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Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2006
Latin America struts into the fashion spotlight
By MARTIN WEBB
Ever since Gisele Bundchen attained supermodel status, Brazil has been going catwalk crazy. Now the country is hoping that the fashion world will recognize it as not only an exporter of top models but also as a center for the creation of designer clothing.
To convince the world that Brazilian style is about more than suntans and skimpy swimwear, Sao Paolo in July staged a runway extravaganza that has received lavish praise from industry insiders, who usually sneer at anything held outside the fashion capitals of Paris, Milan and New York.
Brazilian designers also have their eyes on the world's most voracious consumer nation, Japan. The push for a bigger share of the market here is being spearheaded by ABEST, the Association of Brazilian Designers, which is funded by the Brazilian government, and which last month put on a group show as part of Rooms, Japan's largest apparel industry trade show.
Department store and boutique buyers placed orders for clothing there from the likes of Alexandre Herchcovitch, famed for incorporating Disney characters and Hello Kitty motifs into his kitschy designs; bikini brand Rosa Cha; and the granddaddy of Brazilian fashion, Reinaldo Lourenco.
According to Angela Hirata, director for ABEST in Japan, the project has been a remarkable success.
"Since it started in November last year, we've seen sales grow by 500 percent, and our designers are now stocked in stores like Isetan, Mitsukoshi and Barneys New York," she says with pride.
Hirata observes that a fresh inventiveness, which sates the consumer's need for something new, lies at the heart of Brazilian designers' success. And she thinks that the creative confidence behind such innovation comes from a multicultural upbringing.
"Brazil is a land built on immigration; from Europe, Africa, India and Asia," she says. "It's a very vibrant mix of cultures and that makes for a very creative mind-set."
The look, then, is very eclectic, with elements of African, Indian and native Brazilian costume mixed together with a typically exuberant South American style. A craftsy feel dominates many of the clothes, as designers make the most of the nation's long traditions of artisanship, particularly in the fields of crocheting, patchwork and intricate leatherworking.
That has led to the kind of originality that is crucial to winning credibility on the international scene, and landing orders from the department stores and boutiques. And don't for a moment think that this push into the designer clothing market is being made by a relative minnow. Quite the opposite. Brazil is already the world's seventh largest producer of threads and ready-made items. It's textile and apparel industry is worth an estimated $2 billion annually, accounts for nearly 5 percent of the nation's GDP and employs 1.6 million people.
Makiko Awata, an editor for fashion newspaper WWD for Japan, who reported on the most recent Sao Paolo fashion week, says that she was pleasantly surprised by the originality of the shows.
"The mix of prints and colors was very innovative -- the kind of thing you wouldn't see anywhere else," she says. "[Brazilian] designs have a very laid-back feel, which is very distinctive, too."
While Sao Paolo, with stars like Patricia Viera and Tereza Santos, is the leading showcase for South American fashion, there is also a burgeoning scene in neighboring Argentina.
Takanao Muramatsu, CEO of fashion retail group H.P. France, which also runs the Rooms trade show with support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, says that his affair with Brazilian fashion started in Buenos Aires.
"I discovered some very talented people in Buenos Aires," he recalls, "And our company's work with those designers led to ABEST approaching us about taking up a spot in Rooms."
Foremost among these talented designers is textiles expert Martin Churba, whose Tramando line was on show at the recent Rooms trade show. Churba, who has presented his work on the runways at Sao Paolo fashion week for three seasons, says that 60 percent of his creations end up in Japan, where people's appreciation of design is "richer and deeper."
But though Churba and former partner Jessica Trosman of the Trosman label are building a name for Argentina's fashion business, Brazil remains the region's magnet for the industry.
"Brazil has all the music, dance, fashion and culture," he says. "That's where the heart of the Latino fashion scene is always going to be."
As Japanese designers who meet with success defect to the Paris runways, acclaimed Brazilian designers migrate to New York.
The two biggest name designers from Brazil, Carlos Miele and Alexandre Herchcovitch, have both long since abandoned catwalks in their homeland in favor of the dazzling flashbulb blur of the Big Apple.
Miele, who has a flagship store in New York's Meatpacking District, and will soon launch another in Paris, and Herchcovitch, who is due to open a store in Tokyo in February next year, have set a gold standard that all other Latin American designers will aspire to emulate.
And for the consumer, that means a whole lot of bright, wild and wonderful fashion to be enjoyed.