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The 27-year-old talks to VOZ about how he recreates paintings on garments with his Digitais technique —and tells us all about Célula Preta, a collective of Black fashion designers.

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Diego Gama’s F43.1 collection photographed by Caira Malho.

“I prefer going to a hardware store than to a fabric store,” tells me Brazilian designer Diego Gama over Zoom. His previous collections, where he has worked with unconventional materials such as fibreglass, silicone and even plants, prove this, “I like to challenge [myself] within my work so I can discover new things and go to different places.” The 27-year-old from Nova Iguaçu moved to São Paulo 10 years ago to study fashion design at the Faculdade Santa Marcelina [Santa Marcelina College] and is now 4 years into running his eponymous label, which will be launching its e-commerce website this June.

 

“I’ve played basketball my whole life,” Gama says, “I grew up on the courts. That’s actually what made me interested in fashion.” Although it may seem like an odd statement to make the designer explains: he would often see his mother — who played basketball professionally for over 20 years —design her team’s jerseys. “I thought it was fun. In sports, jerseys have a different meaning, it's not about what you can buy, it's about something that you are proud to wear,” says Gama, “So that's what made my eyes shine a little when I was thinking about what to do with my life.” His father was a basketball coach and is now a referee, so it comes as no surprise that the designer tends to bring philosophies learnt on the court to the management of his label, “Team sports make you think differently. We think about a collective. I know I'm not able to do everything by myself. So, I have to be able to [rely on] others so we as a team achieve our goals,” he says. The influence of team uniforms is seen in the silhouettes of his garments. A clear example being the oversized shirts and loose below-the-knee shorts from his ÓRBITA collection, similar to a basketball uniform.

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Diego Gama working on his Digitais technique.

Diego Gama with his F43.1 collection photographed by Mylena Saza

Gama’s work tends to focus on textiles, prints and textures. The designer places as much importance on the techniques used to develop the design of the fabrics he uses as he does on the final product. When making a collection about magnetism — where he explored “how people are attracted to each other,” — he literally used magnets and iron powder to create a plaid print, which he then photographed and printed onto garments. “It's usually not [me] making the materials do what I want,” says Gama, “[I try] to see what the material can show us.”

 

His Digitais [fingerprint] technique has become a staple for the label, and one Gama has experimented with vastly. The technique was born during his final year of university, a hectic time for Gama, where he experimented anxiety and panic attacks constantly, “I tried to talk about them through my work: how I can make an image of myself but [that is] distorted?” Gama decided that embossing his (literal) fingerprint repeatedly on a silicone base captured the chaotic nature of what he was experiencing. Each fingerprint climbed on top of another. They were uncontrollable, dense, and personal. The technique proved versatile enough to be applied to shirts, dresses, and jackets. The process of making the fabrics for one piece can take up to a month as Gama literally uses his thumb to individually imprint every section of the garment. “It’s handmade so [I work on it for] 8 hours a day. It's time-consuming and physically consuming,” he says, “my hand [is] sore for days.”

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Diego Gama’s F43.1 collection featuring a recreation of Brazilian artist Victor Henrique Fidelis' work, photographed by Caira Malho.

In his latest collection titled F43.1 (named after the World Health Organization’s code for post-traumatic stress disorder), Gama experimented with this technique further. “[During] the pandemic I didn't want to create anything, [it] was not pleasurable [for me anymore]. I had to do stuff not because I wanted to, but because if I didn't, my brand would die,” explains the designer, “I decided to transform this unpleasant feeling into a beautiful collection.” He made the fingerprints in his Digitais technique even smaller to make them appear heavier — in reality, the garments are only slightly “heavier than a cotton t-shirt” but not “hard or uncomfortable.” Gama also used the Digitais technique to recreate two paintings by Brazilian artist Victor Henrique Fidelis, on blouses. “His work is amazing. I let him decide [which paintings to feature], I just told him that I needed strong black faces,” the designer says. “[Victor] says that [they’re] not his painting anymore once they’re reinterpreted by me. Because it's not like I print it on the fabric, I recreate it. So, it's a mix of our works.” Their collaboration resulted in emotive faces depicted in hues of orange and yellow that emanated power. Gama emphasizes that despite the resemblance between his process and that of a painter his garments are meant to be worn. “I always hear people [saying], ‘Oh, this is a work of art, I want to put it on my wall,’ and that's not what I want to hear. I make garments, I want people to wear them,” he states.

 

Currently, Gama presents his collections at Casa de Criadores [House of Creators], a platform dedicated to supporting independent designers and new talents founded in the late 90s. They provide designers with a space for a fashion show, a makeup team, photographers, and anything else they could need to present their collection. “Casa de Criadores [has] some of the most unique talents in Brazil. People [there] are not following the old rules. They're trying out new stuff, they're making mistakes and that's the fun thing about fashion,” says Gama, “In this place, we are able to do that, and we're celebrated [for] it.”

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Diego Gama’s F43.1 collection photographed by Caira Malho.

The designer is also part of a collective called Célula Preta [Black Cell], which consists of five Black Brazilian fashion designers who work together as creative directors for campaigns, and as inclusivity consultants to promote the work of black designers and also ensure equal working conditions. The collective is formed by Fabio Costa, Jal Vieira, Hisan Silva and Pedro Batalha. “For years, what we’ve called Brazilian fashion was really European. And that's not our history. We have [our own] influences and these past couple of years, this has been celebrated,” says Gama, “We as black designers, found that we have this amazing [body of] work, but we're not even close to being published as much as white designers are. We thought it was time for us to get together to [be] stronger.” One of their most recent projects was a collaboration with the Cultural Centre of São Paulo titled “From the Stage to the Streets.” Where the designers were asked to reinterpreted pieces from the archives belonging to the Municipal Theater of São Paulo and the Ballet of the City of São Paulo. “As POCs in Brazil historically didn't go to the theatre because it's expensive [or] far from where [we] live,” says Gama, “So being able to completely change [that through] a project that makes these two worlds meet was great.”

 

When I ask Gama about what he thinks is a common misconception of Brazilian fashion he replies: “That we only do bikinis. I think our swimwear is the best in the world [laughs], but we [also] have a lot of streetwear designers that are great, a lot of evening wear designers that are great… We have a lot of techniques that you only find in Brazil. I think people [need to do more research] to realise the great amount of talent we have in Brazil.”

 

Gama is also particularly passionate about education. He works as a part-time teacher at a school that partners with 3 favelas in Brazil to provide children with a space where they can learn technical skills like sewing and textile manipulation. “My [current] assistant was a student in one of my classes. He didn't go to college, he's a super talented person [so] it doesn't matter if he has a degree or not,” comments Gama, “I had the opportunity to get a degree, so I think it's my duty to [share that knowledge] with the people that don’t have access to it so then maybe they can think of fashion as a possibility.”

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Diego Gama’s F43.1 collection photographed by Caira Malho.

Gama is currently preparing for the commercial launch of his F43.1 collection, which will happen in June through his new website and in select stores in São Paulo. Besides this, he prefers to stay focused on the present, “I'm open to what life shows me and the opportunity [that present themselves],” Gama says, “I didn't know fashion was a possibility for me. Now I have [my own] label.”