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Argentina: Focus on Fashion Forward

BUENOS AIRES -- Don't cry for Argentinean fashion.<P>La Moda is nothing if not resilient, and can even be brave -- and the proof is in Argentina.<P>During the recent Buenos Aires Fashion Week, Jorge Remes Lenicov was stepping down as Secretary of...

BUENOS AIRES — Don’t cry for Argentinean fashion.

This story first appeared in the June 25, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

La Moda is nothing if not resilient, and can even be brave — and the proof is in Argentina.

During the recent Buenos Aires Fashion Week, Jorge Remes Lenicov was stepping down as Secretary of Finance at the nation’s Ministry of Economy, banks were being kept shut for as many as five days at a time, keeping people from their money. Oblivious to the devaluated peso that set the mood for a country bankrupt and struggling for survival, experimental designers and their models swept down runways, and like a force of nature, fashion made its own waves.

With the worst economic crisis in more than a decade in tow, is there room for style in Argentina? With a fierce devaluation taking the working class below the poverty line, the question seemed to be: Is Argentinean fashion utilitarian or a mere whim for the high-fashion — even avant-garde — set? BAFW proved it is the latter.

“The collections are far less bourgeois and commercial than I would have expected,” said Leonardo Cappannelli, worldwide distribution agent for hip labels such as Balenciaga, Chloe and Sophia Kokosalaki. “There are true designers here, but they are more interested in proving their talent than actually selling.”

Cappannelli was in town hunting for names to promote in Milan and observed that, despite their flair for marketable, commercial clothes, designers Pablo Ramirez, Sol Acuna of Rapsodia and Nadine appear to have little experience in the public relations and marketing aspect of the business.

Lack of commercial focus does not look as romantic as it sounds, however. Corinne Gross, head buyer for German department store chain Peek & Cloppenburg, said that the creations shown were “far too avant-garde for the mass markets German stores tap into.”

Another problem is that some local designers are cautious about exporting in the uncertain climate. Pablo Ramirez, who got global exposure last year thanks to the admiration of British style guru Isabella Blow, was approached by higher-end London retailer Joseph. Ramirez declined the offer to export on the grounds of not being ready yet.

“I don’t know if I will be able to meet the international demand: If I can’t possibly predict how much my fabrics will cost tomorrow, how can I even think of pricing my product for export?” she said.

After a decade of peso-dollar parity, the devaluation last Dec. 19 has led to unpredictable market conditions. And to make matters worse, the whole region is ailing. Uruguay and Brazil, Argentina’s largest neighbor, are having economic troubles of their own. Argentina’s president, Eduardo Duhalde, has even asked Washington for U.S. aid to Brazil to stanch any repercussions from its woes on his nation.

Despite that, though, a number of American and European makers said they aren’t changing their policies significantly regarding shipments to Argentina. Most said they would continue as usual and evaluate the situation on a day-by-day basis.

With the peso allowed to float freely against the U.S. dollar, prices of imported fabrics have not only skyrocketed, but also fluctuate on a daily basis.

Yet some designers see an opportunity in this crisis: As the local currency reaches all-time lows in the region of 3 pesos to the dollar, traditionally high Argentinean prices have fallen to internationally competitive levels. For the first time in 10 years, a national apparel industry is being fostered after the Brazilian textile growth model.

“Like Brazilians did when they reached their deepest economic crisis a couple of years ago, now is the time for our producers to start investing in Argentinean production capabilities,” offered Ivana Ehrlichman, one of BAFW’s two directors. Ehrlichman also argued that despite favorable export conditions, BAFW designers still need to develop their business skills within the national market.

Monica Mendes, p.r. rep and cool-hunter for high-end retailer Daslu, based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, concurred: “Take Jazmin Chebar’s lovely ruffled leather skirts. Would they suit our clients who only buy recognizable staples like Gucci, Hermes or Prada? Yes, but not before Chebar establishes her name in Argentina. Now that the price range is adequate, promoting an awareness of local brands is essential.”

Some other recent developments on the fashion scene here include:

Last March saw Argentine designer sales rise for the first time since the devaluation. As consumers can no longer afford shopping sprees abroad, internal consumption seems the only way forward.

Affordable brand Zara has had to raise its prices threefold to meet the new currency status.

Exxel Group, the American-funded corporation that triggered a local brand acquisition fever in 2000, has come to a halt in its shopping habits.

Chileans have made their neighbor country their latest shopping haven, and Argentines are quickly responding to changes in the demand.

Martin Churba of design duo Trosman Churba — whose sexy, textile research-heavy creations can be found at Showroom Seven, Barneys New York and Neiman Marcus, as well as in Spain, Italy and Japan — accurately described the new status quo. “A year ago, someone said it was time for Argentina to wake up. And this is what the recession is doing: It’s the wake-up call for our fashion trade.””