Made in Rio

Blue ManMade in Rio: what does this phrase conjure for you? Caipirinhas in a steamy club? Live samba music in a gritty city square? Barely-there bikinis? Or gangster violence in hillside favelas (with million dollar views)? There’s a reason VICE calls it the sexiest city in the world, and from my own visit to Rio, I can testify to the exciting and troubling contradictions that define this unique city, which continues to increase its global influence despite its struggles with chronic poverty, corruption and violence.

This is the second in a two-part interview with Ronaldo Lemos and Pedro Augusto, who issued a fascinating report on the growing Rio fashion industry. Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories) is currently only available in Portuguese and so I asked Ronaldo and Pedro if they would care to do an interview in English. You can check out Part 1 of our interview here, where we explore the burgeoning fashion scene in Rio and the many contradictions that animate a city that has captured the global imagination.

Johanna: In Territórios da Moda (Fashion Territories), you explore some of the contradictory perceptions that people have about Rio: on the one hand it’s a lush, expensive place – a sensual playground for cosmopolitan travelers; on the other hand, it’s a city filled with abject poverty and lawlessness. Do you think that the “brand” Made in Rio will ultimately reflect both of these perceptions?

Ronaldo & Pedro: Absolutely. Rio is a city where contradictions occupy the same physical space. The posh neighborhoods and the favelas are all together. The poor and the rich inhabit the same regions in Rio, unlike other cities. And that is reflected in Rio de Janeiro fashion. The permanent tension between chic and casual is an example of that. And that is precisely what makes Rio a fascinating city. In the past few years, there have been many changes in public policy, attempts to bridge the divides between the city and the favelas. And that has been important too. There is a great deal of optimism, and the fashion in Rio emerges from the mix of rich and poor.

Johanna: Have any designers tried to make “dangerwear” — clothing that reflects a dangerous gangster lifestyle in Rio, like we’ve seen in Los Angeles and other urban areas in the United States?

That´s a very good question, and it´s another fascinating phenomenon. Many gangs in Rio appropriate fashion brands, such as Lacoste, Adidas, Ecko and Nike in order to create their identity. This is something that can be seen, for instance, in the baile funk songs, when groups of the favelas sing about their favorite brands (Lacoste is nicknamed “jacaré”, and Ecko is nicknamed “rinoceronte”, to give you an example). And these brands get appropriated by the identity of the groups in Rio. There has also been the emergence of local brands trying to capture the idea of “life in the favela,” with all its dangers and contradictions. One example is a brand suggestively called “Gang,” where the women´s clothes are ultra-sexy, and the men´s clothes try either to be very macho or very metrosexual. But this is only a form of representation, a sort of idealized view of fashion in the favelas, which is actually much more complex and diverse.

Johanna: I see many parallels between Los Angeles and Rio: LA also has a huge fashion district – economically and geographically larger than New York’s, actually – and it is the media capital of our country. Both media and fashion are highly agglomerated industries because it’s advantageous to geographically concentrate industries that require large teams of people with complementary expertise. Do you see a lot of overlap between the fashion and media industries in Rio? And do you think of LA as a kind of North American sister city? Or are you more into Miami? 😉

Ronaldo & Pedro: That is a very good question. There are similarities with LA, and also with Miami. But if you think of it, also with Barcelona, and even with Paris, or Lisbon, since Rio was founded by the Portuguese, and was the first capital of Brazil. But the connection between fashion and media does exist in Rio. What we found out in our research is that the correlation is there, but there is more to it. It is not only the media that influences the city. It is also the city that largely influences the media, especially the favelas, which are one of the most important trendsetters (if not the most important) in Rio. And that is precisely what makes Rio different from all these other cities.

Johanna: As you know, I think that the fashion industry offers an innovative model to industries that are struggling to maintain profits by depending on copyright protection (check out my TED talk on this topic). So I was very happy to see in your report that you recommended that some emphasis be placed on innovation in the fashion industry. You suggested developing curriculum in local universities and administering awards. Have the fashion industry, educational institutions and local government been responsive to these recommendations?

Ronaldo & Pedro: There have been very good responses. There is an increasing amount of institutions working with fashion education. One issue that we found is that the number of people that want to work in the technical or industrial side of fashion is decreasing, especially among young people. A lot of people want to be designers, but few want to work with sewing, distribution and the business side of it. But that´s only part of the picture. In the “fashion circuit” (Rio’s higher-end design houses) there is huge demand for technical and business expertise. However, in the “off-fashion circuit” (the cheaper design houses located in the outskirts of Rio), it’s the opposite. There is more of a demand there for designers, marketers, advertisers, stylists and so on. The problem is that the designers that work in the posh areas don’t realize there is another market very close to them. We believe that one of the most exciting possibilities for Rio is precisely to cross these boundaries: to have the “off-fashion” and the “fashion” circuit, and the ateliers (exclusive small businesses), to collaborate more. Some very cool possibilities can come out of that.

There’s more to Rio fashion, of course: check out Part 1 of my interview with Ronaldo and Pedro.


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