"Everybody is welcome": Carlota Barrera on her groundbreaking New Balance collaboration

By Mikko Puttonen

The London-based fashion designer talks inclusivity, identity and pushing for a new vision of football with her latest collection

Despite all the hope and the hype, it didn't come home for England this summer.

While the England men's team suffered heartbreak on the pitch, reactions to some players' penalty misses showed how much work there still is to do off it. And although great strides have been made with the sport in the last few decades, it's clear that more needs to be done when it comes to not just issues around race, but broader inclusivity in football.

That was the backdrop to Carlota Barrera and New Balance's vibrant showcase at London Fashion Week in September, where the collaborators unveiled their new SS22 collection with the unifying slogan of "Join our team." These words are printed throughout the collection on sporty sweatshirts and football caps, styled with tailored trousers, polo shirts and outerwear, and for Barrera, they carry an important weight.

"I think this collaboration was a way of saying we are a team, just come and play with us and everybody is welcome," the Spanish-born designer tells us. "And I think we should focus on that a bit more.”

Related: London Fashion Week street style was a celebration of gender-fluid dressing

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Sport has this beautiful way of bringing people and communities together, but there is still a way to go to reach full inclusivity. “The visibility of women in sport from all gender identities and trans in sports is very much needed," says Barrera. "I think we need to work towards that. We try to do it as a brand."

Barrera's eponymous London-based label has been representing evolving identities since her debut for SS19 with a collection entitled ‘The Matador and The Fisherman.’ The brand has made sumptuous styling and timeless tailoring its hallmarks, but for this collaboration with New Balance Barrera naturally sought a more sporty feel, while still mixing in signature pieces such as tank tops, suits, and cut-out shirts.

“It was all about making all garments comfortable," she says, noting that her label already began working with elasticated trousers last season. "I have always been wearing suits but then during the lockdown, I couldn't be bothered. But I think the brand went with me on that journey towards comfort.”

Photo: Yann Faucher

Stereotypes are still rooted in the sports world. In June, UEFA denied a request to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours ahead of Germany's Euro 2020 match against Hungary after LGBTQ+ content was banned in schools and on kids TV in the latter country. Just a few months later, former England footballer Rio Ferdinand told a British parliamentary committee that he knew of a gay player who had been advised by their lawyer not to come out and speak publicly. Ferdinand clarified that the lawyer felt the player was not strong enough mentally at the time to deal with the anticipated public reaction; there are currently no openly gay players in English professional football. Less than two weeks after the former Manchester United player's comments, Barrera debuted her new collection with New Balance.

For me personally, it is so refreshing to see a collaboration with a sportswear brand heading in the right direction and so beautifully executed — these are the exact steps we need.

Although she graduated from London College of Fashion with an MA in menswear design in 2017, gender fluidity is one of Carlota Barrera’s core values. “People always ask me who do you design for; what type of woman, what type of man. And I’m like, I just don't care," she says. "[I design for] anyone that feels comfortable with their own body and anyone that is comfortable, confident and just wants to celebrate their identity.”

To Barrera, gender fluidity means a lack of barriers and a celebration of identities “It means freedom for me, the freedom to be anything and everything. And not feeling the need to just label yourself or wanting to define yourself within a certain box from our society.”

To this end, I ask about her advice for someone who wants to start to incorporate gender fluidity in their wardrobe and style. “Just explore all possibilities and then get the garments that you like, not the ones associated with the gender you are born with.”

From her own collection, she would suggest the signature jumpsuits with circle cut-outs on the waist that are meant to be worn by anyone who feels comfortable with their body. “When I started I did only menswear, and I started working with the concept of vulnerability because it was, for me, the starting point for all the types of masculinity. And for me, showing that part of the flesh that is so vulnerable in all of our bodies, like the rib cage — it's that part we kind of always hide when we dress. So covering everything else and just showing that was, for me, a good way of showing who you are.”

In addition to her Spanish heritage, Barrera is keen to cite queer history as an important inspiration for her work. “Knowing who came before me and who allowed me to be myself and who made history in their own way in the queer community has influenced me and keeps influencing me a lot." That history, in turn, gives her own brand a sense of purpose, she says. "I feel as a brand, we have a kind of duty, a sense of duty to celebrate that and to kind of be in the present, but also thinking of the future.”

As for her label's future, she's keen to keep her feet on the ground, even as the young brand increasingly turns heads. “It is all about just keeping being happy with with the little steps that it will take, keep building our team, keep showing our collections and hopefully, keep developing our brand and keep developing our identity without losing it.”

As for her general outlook on the future, Barrera believes we are heading in a more gender-fluid and inclusive direction. “Definitely, I hope so. I hope we all are part of that as well. I think we see gender completely differently now, and we see it completely differently from how our parents see it, for example. I think between generations, there has always been a shift towards that. Gen Z is completely free in that sense and they are the future. I think that's a future, not just in fashion, but in every part of society. That would be a fun future.”

Photography by Yann Faucher