A New Brazilianness Amidst Post-Boom Economy

This season, the runways of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro were alive with newfound optimism and Brazilianness. But the underlying economic situation presents a starker reality for Brazil’s domestic fashion industry.

Looks from Paula Raia, Colcci, and Lenny Niemeyer | Source: São Paulo Fashion Week

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Global fashion brands continue to touch down in Brazil, threatening local players. But this season at São Paulo Fashion Week and Fashion Rio, the country’s two main fashion weeks, domestic brands (who, in recent seasons, have largely copied or adapted international trends) fought back with a splash of Brazilianness.

“In Brazil, we are still living a transformation in every way,” said Paulo Borges, founder of São Paulo Fashion Week. “What will happen is that global brands are coming in and will occupy a central space and local brands will adapt their business, but not disappear.”

Regional craft and the exuberance of Brazil’s flora and fauna were some of the strongest inspirations behind the shows. “We are in the search for the Brazilian archetype,” said Oskar Metshavat, founder and creative director of Osklen. The brand’s Spring/Summer 2015 collection, shown in São Paulo, was inspired by Inhotim, a 5,000-acre complex of contemporary art and exotic gardens in southeast Brazil built by mining magnate Bernardo Paz. Metshavat and team travelled to Inhotim three times to create the collection, which will also populate an exhibition set to open in May.

“This season, we saw the striking beauty of Paula Raia, the ultra-sophisticated chic from Pedro Lourenço and the evolution of Vitorino Campos,” said Maria Prata, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar (Brazil). Paula Raia’s collection, in particular, delivered a new and long-awaited Brazilian aesthetic: a reunion of nature, architecture and culture, presented in natural fibres and hues that felt very current.

Also, the group of newcomers that has joined the São Paulo Fashion Week line up as part of the event’s new partnership with Vogue (Brazil) did not disappoint. “We have seen, with joy, the debut of brands that are already successful among niche consumers, such as Lilly Sarti and Giuliana Romano, among others. It is beautiful to see and gives us hope that, yes, we can improve,” added Prata.

But while a new optimism has taken hold on the runways, the economic realities on the ground are less than uplifting. Having landed in Brazil in 2008 with a plan to launch 20 stores and sell at over 200 retailers across the country by 2013, Gant just shut down its entire operation in Brazil, while several other brands have closed freestanding stores in São Paulo, consolidating their presence in the city’s popular malls.

“The fashion industry in Brazil grows, in real numbers, twice as much as the global average. But there are companies that grow more than others, some that don’t grow at all and others that are retreating,” said Borges. “Brands who adapt and understand the real market needs will prevail, while others who don’t will disappear. Maybe it will take 10 years [for international brands] to understand what this market is.”

But there’s no escaping that the broader economic picture in Brazil looks quite different than it did a few years ago. Economists surveyed by Brazil’s central bank say the country’s economy will grow at just 1.63 percent this year, down from 7.5 percent in 2010, making this the fourth straight year of slow growth. What’s more, investors have grown pessimistic and, last month, Standard & Poor’s cut Brazil’s credit rating, saying it expected to see slow growth for several more years. The local fashion industry is predicted to grow by 2.4 percent in 2014, on par with 2013, but far below the 5 percent growth the sector experienced in 2012.

“The surviving brands are the most commercial, which can, by sales volume, overcome the high taxes and other difficulties of the domestic industry,” said Prata, referring to a group of big Brazilian brands that typically stage runway shows with television soap opera stars and supermodels such as Gisele (who came to São Paulo exclusively for the Colcci show) and increasingly manufacture in Asia. Indeed, this year, apparel imports are forecast to rise 10 percent to nearly $294 million from $267 million in 2013. (China accounts for 80 percent of imports, while Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Pakistan are also major suppliers.)

Perhaps most startling of all, the utopian vision of Brazil presented on the runway at Osklen was jolted when 20 percent of the new line was stolen while in transit to São Paulo. “Everyone thought that Brazil had changed,” said Borges. “We wished that we could see the Brazil of the future. We’ve had a unique opportunity (with the World Cup and Olympic Games happening in the country within two years of each other), but only the consumption was projected and not the development, so this is stopping the country of a real growth.”