Writer: Helen Jennings
Brazilian fashion is at a crossroads. It has developed a healthy industry since the 90s and now champions internationally known designers such a Osklen, Alexandre Herchcovitch and Pedro Lourenço, a fully fledged fashion week schedule, a sophisticated retail culture and a self sufficient manufacturing base. With an annual turnover of US$58,4 billion, Brazil is the world’s fourth largest apparel producer. But in recent years the domestic market has been threatened by cheap imports from China as well as an influx of global luxury brands. Brazilian brands have struggled to compete with such competition both on price (due to the country’s costly taxes and import duties) and on innovation (due to a predilection for following international trends). But now the industry is looking inward to create unique products that are steeped in local history as a means of defining its own desirable aesthetics.
“The pressure is on to bring something special into our fashion. We must offer quality, authenticity and the essence of Brazil,” says Walter Rodrigues, a veteran designer who has experienced first hand the highs and lows of Brazilian fashion. The incentives for change run deeper than hemlines, however. The economy may be blossoming as an emerging market but social divides still run deep, as last year’s public protests vividly illustrated. “Due an increased political awareness and commitment to social causes in the country, we are experiencing a renewed sense of nationalism,” Rodrigues explains. “There is a collective desire to build a country we are proud of and an appreciation of our ancestral values. Fashion is feeding into a sense of Brazilian-ness that has long been dormant but is now revived.”
Rodrigues consults for Assintecal, the association for leather, footwear and manufactured goods, which hosts the innovation showcase Inspiramais twice a year. At the most recent edition in January in São Paulo, he and his team presented their vision for Brazilian fashion next year – from raw materials through to colour palettes. Working with artisans, designers and producers across the country, they helped develop sustainable projects based around three key themes: New World (the urban chaos of land locked cities), Sun of Freedom (the sun, fun and carnival of coastal cities) and Beloved Land (the naive charm of rural provinces). “When people think of Brazil it’s hospitality, sensuality and musicality that spring to mind. We’re now working hard to hone our difference and market that joy.”
One project saw Rodrigues work with 23 tanneries to develop unique leathers. Brazil has the biggest cattle herds in the world but can offer other more unusual skins such as tilapia, frog and python. He also worked with small firms in Belo Horizonte to make accessories inspired by Afro Brazilian culture. One firm, Rogerio Lima, came up with bags made from paper, plastic and aluminium. His colleague Lucius Vilar collaborated with respected textile designers such as Rebecca Duarte to create a range of organic prints destined for 2015’s catwalks. And fellow consultant Jefferson de Assi identified artisans who specialise in indigenous crafts such as wooden marquetry, Timbi tapestry and bio jewellery made from Jarina (vegetable ivory from the Amazon). “The best inspiration is in Brazil,” summarised Assis of Inspiramais. “Not in Paris but here, all around us.”
Brazil’s leading designers agree. Couture milliner Eduardo Laurino supplies headpieces to São Paulo Fashion Week luminaries such as Ellus and João Pimenta. He draws influence from Brazilian art and architecture – specifically the curves of Oscar Niemeyer’s buildings – for his highly structured and folded creations and uses Brazilian cotton, raffia and silk. “Brazilian fashion has grown a lot but only now is it learning to be more interested in its own identity,” Laurino says. “Before we thought global and we stalled. Now we’re thinking local and coming back to our roots.”
It’s an approach that’s working at this week’s London Fashion Week. Two of the hottest tickets are Brazilians Barbara Casasola and Lucas Nascimento who co-host an exhibition at the Embassy of Brazil as well as their own A/W 14 shows. “The curatorial focus lays on Brazil’s modernist heritage as an essential source of inspiration for a small and assertive set of Brazilian designers. This translates into an aesthetic language that can be described as minimalistic, refined and sensual,” explains Casasola.“Accordingly, the installation is inspired by Helio Oiticica’s Penetrables.” Exhibiting alongside jeweller Fernando Jorge, emerging designer Vitorino Campos and swimwear king Guilherme Vieira, this prestigious LFW event is proof indeed that authentic Brazilian fashion can take on the fashion capitals – and win.