We are here, high above Rio, surrounded by tourists and postcard hawkers and itinerant photographers, taking in the view from beneath Christ's outstretched arms. We are here because, contrary to expectations, the man whose perfectly tailored evening gowns sell out at Barneys and Bergdorf's, the man who designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's wedding dress, has been dreaming about this—Rio's kitschiest emblem. We are here because Narciso Rodriguez has visions. "I had a recurring dream of standing underneath the statue of Christ, looking out over Sugarloaf," says Rodriguez, gesturing with his hands to indicate Rio's signature mountain—a boulder really—clearly visible across the bay. "When I finally came to Rio in 1999, it was like being on top of the world—it really was a dream come true." I can see what he means; there's something mythical about the city from here, all its contradictions resolved in a collision of pastel buildings and lush vegetation. Even the favelas that line the mountain on which we're standing are softened to a blur of rich colors and undulating lines.
Born in New Jersey to Cuban parents, Rodriguez readily acknowledges his affinity for things Latin. "There's an energy that everyone who comes here just responds to," he says. He should know. In the past two years, he has made regular pilgrimages to Rio. Now 40, Rodriguez is changing the manic pace of his life as well as its focus. No longer designing for the Italian fashion house Cerutti or Spain's luxury leather company Loewe, he is now devoting all his time to his own label. Clearly, it has benefited him as much as his business. In Rio, he seems at ease with himself and his surroundings. The affectations that go with the job description of "fashion designer" are entirely absent; in their place I find only beguiling warmth and a relaxed charm. But then, what did I expect? This is Rio.
The high-rise beachfront apartment he rents from his friend, renowned musician Caetano Veloso, seems to embody much of what attracts Rodriguez to this city. The interior, accented in light stone and dark jacaranda wood, serves as a modest frame for a panorama of sea and sky and the busy, chic neighborhood of Leblon below. "When I start to design I approach it in a very architectural way," he says, gazing out the window. As we talk, he begins sketching what I assume to be the outline of a building. "Tailoring forces you to self-consciously construct things out of a given palette of materials. As with architecture, it becomes a question of what is taken out or put in by the cut or seaming that goes into the final construction." I look at the drawing again. I couldn't have been more off the mark. What I'd taken for ground-floor windows are perforations in the body of a shoe; a looping arc is the trajectory of a fiercely spiked heel.
In Rodriguez's hands, even the most graphic lines become fluid, sexy. "Sometimes what happens in fashion is that people forsake beauty in their effort to be original," he says. "I always try to pull back to very basic ideals—that clothing should be beautiful, well-made, and make you feel good." For Rodriguez no detail is too small. He often makes his own lasts for his shoes. He once covered Birkenstocks in cashmere, in pursuit of the kind of luxury that may be anathema to that company's hippie founders but seems ideal for a city where adults walk the streets in bathing suits. Rodriguez insists on giving elegance a funky, street-smart edge. "Here sexy doesn't have to mean vulgar," he muses, as we survey the parade of bodies on the beach below. "It's so much more interesting to insinuate 'sexy' than to say it."
No surprise, then, that he is drawn to the architecture of Rio native Oscar Niemeyer. The founding father of Brazilian free-form Modernism, Niemeyer bent the rationalist architecture of Le Corbusier to the rhythms of a brave new Latin world. "I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man," he wrote in "The Poem of the Curve," an essay that summed up his design philosophy. "I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman." In many ways Rodriguez's designs embody a similar kind of Modernism, a celebration of form that incorporates a graceful sensuality. And like Niemeyer, Rodriguez has a love affair with minimalism that is equaled only by his attraction to the exuberance of the Brazilian Baroque.