Last week, The Style Con was invited to Fashion Rio, a biannual fashion event that takes place on a dreamy patch of waterfront that makes Lincoln Center (the drab official home to New York’s runway collections) feel like New Jersey.
During four days of shows, parties, dinners, and sunbathing, international fashion people mingle with local soap opera celebs and legions of cute, barely legal Brazilian bloggers, as designers showcase their creations for the coming season, ranging from the truly inspired (e.g. Osklen’s new resort collection and queen of swimwear Lenny Niemeyer’s grand finale, set to Vivaldi) to the plain outlandish (better left unnamed).
The elaborate productions, array of talent and pure effort put on display here can be mind-boggling: Few people know modern Brazil beyond the clichés of caipirinhas, carnival and Copacabana–all of which are well and alive–but the country is also among the leading textile producers in the world, and its fashion brands are asserting an increasingly relevant position in the global marketplace of making, selling and consuming well-designed clothes. This is a country that takes fashion seriously and wants the world to know that.
As interesting as the event itself are the social, urban and cultural conditions surrounding it, often less glamorous than what one sees on the catwalk and at the Fasano Hotel’s bar. With less than two months to go until it hosts this year’s FIFA World Cup, Rio is currently one gigantic construction site. Cranes and half-built overpasses are everywhere, making it difficult not to wonder if any of this will be done in time for the big event, and, judging from the sometimes shoddy-looking structures, how well things are being done.
It is well-known that the Brazilian economic boom of the last decade has been losing steam of late, and just last weekend the New York Times ran a fascinating piece on the trail of abandoned carcasses that has been left in the wake of over-eager, spend-happy, and thoughtless construction.
Accompanying the sobering slowdown is a palpable discontent among Brazilians, the middle- and working-class folk, not the ones buying up the apartments overlooking Central Park.
They will tell you that there are state-employed doctors that earn less than 1000 reais a month (=approximately 450 US dollars) and complain about a nonexistent or crumbling infrastructure in many place. For instance, while several multi-million dollar stadiums are being built, there remains no decent public transportation connection between Rio’s international airport and the city center. Yet, in sharp contrast, Brazil is also a country with some of the best dental care anywhere and some very fine plastic surgeons. Such jarring discrepancies make up the real face of Brazil, one that is far less cosmeticized than the image of a tropical behemoth on the brink of global playerdom often projected by the elite.
The good news is that during the latest season of Fashion Rio, some of the more contradictory aspects of Brazil’s current reality made their mark on the runways, making for some relevant fashion amid the more predictable offerings. By far the most interesting, refreshing trend? As the Brazilian economic miracle falters, fringe influences and cultural expressions previously perceived as “bad taste” are invading the metropolitan strongholds of Rio and Sao Paulo, a major deal in what remains a highly classist country.
Just a few years ago, international visitors to Sao Paulo were proudly paraded around Jardins, a posh and accordingly polished neighborhood that in its cold propriety could have been anywhere. Not so in 2014. In fact, the country’s hip city culture is being infiltrated by what Brazilians call “periphery movements.” From the way fashionable city kids– and not-so-kids–are talking, to the music they are listening to and the clothes they are wearing, there is an increasingly visible embrace of the popular and the tacky.
The best example: The overwhelming success, even in the chicer enclaves and high-fashion circles of Rio, of Gaby Amarantos, a voluptuous singer from the northern state of Pará. Amarantos is a leading figure of the decidedly street technobrega movement, which literally translates as “cheesy techno” and combines rudimentarily produced remixes of popular songs with electronic beats. Brega isn’t new, in fact as a dance phenomenon it has been hugely popular for decades with the favela dwellers of Northern Brazil, particularly in Belém, the capital of Pará. For a long time, however, this true expression of Brazilian culture was virtually ignored by the media of Rio and São Paulo.
But now, it seems, the mainstream fashion bubble is ready to embrace the way a large swath of Brazilians likes to party. To wit: Rather than emulating what designers in Paris or London are doing, for its standout show during Fashion Rio, the label Espaço Fashion imported an aparelhagem, an altar-like soundsystem that is a fixture at techonobraga rave parties and combines speakers, a DJ podium and a computerized LED light show all in one. Meanwhile, the clothes themselves featured colorful patterns that evoked the neon-splattered outfits that are another characteristic at brega dance parties.
Another example of how culture once considered too low class and popular that is all the rage among sophisticated Brazilians: Valesca Popozuda (literally big-butt Valesca), a Rio-born former reality star and distant cousin of Lady Gaga in terms of getups and antics. Popozuda’s music is a curious, post-feminist breed of funk ostentacao, itself a kind of Brazilian variation of the North American strain of hip-hop that extols the pleasures of spending money on cars, bling and liquor, but with a uniquely local favela-to-mansion narrative twist.
The fact that Popozuda was recently invited to perform at Vogue Brazil’s exclusive carnival gala confirms that, for once, the taste of the masses is dictating what’s hot in Brazil. Just a few years ago, such a marriage between the country’s uber-bougie fashion elite and the proudly vulgar would have been unthinkable.
Let’s hope the fringes-to-center trend persists even if the economy regains momentum, as what better fashion can there be than that which reflects a place’s real soul and pulse?