Brazil’s rainbow revolution

Financial Times, February 25/26 2006

Fashion editors are now making their pilgrimage to the latest round of catwalk shows sniffing, like truffle-hunting pigs, for trends. Yet on the periphery of this grand touris a series of smaller gatherings, from the Tokyo Collections to Kuala Lumpur Asia fashion weeks.

And although many of these are often dismissed as parochial events without any international relevance,the most recent event on the “alternative” fashion circuit, January’s São Paulo fashion week, in fact offered a welcome breath of fresh air in fashion’s all consuming search for innovation and novelty. As to why, simply consider a show opening at London’s Barbican gallery featuring the long-overlooked Tropicália cultural movement.

Taking its name from an installation created in 1967 by the young Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica and comprising a palm tree and sand, the Tropicália movement hoped to create a popular Brazilian identity beyond the bourgeois clichés of tropical Brazil, taking in music, visual arts, theatre, cinema, fashion and architecture.

“Tropicália was Brazil’s counter-cultural movement,” explains Barbican curator Jane Alison. “But it was different in that it didn’t just absorb western culture, like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, but took these influences and ate them up, regurgitating them with a Brazilian twist. Of course, it was a little bit tongue in cheek.”

Driven by the energy of the streets, a mix of Afro-European cultures and the music of the favelas, disguising politically charged words and meanings behind the vivid beats and colours of the tropical world, it was, above all, a popular movement; “It was a true revolution. Ahead of its time yet it still continues today. It was very open-ended – and it had the spectator at its heart.”

The Barbican show essentially asks what the legacy of Tropicália is today – and an event such as São Paulo fashion week is a perfect illustration.

As Robert Forrest, a fashion consultant who works closely with Brazilian brands and designers, says, it is time to look beyond the bikini and flip-flop image of Brazilian fashion to the progressive style revolution that’s taking place.

“Brazil is a big country withbig businesses and established brands. Until people actually get here, they just don’t see this,” says Forrest.

“Brazilian people are veryemotional,” explains Rio-based designer Patricia Viera, who showed her all-leather women’s wear collection for the first time at SPFW. “We work with our hearts all the time. We show through fashion our emotions,” she adds, by way of explaining the legacy of Tropicália.

The creative freedom of the movement, with its array of mixed meanings, is obvious in Viera’s unique collection, already a favourite with designer Paul Smith and leading London boutique Browns. Like an alchemist, Viera prints leather à la dogtooth check or, softening it to the consistency of butter, transforms it into delicate lingerie.

“Be an outlaw, be a hero,” urged the Tropicália artist Hélio Oiticica, and SPFW is full of fashion outlaws. At hot label Isabela Capeto – already stocked at Colette in Paris and Barneys Japan among others – signature handcrafted details meld into a magpie cool of Peruvian-inspired studded boleros, hotcoloured T-shirts and matt gold separates.

A favourite with society girls, the Raia de Goeye label offers a studied yet relaxed chic typified by its tailored, low-crotch dhotis and super-flattering strappy tops.

“For me the Brazilian aesthetic is defined by their incredible use of colour and print. The Neon label completely captures this,” says Karen Harries of Boutiqueye, a London-based fashion sourcing and buying agency, of the 1980s-retro beachwear label. Neon’s designers, Dudu Bertholini and Rita Comparato, are themselves Kamali-esque renegades, dressed in swirling kaftans and Sonia Delauney colours, living the Tropicália dream with utter sincerity and rag-rolled bandanas.

Watch out, too, for Adriana Barra, a fanciful mistress of entrancing prints and romantic, ankle sweeping dresses that fit in all the right places, available to be fought over at Matches in London this spring.

“I don’t have to print parrots and pineapples on my clothes to say that I am Brazilian,” says Alexandre Herchcovitch, one of Brazil’s most avant garde fashion exports. A shy wonderboy designer with a loyal Japanese fanbase, he also shows at New York fashion week. To him, the creation of a distinct Brazilian fashion style is not a conscious effort, far removed from overt references to Tropicália.

“It’s not necessary – simply the fact that I am Brazilian, that I was born and grew up here is enough.” Yet his skill at combining sharp tailoring with streetwear has its origins in punk and it’s this anarchic affinity with subcultures that is truly Tropicália – and 100 per cent Brazilian.

Leave a Reply