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Fashioning a Hotspot

After a decade of chic minimalist clothing wiped clean of any trace of gender, race, or culture—indeed, some would say any trace of humanity—fashion is obsessed with all things ethnic, handmade, and raunchy. The epicenter for this new trend is Brazil, and the international fashion pack is currently in a state of full-out frenzy for the country's flirty, colorful, body-conscious clothes.

São Paulo has hosted Brazil's fashion week for the past four years, but this June was the first time editors from around the world attended in droves. I sprinted down—dark sunglasses and Portuguese dictionary in hand—to see what all the fuss was about.

Six hours after I arrive, I am seated front row center at the first show of the season, put on by the country's top teen label, M Officer. Out stalks the world's top model, Gisele B¸ndchen, wearing two sheets of liquid silver laced together at the sides. But even Gisele's $7,500-an-hour smile can't stop the show from being a bust. It is a parade of tinselly clothes suitable only for would-be rock stars. I slip off to the show for Ellus, a label known for bum-hugging jeans and 41/2-inch spike heels.

Backstage, 19-year-old Fernanda Tavares—the world's number-two model—is getting her tresses blown out and leading the other models in a sing-along. Fernanda adores Brazilian clothes. On her feet are $2 Haviana flip-flops. Her mom bought the embroidered black pants she is wearing at Morumbi, a local mall.

Nearly all the Brazilian models live abroad, but they still come home to fill up their suitcases. The exchange rate means the price of everything is a fraction of that for equivalent U.S. and European designs. I ask Guess model Alessandra Ambrosio if she's wearing anything local. She gives a quick nod of her My Little Pony—length blond mane (this year's must-have accessory), sticks a hand down her jeans, and yanks up a toffee-colored G-string. "Movimento Natural," she says. "They are the best—very tight and small."

At the backstage bar I sample guarana juice. (The cans proclaim it is "the champagne of Brazil," but in truth it's made from an Amazonian berry that keeps you hyped up just like alcohol but without the hangover.) Nearby, several important editors are generating a most unseemly clamor, each claiming to be the first to have discovered the whole Brazilian scene. One particularly voluble English journalist, sporting a hat like a giant antenna, tells anyone who will listen that she put Brazil on the fashion map six months ago. Even Christopher Columbus would blanch at the audacity.

In fact, Brazil has had a substantial fashion industry for years. Tufi Duek, the man known as the Calvin Klein of Brazil (due to enormous sales rather than any similarity in style), owns 75 stores and sells to another 600—and that's just in Brazil. His splashy designs include banana-patterned pants and dresses covered in photo prints of sequins. Sexy cuts from a top bikini label like Blue Man may seem fresh, but their designer, David Azulay, has been in business for nearly three decades.

For years, sales were artificially bolstered by the Brazilian government's ban on imports. When the embargo was lifted in 1991, the newfound freedom sparked a flirtation with all things foreign. Nearly a decade later, however, Brazilians have begun to regain confidence in their own culture and are returning to their fashion roots. New names like Fause Haten, Alexandre Herchcovitch, and Walter Rodrigues are coming to the fore, and São Paulo is pulsating with raw energy. In the past few years, fashionable restaurants, bars, hotels, and clubs have sprouted up all over town.

At noon the next day, i have a date in the hip Jardim Paulista neighborhood to meet designer Fause Haten. He arrives wearing jeans wide enough to shoplift a week's worth of groceries, aviator sunglasses the size of saucers, and a pink-and-red poppy-print shirt of his own design. We round the first corner and instantly there is a fashion pileup. Two of the hippest young talents, Beto Lago, founder of the hugely successful rave-style fashion market Mundo Mix, and jewelry designer Francisca Botelho are en route to lunch at the restaurant Ritz (pronounced "hits"). Over rice and beans, we discuss the style world's huge crush on Brazil. Beto thinks it's simple: "Our culture is hot and sexy, not as perfect and plasticky as New York and London." After lunch we head to Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo's Madison Avenue. In a five-block radius you find all the heavy hitters (HermËs, Gucci, Versace) shoulder to shoulder with top homegrown labels like Rosa Chá, Forum, and Movimento Natural.

The second day of the shows is what the locals call a "bossa nova day," meaning the weather is jazzy and mixed up. But at Tufi Duek's Forum show, it's a hot day in Bahia. The sound track thrashes out Carmen Miranda's "Yes, We Have No Bananas," while Tufi explains that Brazilian models are so successful because of all the country's beaches. "They are used to walking in a very sexy way with very little on," he says. As the models prepare to sashay down the catwalk, we arrange to meet for breakfast the next day at 2 p.m. (very Brazilian) at the Cristallo café.

I arrive half an hour late to find Tufi looking very relaxed, with a driver and armored car in tow. Apparently the high risk of kidnapping is the price you pay for being a wealthy design magnate in a country where the median salary is just $190 a month. Tufi is dressed casually in blue jeans, white T-shirt, and red shoes. When I ask for his fashion tips, he recommends a miniskirt no longer than 14 inches, a tiny top, lots of red, and 41/2-inch heels. "The women here are very sensual. What you wear explains what you think you are," he sagely informs me. I don't want to tell him, but his suggested outfit could get me arrested in New York.

As we watch the street scene, it becomes apparent that for all the talk of sexiness, the average passersby are hardly Latino versions of Pamela Anderson. They are the usual jumble of shapes and sizes, some coiffed like Stepford wives with cell phones and bodyguards, others distinctly tatty in jeans and sneakers. The mythical pinup girls in itsy-bitsy outfits are found mostly on the beaches of Rio—but if you go at the wrong season, you're just as likely to meet a bunch of 70-year-olds in sweat suits.

São Paulo has gained a reputation for its peruas (trophy wives), who undergo plastic surgery at the drop of a hat. They're most often found at Daslu, an upscale suburban store. Patrons are offered personal shoppers to guide them through the racks of Gucci, Prada, and Chanel in a warren of gilt rooms. Daslu's own label offers black pants, snakeskin boots, and Lycra tanks. The one major oddity is that husbands and boyfriends are penned into Italianate lounges. Why?"It is because the women just disrobe in front of the first mirror they find," says personal shopper Monica Etchenique.

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