Who came first? Was it the models – Isabeli Fontana, Alessandra Ambrósio, Ana Cláudia Michels and, of course, Gisele Bündchen? Or was it Mario Testino, the great Peruvian fashion photographer, who is passionate about Brazil and who began producing shoots for the magazines W and Vogue here?
For many experts, such as columnist, blogger and fashion editor Lilian Pacce, it was a little bit of both: Testino multiplied by Bündchen was the magic formula that made the world sit up and notice Brazilian fashion, around 1999 and 2000. ‘Before that, we were seen as fashion pirates,’ says Paulo Borges, creator of São Paulo Fashion Week.
Twenty years ago, the people who consumed fashion in Brazil were those who travelled abroad and brought home luggage full of designer clothes – or asked their dressmakers to reproduce the clothes they found in fashion magazines. There were famous clothing manufacturers like Dener, precursors of today’s designers – but Brazil still lacked a real fashion culture.
The wily ways of a visionary
Paulo Borges wasn’t always averse to ‘pirate’ tactics. At 19, he installed himself in the same Paris hotels as the leading fashion editors during the city’s fashion week. Late at night, he would cajole moody French receptionists into showing him show invitations that had arrived, stealing the ones that interested him while upstairs those famous fashion editors innocently slept or did their makeup.
From his front-row seat, Borges paid little attention to the models or the clothes: he was busy watching way each show was organised, counting the models sashaying down the runway, evaluating the lighting and picking up everything he could learn.
His ruse worked. In 1993, after working with Regina Guerreiro, one of Brazil’s most influential fashion editors, Paulo Borges and businesswoman Cristiana Arcangeli organized Phytoervas Fashion – an embryo of what São Paulo Fashion Week would one day become.
In 1996, Borges split with business partner Arcangeli and created Morumbi Fashion, which eventually evolved into São Paulo Fashion Week. Borges had a 30-year plan to internationalise the event. He got there in five. Soon, SPFW was attracting 150 international buyers, and 2,100 journalists from all over the world, including the big French and American publications, were covering the event.
But São Paulo Fashion Week became much more than just a photo opportunity for celebrity magazines or a shop window full of pretty clothes. It professionalised the Brazilian fashion industry. ‘Ten years ago, we had four fashion courses,’ says Borges. ‘Today we have more than 150.’
As the event established itself, the textile industry, stylists and buyers started to coordinate their business around collections, and the domestic market began to plan its launches around SPFW. ‘São Paulo Fashion Week organised the country’s fashion calendar,’ says Lilian Pacce.
2000 was the breakthrough year. Kate Moss waltzed down the catwalk for jeans brand Ellus’s summer collection and a sea of flashbulbs exploded. Sudanese model Alek Wek modelled for Ellus’s winter show – and suddenly the spotlight was on the lack of black models on Brazilian catwalks.
Celebrated Brazilian musicians Carlinhos Brown, Naná Vasconcelos and Hermeto Paschoal took part in M. Officer’s fashion shows, causing a different kind of storm. ‘Is that Santa Claus?’ asked one hapless model, when she saw jazz great Paschoal’s flowing white beard.
Once again, SPFW made the papers. The show was the sensation of the season, and the model’s comment became the season’s joke in José Simão’s influential column in the Folha de São Paulo.
All joking aside, SPFW names like Alexandre Herchcovitch, Osklen and Carlos Miele have gained international recognition, and many of the designers who take part in the event now have stores or retail outlets in other parts of the world. ‘Brazilian fashion’ has most definitely arrived – but the country’s fashion insiders think the classification too pat.
‘Yes, we have a different relation with the body – that’s why our fashion is more sensual, sometimes in a more subtle way, sometimes explicitly. But I believe the world understands that there isn’t a DNA – that there isn’t a unifying characteristic in Brazilian fashion,’ says Pacce.
Brazilian fashion's DNA
Today, the stylists and the 350 models on São Paulo Fashion Week’s runways are at an international level. For better or worse. ‘Our fashion week is at the level of New York’s,’ said Pacce. For her, Brazilian fashion’s DNA is only strong when the subject is beach fashion, and she cites the designer Lenny, with her sensual and colourful bathing suits, as a prime example.
But fashion is a zigzag world with a short memory, and there are as many designers who showed at SPFW and then faded away as there are new faces. Lilian Pacce is betting on João Pimenta as the next big thing. And a substitute for the unconquerable Gisele? That might have to wait for a few more seasons.