This tangential relationship with nature gives São Paulo a bad rap among Brazilians. They say it’s ugly and that because it’s the country’s center of commerce and media, the people there live too fast. But the paulistanos I know, most of whom are in the fashion business are loyal in the extreme. "São Paulo is crazy, but it’s sophisticated," says Tufi Duek—one of Brazil’s best-selling fashion exports—in his blindingly white Forum boutique on Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo’s answer to Rodeo Drive. "On any given night there are a dozen parties. People work all day, the restaurants are full at ten, and no one even arrives at clubs before midnight. São Paulo has a very fast heartbeat."
For many, the city’s tireless pace is a source of inspiration. The rising independent design duo Neon makes up Technicolor swimwear and loungy evening dresses with a dash of golden-age Norma Kamali, commissioned a vivid graffiti-like print of the São Paulo skyline as their label’s motif last season. The precocious Alexandre Herchcovitch, whose clothes could be Alexander McQueen’s viewed through a kaleidoscope of postmodern kitsch, puts it this way: "São Paulo is like an enormous pressure cooker about to explode. Even the hours in traffic make me think of new ideas." And when Gloria Coelho, who emerged in the 80’s as one of Brazil’s first wave of high-end designers, participated in a recent tourist-commission initiative to tout Brazil to the outside world, the city she chose to lionize was her own. "Here you get the best of Brazil: food, theater, art—but you can breathe," she says. Indeed, there are urban delights in São Paulo to satiate any New Yorker, but there’s also the near-universal attitude that meets any potential difficulty with "no praaahblehm," whether it turns into a praaahblehm or not.
São Paulo is closer to being a world capital than a Latin American one, thanks to the cross-pollination of cultures and lifestyles. Fashion plays an enormous part in the mix—but so do design (the mod furniture of the Campana Brothers and Mikasa, the jungle chic of Jacaré do Brasil, the wild colors of Sig Bergamin), contemporary art (São Paulo’s Bienal is the second-oldest in the world), and architecture (Oscar Niemeyer, anyone?).
There are a few cities anywhere that offer such a range of shopping opportunities, and boutiue-hopping has always been one of my favorite ways to lose several days here. There is a raft of excellent designers who have little or no distribution in the United States, and though Brazil’s currency, the real, has gained 30 percent against the dollar in the past couple of years, local threads are still a relative bargain. The first place that anyone goes to dive into the racks is Rua Oscar Freire, a street whose name now designates a whole district of wide, sunny avenues filled with shops carrying brands both homegrown and imported. Alongside Duek’s Forum and the evening-gown king Carlos Miele, Tiffany, Armani, and Ferragamo get plenty of foot traffic. From the looks of the shopping bags carried by tanned and glossy women with are-they-or-aren’t-they cleavage, you’d never guess that it was only in the early 1990’s that Brazil’s government opened the market to imported luxury goods.
"The Brazilian DNA is still jeans and sporty clothes, but we got a fast fashion education in the nineties after the country became flooded with imports," says Costanza Pascolato, an elegant but down-to-earth grande dame who wears many chic hats: columnist for Vogue Brasil; consultant to Brazilian jewelry giant H.Stern; and director of Santacostanzia, a leading textile firm based in Italy and Brazil. Now that they’ve gained fluency in upper-end international labels and more global ideas of style, Pascolato says, Brazilian designers have come full circle and begun to develop their own identity. "They’ve started to believe in what they’re doing now: it’s sexy and not difficult to understand."