Just in case you haven’t noticed, Brazil is really hot right now. With its incandescent economy and its reputation for sensuality and Mardi Gras decadence, Rio de Janeiro, in particular, has attracted an unprecedented amount of global attention. As the sprawling city prepares for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, all eyes have turned to Rio to better understand how it ticks and how it might brace itself for the world stage.
When I was interviewed recently by Ronaldo Lemos for Brazilian MTV, he mentioned a new report that his research institute had issued about the growing Rio fashion industry. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese so, after trying my best to read it with Google translate, I asked Ronaldo and the project’s leader Pedro Augusto Pereira Francisco if they would answer some questions about their findings. They generously agreed and so this is Part One of a two-part interview about the inner workings of Rio’s booming fashion scene.
Johanna: I think most people are familiar with the bright colors and body-conscious style that’s typical of fashion in Rio, but you mention in your report a certain “hi-lo blasé” that defines the carioca lifestyle. Could you tell me a little more about that?
Ronaldo & Pedro: Sure, in our research we have identified three important segments in the Rio fashion industry. We have called them “fashion”, “off-fashion”, and the “atelier” circuits. The fashion circuit is the higher-end designers, the off-fashion is the incredible industry that developed in the outskirts of Rio, far from the posh neighborhoods. They are an important economic force, and have become also a creative force. And the ateliers are small-business, producing very exclusive pieces, and doing sometimes conceptual work, in a small scale. There is a lot of diversity in these segments, but they are all influenced to some extent by the image of Rio de Janeiro, that is, a casual-chic mixture, where flip-flops can be mixed with a very well-designed dress, and the combination ends up being a very sophisticated look.
Johanna: You indicate in the report that higher-end designers are less concerned with being copied than with being accused of copying, or getting caught on the back-end of a passing trend. In fact, I think one designer you interviewed said that they need to “escape trends” in order to remain relevant in the marketplace. Could you talk a little more about that?
Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. The “fashion” segment is a fairly recent phenomenon in Brazil. The Rio de Janeiro fashion week (as well as Sao Paulo’s) only really took off in the last 12 years. So it is natural that designers find it important to establish their own identities and make a point that they are not simply copying the trends they saw in the previous shows in New York, London, Paris or Milan. In this sense, it is important to mention that seasons in Brazil are the opposite of what they are in the US and Europe. With that comes the temptation to simply copy the trends presented in the last seasons in the US and Europe. But the movement now is to establish a local identity, to strengthen the local brands and their ideas. There has been quite a lot of consolidation in the market in Brazil, and many local brands have been acquired by investment groups.
Johanna: It sounds like fashion designers in Rio have the option of registering their designs for industrial patents. However, they say it’s impractical to do so because of the cost and the speedy turn-over of product each season. Are designers upset that they don’t have more options to assert ownership control over their work?
Ronaldo & Pedro: Very few designers were upset that they were being copied and wished there existed more effective ways to protect their designs. That opinion is not the majority’s. Many designers realize that protection for the designs is impractical. Therefore, they believe it is very important to protect their trademarks, rather than worry if they are being copied or not. Especially in the atelier circuit, the copy is actually seen as a compliment, and many designers say they feel flattered that their pieces are being copied.
Johanna: You mentioned a sort of dialectical relationship between copying and creation in the fashion industry. What did you mean by that?
Ronaldo & Pedro: This is particularly important for the “off-fashion” circuit. These are fashion companies located in the outskirts of Rio, away from the posh districts like Ipanema or Leblon. They sell clothes to many other states in Brazil, they export their pieces, and they sell their apparel in their own neighborhoods in Rio. However they do not sell them to the posh neighborhoods, since they are perceived as obscure brands in comparison with the brands that are typical of the “fashion” circuit. But there is a lot of vitality in these circuits. Some companies employ more than 900 employees and have huge operations. In the beginning they copied many of their designs, but now they are becoming a creative force on their own. Some of these companies are now going to the Première Vision in Paris every year to research new colors for instance. Their typical consumers in Rio de Janeiro are getting increasingly demanding, even if they belong to the lower-income classes, and these companies are responding to that by getting more and more creative.
Johanna: Would you say a little bit about how the “slow fashion” movement is taking hold in Rio?
Ronaldo & Pedro: That is true, especially for the atelier scene. There are a lot of small studios and companies, working with very small-scale production, but being highly creative. They don´t want to increase their production: they prefer to produce exclusive pieces and sell them to a network of exclusive clients. They also sell through fairs that are organized in Rio, which have become very popular. It is a very interesting scene, with a strong “do it yourself” component, but also one that can be very sophisticated.
Johanna: I was very interested to see you propose a “Made in Rio” brand or trademark that would take advantage of, and attempt to codify or solidify, the reputation of Rio de Janeiro as a unique, creative, cutting edge kind of place. This is a strategy that another “low-IP” industry — food — is trying to promote as well. Do you believe that the lack of copyright protection in fashion has put an increased emphasis on trademark and branding in the Rio fashion scene?
Ronaldo & Pedro: Rio has been an important trendsetter in Brazil. Many Brazilian TV shows take place in Rio, and the Rio de Janeiro lifestyle is something that is commonly shared. This has had an economic impact: the added value for the clothes that are produced in Rio is often higher than the clothes that are produced in other places in Brazil. Because of that, it makes sense to create a Made in Rio brand, since it already exists in practical terms. Another thing we realized is that the work conditions in Rio are good. We have not found sweatshops or anything like that. Many of the the sewing professionals work at home, close to their families. We are also exploring the idea of creating a brand that conveys the idea that that the fashion productions in Rio are produced respecting “fair trade”.
Johanna: If I was reading my bad translation correctly (!), I think you said that even the lower-end designers, who are often accused of copying the more innovative designers, actually make a lot of changes to their designs – not just to make them cheaper, but to make them more appealing to their particular customers. Is that the gist? I’d say that’s definitely the case for fast-fashion giants like Zara and H&M.
Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely, especially regarding the “off-circuit,” which produces a lot of pieces, there is a lot of creativity. Even if a piece is inspired by some piece the designer might have seen in the fashion show in New York, it gets completely revamped in Rio. It quickly becomes a carioca piece. It is important to remember that the winter in Rio is very mild, and summer is really hot. So that is also an influence for the designers, who play a lot with the borders between chic and casual. No wonder, for instance, that the swimwear industry in Rio is so strong, and is heavily exported. But even formal dresses can get a twist, and the result is often very interesting.
Johanna: As the fashion industry becomes increasingly professionalized and business-like in Rio, do you believe that some of the je ne sais quoi that makes people excited about Rio fashion will fade away?
Ronaldo & Pedro: I don’t believe it will fade away anytime soon. One of the reasons, as I mentioned, is that we have the TV shows being produced in Rio, and Globo TV, the largest broadcaster, has its main operations in the city. Actually, I believe that for the next few years, there will be a lot of new discoveries and territories to be explored. One untapped potential is that of the “off-fashion” circuit, which tends to grow at the same pace or faster than the country’s economy. These designers might be ignored right now by the posh areas of the city (served by the high-end “fashion” designers) but increasingly more people find out about them and start buying from them.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, where Ronaldo and Pedro talk about how the favelas influence fashion and the parallels between Rio and Los Angeles . . .