepare what we are going to present to them. We are not interested in meeting a luxury brand and showing them cotton t-shirts. If we are meeting someone personally for the first time we’ll do some research to find out how old they are, whether they are gay or straight or if they have any children. Each product we pitch has to tell a story about the perks of our company and has to meet the profile of each client.
SABINA This is a specialised kind of work that we weren’t doing this way before Ana came to work with us. When the clients contacted us, we couldn’t do this research to try to match each client’s different profile. It was very important to create this department, always focused on new trends of our suppliers and also brands.
What do you look for in a customer?
ANA Financial stability, whether they meet our minimum order quantities and their reputation in the market. Sometimes we consider these criteria separately, because there are brands that do not meet the minimum production required, but may interest us from the point of view of market recognition. We are interested in having some flagship customers who endorse us, because they work with very high levels of quality and, of course, will attract the attention of other brands that meet our minimum standards.
When I visit a customer and take our knit fabric, I am very proud because they’re always left positively surprised.
We make sure our customers know where and by whom their clothes are being made. Sometimes, we even take them to the suppliers, so they can see the operations and understand the final price.
Are the raw materials you use Portuguese?
ANA They are in 98% of the cases. There are some other times when the customer loves a specific fabric that isn’t Portuguese and we’ll import it, but this is an exception. Most times, the fabrics are made by Portuguese knitters because our partners in the region have invested greatly in quality, design and innovation. When I visit a customer and take our knit fabric, I am very proud because they’re always left positively surprised.
SABINA When we have a customer visiting us we always show him the knitwear of our suppliers and they are delighted. When our partner knit workers finalise their new collections, they bring us the new samples, even before presenting them at the fairs. That’s why we always know in advance what we will be able to offer our customers and they love it! If we don’t have what the customer is looking for, we are only an hour away from our partners, so we can easily get it.
How important is for the company to be in Barcelos?
SABINA It gives us speed and sustainability. Our customers know that if they want to buy good knit fabric, they have to come to Barcelos. We are truly privileged in our location because we are fortunate to be right next to our knit fabric suppliers and our producers. For example, if we land an order of a thousand pieces, when we are cutting the second patterns, the first ones are already coming back from the manufacturer, ready to be packed.
ANA As far as our supply chain is concerned, we work with full transparency. We make sure our customers know where and by whom their clothes are being made. Sometimes, we even take them to the suppliers, so they can see the operations and understand the final price. The more we share and disclose, the more they value the final product and the more they understand our challenges as suppliers. And the closer we get, the better we understand each other.
How are these partner companies selected?
ANA One of our great advantages is knowing exactly who are the best at making lyocell, linens, furs, etc. For example, when a customer is interested in a streetwear, 1990s looking knit, we know exactly where to take them. If another brand wants a fluid, feminine fabric, we’ll take them somewhere else. This true knowledge of the qualities of each of our suppliers is what enables us to better serve each brand. We end up being an aggregating centre of resources and services for the brand.
One of the principles of Pedrosa & Rodrigues is to not produce large quantities for fast fashion brands. Why did you decide to adopt this policy?
ANA This decision comes all the way from my parents’ management years and I always understood it. It doesn’t make sense to have our employees, knit workers and dyers working under a brutal pressure on the price and then end up producing tens of thousands of pieces at 5 cents per unit. That business model isn’t only nonsense ethically and environmentally, but also financially. We have to respect our company and the people working with us. That’s why our focus has always been and will always be value and quality, even if it implies producing smaller quantities.
SABINA To work with fast fashion brands would mean that average customers, those who buy less but buy a mature product, could never get into our production line. But these are the brands we aim to attract in the long term, because they are the loyal customers who bring us strength and financial security. We can never forget that we employ half the people of the parish and that here there are no titles or labels, doctors or engineers; we all go by our first names. We are a big family.
And Pedrosa & Rodrigues is your second home…
ANA Most of our employees live nearby and some of them have been here since I was a little kid. The well-being of those who work with us is essential and our factory has been designed for this purpose: we have green areas, a canteen, and a gym, a doctor gives free medical advice once a week and there’s also a TV and games room. Yes, all this is provided so that we all feel at home, because when we treat people fairly, they give us their best and that’s precisely what we want. We want them to like it here, to feel responsible for their work and to help us to better serve our client. In the end, that is our main goal. ♥