April, 2015: Público, a daily newspaper, published an article by author Vítor Belanciano entitled Esqueçam as grandes marcas, o verdadeiro luxo é a autenticidade (“Forget the big brand, the real luxury is authenticity”), following a conference organized by Monocle, which brought together, in Lisbon, an elite of market groupies from all over the world, ready to discuss the ingredients of the so called “tourism of authenticity”. The title of the article was apparently justified by a statement from Monocle’s director Tyler Brûlé, who said that “[t]he new definition of luxury is not big brands, which are similar everywhere, but the authenticity, the history, the memory, that’s what brings people to the cities” (n. p.). Monocle is both a trend magazine and a brand, whose success interferes directly on the markets. Belanciano mentions the existence of “an environment where one can breathe authenticity”, i.e., a context where what is most appreciated is the affective value of commodities. In other words, that “environment of authenticity” is dependent on the narrowing of the gap that separates capitalist and libertarian ideologies: the mediated consumption is labeled as inauthentic and the more direct trade is elevated to the ideal of authenticity, even if that market is mediated by the capitalist society all the same.

Tyler Brûlé is Monocle”, wrote another portuguese newspaper, following the same conference. The “trends’ guru” apparently discovered what is so trendy about Lisbon. According to him, “the grass needs to keep on growing in the portuguese cobblestone […] for it reveals personality, otherwise it would be as if the city had too much botox. If the cities go through excessive plastic surgery they start to gain a different personality, and the authenticity is lost” (n. p.). So imperfection is marketable as long as it is also prone to gentrification. The values evoked in this simplified view of what is marketable and touristic are not that different from the romantic perspective that ruled over the eighteen century: one keeps on associating authenticity with manufacturing and proximity, as one keeps on allocating the aura in singularity; on the other hand inauthenticity is equated with mechanical reproduction and the mediation that separates the producer from the consumer.

Monocle’s strategy is to celebrate a cool life, and for that they associate the idea of coolness with the ideal of authenticity. Dedicated to celebrate and promote and healthy living, right in the middle of the neighborhoods, with access to local produce, Monocle has dedicated several articles to the so called portugalidade (“portuguese flare”?) and this is where Catarina Portas comes in.

Note: let me had that I live right in the lion’s mouth, Campo de Ourique, the Lisbon neighborhood Monocle can’t stop promoting.
Patricia de Melo Moreira for The New York Times
© Patrícia de Melo Moreira, photograph published in “The New York Times”.

A Vida Portuguesa (understood as “The Portuguese Life” or “Portuguese Way of Living”), is Portas’ enterprise. Created in 2007, it is a brand that aims to resurrect the traditional market and promote historical products. As Portas herself states to Monocle, her target audience is both the elderly people who can no longer find their products in the local stores (called Drogarias), as well as “fine-art students who enjoy the atmosphere”. A Vida Portuguesa’s blog highlights the fact that Catarina Portas has been promoted by Monocle to the category of “global hero”. In fact, Monocle has countless articles praising Portas’ market vision. But this is what troubles me: is it possible that because many of the products promoted by her brand reference the portuguese dictatorship (the period known as Estado Novo) that they also suggest a conservative and nostalgic understanding of the concept behind that “portuguese way of living”? I think the answer is a plain yes.

In the Manifest made available in the brand’s site one mentions identity, saudade “(that nostalgic and untranslatable longing)” and the power of memory, and of the products one concludes that “[t]hey are trademarked in our memories and represent a way of life. They evoke the everyday life of another time and reveal the soul of a country. These are our products. This is who we are”. Although there are similarities between this “manifest” and the kind of fundamentalist discourse that tends to praise the “national values”, when asked by Monocle, Portas states that her project “is tied to identity, not nostalgia, which is very different”. Is it?

livros a vida portuguesa
Books sold by “A Vida Portuguesa”. Some are promoted with the following statement: “These books, of the ancient primary school, evoke the childhood times of a senior portuguese generation.”

Historian Pedro Duarte reflects upon a possible connection between capitalism and fascism by looking at the Vida Portuguesa brand and highlights the importance of identity, authority and myth for such a reflection. On one side, Duarte places the “makers of identity”, obsessed with the conquest of a secure lexicon of identity related symbols; on the opposite site, Duarte places the “destroyers of identity”, who contest any form that goes against the natural dynamics that the passing of time brings upon the different notions of identity. Portas isn’t comfortable in none of these sides: she doesn’t shy away from the chance to promote the importance of memory for the conservation of the concept of “national identity”, but she also plays the game of neoliberals, promoting the economy of tourism and the importance of innovation.

These “trademarks of our memory”, consumed both by locals and by tourists, find in A Vida Portuguesa the perfect “way of being portuguese”. However, if and while addressing tourism Portas’ strategy doesn’t seem to offend, being innovative only as far as she manages to bring together a manufacturing industry that is spread across the country; while addressing the local consumers I immediately question their selective memory. Duarte sums it up:

Fascism was an historical period where the construction of an identity was placed at the core of political action, that way attaining the media, architecture, city planning, art, school curriculum, history books, dictionaries and encyclopedias. National identity reproduced itself […] the political power went deep into the lives and individual consciences. And with it, “a vida portuguesa”, that inventive idea of the duo Salazar/Ferro, of which all the material work of the regime constituted an active propaganda. (my translation)

From “A Vida Portuguesa” catalog.

Concerning design, the term authenticity designates the conformity between a style of a product and the period it references, being that a work will be labeled as authentic if it abides by the premises of its origins. But besides that stylistic concordance, the authenticity of a design also abides by a barometer of nostalgic induction, meaning the success of that design will be valued in retrospect to its capacity to arise sensations and feelings that are dated, from the period the product evokes.

The gentrification promoted by the Portas Empire is not a problem of its own, as the third store of A Vida Portuguesa, located in Intendente, suggests. Intendente is the capital’s most gentrified neighborhood (debatable). It used to be a marginalized neighborhood, mainly because of its drugs and sex markets. I studied there, by night, during those times, and although I witnessed a lot of fucked up things, its fame was always worse that what really went on in the streets. The neighborhood’s recent gentrification, with the promotion of retro/vintage/manufacturing markets, brought in a different population and dynamics to Intendente. Of course, the housing prizes went up and a communal feeling apparently took over the individualization that the neighborhood “used to promote”. It’s true, Indentende today is a place of gathering, but what it continues to leave outside of its “campus” is everything that does not abide by the ideal of “a portuguese way of living”.

From “A Vida Portuguesa” catalog.

February 2016: the New York Times places Intendente in the map and urges Americans to travel to Lisbon and visit Portas’ store. But do they know of Salazar? What gives them the right to praise the importance of local stores without addressing the history of Salazar and its traces, printed all over the city? Is this our inheritance? Do we sleep next to Portas’ products and throw away the history books and the echoes of a colonial war?

As more and more entrepreneurs take over the discourse of authenticity and go for the revival of the traditional market place, I have the feeling we keep going back in time and what we are in fact witnessing is a reactionary and neoliberal movement which mistakes the need to preserve history with a nostalgic way of living…

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