Lessons in Style and Masculinity: How Brazilian men can (and should) learn to love homegrown men’s fashion

As the collective attention of men worldwide turns to the football matches of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and to the concurrent men’s fashion showcases of the year in LondonFlorenceMilan and ParisJoão Paulo Nunes wonders why the major global sports event confirms Brazilian men’s simultaneous sense of patriotic pride and rejection of the national creative potential on the menswear front, while secretly admiring fashions and styles originating abroad.

A few months ago, on a sunny humid morning, I joined the crowds that slowly started gathering outside a gigantic temporary pavilion in São Paulo’s newly built Cândido Portinari Park to attend the 37th edition of São Paulo Fashion Week. Once inside, and as I rummaged through my bag searching for my journalist accreditation pass, I noticed a camera crew walking intently towards me with a producer leading the cavalcade with a smile and microphone in hand. After they took a minute to explain that they were capturing the street style of men attending the fashion event, I authorised them to film me being interviewed about what I was wearing.

To me, this clearly felt more like a routine exercise for a report piece by fellow professionals than about my proficiency on the style stakes. However, when the fashion commentator standing next to me started highlighting to the camera that my plain cotton block-fabric black and white shirt, black slim jeans and silver trainers were a combined example of originality against the landscape of Brazilian menswear, I began to wonder about Brazilian men’s sartorial taste, style and purchase habits. After all, I was wearing plain high-street London clothes in a country currently renowned for commanding one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and whose profits from the fashion industry alone have grown at an impressive 300% rate over the last decade. In a 2013 report, IBOPE (the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics) revealed that the country’s fashion industry was then worth a record 140 billion Reais (or over 62 billion US dollars), with menswear attaining growth rates never witnessed in the history of the country.

After my interview was finished, I looked around me and, in spite of the context being one of the most influential fashion weeks in the globe, with the exception of a few hipsters with their long manicured beards and seeming slovenly combination of blazers with tailored shorts and customised slip-on trainers, I realised that style does not seem to come naturally to most Brazilian men. This reminded me that, throughout all my travels in Brazil, from the market stalls of Fortaleza or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the upmarket environs of Jardins or Itaim Bibi in São Paulo or the cafés in Rio’s Leblon neighbourhood, with the exception of a few successful experimental looks, Brazilian men dress in an extremely conservative manner that approaches fashion with caution and, in many cases, a certain fear of appearing to deviate from normative parameters of acceptable social and gender behaviour. Intrigued by this, I decided to spend some time over the next few days attempting to find answers by speaking to Brazilian fashion designers, journalists and influencers, and by attending as many menswear shows as possible. My first port of call was Costanza Pascolato, one of the most respected personalities in the Brazilian fashion industry with an admirable career as a fashion writer and editor for newspapers and magazines including the Brazilian edition of Vogue. Pascolato believes that “Brazilian fashion today is going through a transitory stage that mirrors changes in society following a significant improvement in the country’s economy. However, people are still very cautious as change has been happening in all directions, good and bad. It’s also important to understand that Brazilian consumers in general do not care about fashion and quality, and still prefer to part with small amounts of money when it comes to buying garments, shoes or accessories. The growing middle-class has begun to appreciate branded goods not for their quality but because of the social status associated with them.”

Renowned menswear journalist and author Lula Rodrigues shares Pascolato’s views and reiterates her description of the volatile nature of Brazilian fashion consumers: “There is an anecdotal sense of an increasing interest in menswear amongst Brazilian consumers, but there isn’t yet a solid indicator of a stable growth pattern. Brazilian consumers embrace new trends, brands and ideas very quickly and intensely, but their brand loyalty vanishes quickly.”

Pascolato’s and Rodrigues’ words about the fickle relationship that Brazilians have with fashion are echoed in how the country’s newspaper journalists interpret what happens during the country’s fashion showcases: in spite of its impressive organisation levels, facilities and press support, for the duration of São Paulo Fashion Week journalists employed by the high-circulation newspapers Folha de S.Paulo and O Estado de S. Paulo seemed intent on dismissing fashion (and particularly menswear) in their daily reports of the collections by narrowing their accounts to a lowest common informative denominator, a disappointingly biased view particularly when it is undeniable that Brazilian menswear designers have been becoming increasingly more confident and ingenious in their creations.As the only fashion designer showing during São Paulo Fashion Week whose collections focus exclusively on men’s fashion and accessories, the pressure is always on João Pimenta to unveil regular and constant sartorial innovation. Nevertheless, against the context of such high hopes, Pimenta revealed a collection for Spring/Summer 2014/15 that proved to be one of his strongest in years.

By deconstructing and reconstructing conventional tailoring, Pimenta’s collection embraced an almost architectural modernity anchored by an investigation of streetwear and sportswear. “I really wanted to develop a collection that broke my own mould by looking for inspiration in the future of men’s fashion rather than its past. I started by looking at the traditional grey suit, which is a staple of men’s fashion worn on a regular basis like a uniform, and made a few changes by discreetly incorporating new tailoring touches such as geometric patchwork effects” explained the designer. This process went one step further by featuring a palette that (in addition to grey), playfully embraced varied shades of blue, silver, and black, and by experimenting with fabrics (such as laminated cottons and polyesters, leathers, satins, silks, and wools woven with metallic yarns) and sharp, androgynous silhouettes.

A few days later, Alexandre Herchcovitch unveiled a menswear collection inspired by the looks of the preachers and believers of the Nazareth Baptist Church, an African religion that combines Zulu traditions with Christianity. Herchcovitch’s decision to use 29 male and female black models to show his menswear collection on the runway not only referred to his main inspiration but also alerted for the issue of racial bias in fashion and repositioned the debate on androgyny, in a gesture that combined homage, irreverence and a critical approach to pastiche.

Herchcovitch’s collection revealed an emphasis on textured fabrics and utilitarian sportswear that, for a few minutes, took viewers from the brightly illuminated runway of São Paulo Fashion Week onto the impoverished streets, open-air churches and sports fields of Brazil bringing with it a vibrant and accomplished fashion. The seemingly relaxed looks featured Herchcovitch’s characteristic sharp tailoring that more often than not includes a certain level of spirited deconstruction. Examples of this could be found in the sleeveless double-breasted coats of variable lengths and patterns, the pleated pants rolled up to reveal the ankles, the cropped Scottish kilts worn over tailored trousers, or the white shirts with applications of lace blocks. Delicate thin fabrics were treated with metallic or rubberised finishes to add depth, texture and contrast, and included leather, Tyvek, wool, denim, cotton, and embroidered linen in a colour palette comprising predominantly white, black, grey, blue, red, and silver, with the odd dash of yellow and emerald green, whereas patterning came in the form of large checks and pixelated plaids.

Just a few days after São Paulo Fashion Week had closed its doors, on the runway of Fashion Rio (Brazil’s second most important sartorial showcase), designer Rique Gonçalves claimed to have been inspired by urban streetwear and the punk-rock and hip-hop gang subcultures of Los Angeles for his Spring/Summer 2014/15 menswear collection for the label R.Groove. If it is true that Gonçalves mastered sartorial mores currently popular with urban male consumers of fashion (such as voluminous sportswear, logomania, and the ubiquitous black-and-white trend), his latest menswear offering also shows a sophisticated treatment of contemporary minimalist and Japanese design trends to create fluid and yet highly structured silhouettes that makes R.Groove one of the most exciting menswear labels in South America.

A couple of weeks later, in the city of FortalezaDragão Fashion Brasil marked its 15th anniversary as a leading platform for new and established fashion designers to show their creations alongside an educational calendar with public lectures, debates, performances, seminars and practical workshops about the importance of fashion and associated creative industries for the betterment of society. During the event, budding menswear designers Weider Silveiro and Jadson Raniere displayed the inaugural collection for their label 2|Dois that they had unveiled for the first time in October 2013. Both alumni of the São Paulo-based creative platform Casa de Criadores, Silveiro and Raniere investigated the potential of deconstructed tailoring, androgynous identities, and the influence of 1980s Japanese designers in details such as exposed stitching and frayed fabrics, elongated sleeves balancing cropped waist lines, oversized leather biker jackets, and abstract patterns supposedly inspired by the futuristic graphic artwork created by Peter Saville for Joy Division’s 1979 album ‘Unknown Pleasures’.

These examples confirm that Brazil is not short of producing talented menswear designers. However, why their talents are not recognised and embraced more effusively remains an unanswered question. As a designer, Pimenta believes that the fault lies in a generalised cautious approach by investors: “Producers and backers have not realised that contemporary Brazilian men are now more open to innovation in fashion and style than they think. The menswear industry in Brazil seems, in general, afraid to take a leap of faith and trust that men are very open to experimenting with new and modern shapes.” However, wouldn’t investors be precisely the ones who would be sharply aware of how embracing menswear publicly is regarded by a conservative society?

Antonio Branco, fashion director at GQ Brazil and GQ Style Brazil, acknowledges this social situation but has opted to treat his fashion editorials as powerful educational tools: “Men’s fashion is an incipient concept in Brazil and, as a consequence, menswear is very much a brand new market that is being held back by a conservative collective opinion that associates fashion with women and homosexuality, which says a lot about Brazilian society. At GQ, our view is that Brazilian men will become more tolerant about fashion if they stop seeing it as a gender construct and start seeing it as a representation of individual style and taste within a global context. To achieve this from an editorial viewpoint, we had to start positioning fashion within settings that men could relate to, such as the business world, sports, women’s views of what makes men attractive, etc.”

Lula Rodrigues confirms this stance: “There is a market for more innovative menswear but it is being embraced by male consumers very slowly as there are social pressures associated not only with sexuality but mostly with concerns of being perceived as someone who actually spends money on an area that is still taboo for men to discuss openly. Brazilian men prefer to have others believe that their clothes, shoes and accessories are bought by their wives, girlfriends or even their mothers than by them! This will take a while to change but there have been promising signs in society.”

However, a big change is afoot in the Brazilian menswear market, as the main reason for the financial growth of Brazilian fashion is generated by the expansion of foreign menswear brands. Branco feels that “this is important in the sense that Brazilian fashion and clothing designers and retailers are not only paying more attention to the overall quality of their products in order to be more competitive but are also investing in developing menswear lines to address a growing market. And, more importantly, what is surprising international menswear brands settling in Brazil is that the pieces that tend to be more popular with Brazilian men and sell the fastest are the over-the-top statement garments and accessories designed by foreigners.”

If Brazilian men are becoming increasingly more demanding when it comes to quality, reasonable prices and original styles in fashion as the result of being exposed to a growing number of international and national fashion brands, where does that leave Brazilian menswear designers? The answers seems to be: looking for success abroad before being recognised in Brazil.

Diego Vanassibara, one of the most talented footwear designers currently flexing his muscles on the London menswear scene, shares this opinion. Hailing from the city of Caxias do Sul, in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, Vanassibara moved to the UK in 2006 and went on to study footwear design and product development at the prestigious Cordwainers, a college that lists Jimmy Choo, Patrick Cox, Charlotte Olympia Dellal and Nicholas Kirkwood in its alumni books. When I met Vanassibara during the Spring/Summer 2015 edition of London Collections: Men a few days ago, we briefly discussed this issue, and he agreed that “Brazilian consumers tend to put more trust into what is designed and produced abroad than on their national talent. That has been going on for decades and it’s a reality that is very different from the one experienced in most European countries, where emerging talent is more strongly supported by critics and consumers.”

Vanassibara’s words echoed what young Brazilian menswear designer Jonathan Scarpari had told me a couple of months earlier in Fortaleza. After he started getting noticed in his home country following his participation in national talent-spotting competitions such as Entremeios and Movimento Hotspot, and getting recognition by Casa de Criadores, Scarpari saw his menswear creations garner praise by critics and be featured in publications in BrazilItaly and the UK, including FFWBrainstorm Mag, and GQ Italia.

Currently enrolled in Milan’s Istituto Marangoni, Scarpari took a break from his fashion studies to return to his native Brazil and show his latest collection during the official line-up of Dragão Fashion Brasil. Entitled ‘B-24’, the collection drew inspiration from the idea of incorporating the genetic code into the design of unique garments in order to highlight the importance of individuality. This was achieved by a painstakingly crafted treatment of fabrics, particularly of softened leather worked through hand-woven three-dimensional houndstooth patterns. In addition, Brazilian and Italian cool wool and organic silk were used in fitted tops, tailored shirts, jackets, trousers, and overalls. Focussing on a colour palette of reds, faded pinks, black and white, the collection featured asymmetric silhouettes and frilled shorts that showed the influence of recent menswear designs by J.W. Anderson while audaciously and confidently attempting to push forward the boundaries of conventional tailoring.

Nevertheless, when I asked Scarpari whether Brazilian male consumers were ready for his innovative concepts, he didn’t see Brazil as being a priority for his immediate future: “At the moment, I see my fashion career progressing in Europe. Once that is achieved, I may explore the menswear market in Brazil as I think there is a growing number of Brazilian men interested in fashion as a manifestation of individual style. But for now, my life and my future is definitely in Italy.”

As Diego Vanassibara and Jonathan Scarpari join a Brazilian generation that includes Lucas NascimentoBarbara Casasola and Pedro Lourenço in a sartorial diaspora towards Europe, Brazil should start answering questions that go beyond the easy answers of football, beach and samba. The country may have some of the most beautiful landscapes, wealthy natural resources, and one of the most interesting art and architecture scene of the last century. However, welcoming the attention of the world to its shores for these reasons alone is not enough. Now, more than ever, it is the time for Brazilian fashion critics, buyers, manufacturers and investors to join forces and travel abroad together as joint delegations of style to show to the world the creative potential that the country has to offer. And that pride in how national menswear designers are cherished abroad may be just what Brazilian men back at home need in order to learn how to appreciate social differences, individual styles and the value of creativity.