SAO PAULO — Swimwear, good deals and a break from European standbys — that’s what was on the agenda of foreign and even local buyers at São Paulo Fashion Week’s spring edition.

Like Sydney, another major fashion center of the Southern Hemisphere, this city is becoming a mecca for swimwear. But many buyers international and domestic alike, were looking to take advantage of relatively inexpensive pricing — a result of currency fluctuations among the local real, U.S. dollars and euros — as well as some looks that go beyond the usual labels that populate their boutiques.

The twice-yearly SPFW, held June 30 to July 5, drew a record 72,000 people — trade and consumers — from 10 countries to see the summer 2004 collections of 47 designers. Top local designers included Alexandre Herchcovitch, Fause Haten, Lino Villaventura, Reinaldo Lourenco, and Forum, the signature line of designer Tufi Duek. Other ready-to-wear fashion labels included: Zoomp, Zapping, Gloria Coelho, Ellus, Triton, Iodice, Patachou, Carlota Joakina, Ronaldo Fraga, Vide Bula, Lorenzo Merlino, Marcelo Sommer, and Argentina’s Trosman.

The supermodels turned out, too. Kicking off SPFW was hometown favorite Gisele Bündchen, who wore psychedelic, pastel and floral-print bikinis for Cia. Maritima. On the second day of the shows, Naomi Campbell wore a one-piece Rosa Chá stunner. The swimwear’s golden, metallic-sequined bottom dovetailed with a tapered, off-white stretch top with intricate, fish-scale detailing for a mermaid look.

Mermaid prints, a Chá signature, appeared on other swimwear that featured warm earth tones, contrasting with Cia. Maritima’s more vibrant colors. One Chá suit that got some attention was a one-piece, flesh-toned suit with a large hole cut out of the lower back, under which a different colored bikini bottom was worn, giving the swimwear a layered look.

“Rosa Chá has invented a new form of bikini,” declared top Brazilian fashion consultant Gloria Kalil. “Not an easy feat to accomplish with so minimal a piece of fabric.”

Chá, to show this collection at September’s 7th on Sixth Mercedes-Fashion Week in New York, hopes to boost sales to the U.S., its biggest foreign market. The company now exports 13 percent, or 32,000 pieces, of its output and aims to export 17 percent by the end of the year, said marketing director Maria Paula Gasparili.One international buyer at the SPFW, Opening Ceremony, a shop in New York City’s SoHo, plans to buy Chá for its current summer inventory, which has 15 American designers and 15 Brazilians. The boutique, which opened in 2002 and featured U.S. and Hong Kong designers, features labels of a different country every year alongside Americans.

Opening Ceremony partner Humberto Leon said that Brazil was chosen as this year’s “visiting team,” as he put it, because “there’s a strong element of originality andcraft, especially detailing and overlays, in Brazilian fashion, which our clients aren’t acquainted with and will find refreshing.”

Opening Ceremony is buying $50,000 to $60,000 worth of Alexandre Herchcovitch;Lourenzo Merlino, a modern, sober-toned minimalist, and Chá, as well as a large number of young, non-commercial designers not at SPFW whom Leon said “take considerable risks.”

Herchcovitch, a favorite of foreign buyers at this year’s SPFW, took his typical risks with his collection, which will be shown during Paris rtw shows in the fall, but was still commercial, said buyers. He mixed tropical flowers and foliage, parrot, toucan, zebra and plaid prints, sometimes all in the same ensemble. He mixed fabrics from denim to silk.

Selfridges of London, which sent a three-person fashion team on its first exploratory trip to Brazil, cited Herchcovitch’s T-shirts; Ellus’ “limited-edition” mixed-fabric tops and low-cut hipster jeans, and Lourenco’s showroom collection, which was not seen on the runway.

Harvey Sutton, Selfridges’ creative director who sources new markets, said that “Lourenco’s showroom collection teams low-cut hipster drainpipe jeans with body-flattering, draped, silk-jersey tops to create an edgy contemporary look.”

Sutton said Selfridges, which is waiting for firm prices to place orders, would buy a mix of well-known Brazilian names and items from up-and-coming designers not at the shows.

Commenting on the week in general, Sutton said, “While the SPFW was well-organized in terms of showing fashion, it needs to do more to bring international buyers, like the bigger department stores, and more international press to the event, so that it has more of a business focus and less of a social one.”Kokon To Zai, a retailer with shops in London and Paris, plans to buy Herchcovitch, Reinaldo Lourenco and Sommer, who dresses teenagers in flamboyant, fun outfits, said Sasha B., the boutique’s main buyer: “Their uniqueness appeals to young women, and the Brazilian fashion look brings some lightness into our darker inventory, most of which comes from Europe and Japan.”

Some of that Brazilian lightness comes from the less-somber colors and lightweight fabric, like silks and chiffons, that Brazilian designers use, and from floral elements, the main trend of the week.

Besides Cia. Maritima’s and Herchcovitch’s floral prints, Sommer showed off tulle dresses with layers of plastic flowers. Villaventura’s classic evening wear, inspired by Diana Vreeland, was highlighted by elaborate black floral stitching on white silk or tulle dresses worn by models with Vreeland-like turbans. Lourenco’s and Haten’s collections featured embroidery over floral prints. Forum featured large, red rose prints on white pants and tops. And Fraga’s long flowing skirts had ceramic flower appliqués.

Rania Al-Saihati, who plans to open a multibrand boutique in September in Bahrain’s capital of Manama, said she was impressed by the originality of the Brazilian embroidery and beading work, not only on evening wear, but on jeans and casual tops. But she won’t decide which designers to buy, mostly casualwear makers, until she returns home.

She said she came to her first SPFW because “I don’t want to buy European designers who everyone carries. I’mlooking for classic casual wear with fresh ideas, lively colors and good workmanship, which I found in Brazil.”

Even some Brazilian boutiques came to the SPFW to give their collections, also top-heavy in European labels, a broader mix. Helena Motanarini, a buyer for Chocolate, an upscale Rio de Janeiro boutique that carries Prada Sport, Paul Smith, Miu Miu and Givenchy, said, “Brazilian fashion has the sensuality, color and craftsmanship that provides an alternative to our inventory, 70 percent of which comes from Europe,” she said. “I loved the workmanship of Reinaldo Lourenco’s embroidered, floral print miniskirts and Rosa Chá’s sensual earth tones.”

She added that buying Brazilian, as opposed to European fashion, comes with a price advantage. Brazilian boutiques that import European labels pay reais (the plural of real) for letters of credit in dollars, which are then converted into euros. And as the value of the euro has risen against the U.S. dollar by 7 cents since the beginning of the year, to $1.12, European labels have become more expensive here.“Because Brazilian fashion is considerably cheaper than European labels, buying it gives Chocolate a good price mix,” Motanarini said.

Opening Ceremony and Kokon To Zai concurred that Brazilian fashion can be bought and sold in their boutiques more cheaply than U.S or European labels.“We buy Brazilian fashion at a lower cost than European labels, which allows us to sell it at a lower price,” said Kokon To Zai’s Sasha B.“The price mix brings in a broader array of clients.”

Sutton of Selfridges said that some Brazilian fashion is reasonably priced and competitive with European fashion while some is not, especially consideringair-freight and import-duty charges of up to 37 percent tacked onto wholesale prices here.

“We are trying to buy pieces so fantastic that neither the price nor the designer’s lack of name recognition creates a problem for our clients,” said Sutton.

Most Brazilian boutiques came to the SPFW to buy the new collections of the more commercial designers they already carried, and whose ideas have already proven popular here.

Fatima Lomba, owner of Novamente, a Rio de Janeiro boutique that has always bought a lot of Herchcovitch and Haten, is buying his Herchcovitch’s entire 700-piece summer collection and 1,500 Hauten pieces.

“My clients are used to buying Herchcovitch and Hauten and I give them what they want,” said Lomba. “I don’t buy foreign labels because they’re too expensive and because the fashion ideas of European designers aren’t any fresher than the Brazilian ones.”

Haten’s collection, like Lourenco’sshowroom ensembles, mixed high and low styles which appeal to young Brazilian women. It featured baggy, silk cargo bermudas (similar to those worn by professional basketball players) with black and red, layered-fringe, triangular, backless tops, inspired by female lion-tamers. Lomba said such an outfit “is typical of what young women here are wearing to go out at night.”

Roberto Oliveira, owner of the upscale Allumette boutique in the northeastern city of Recife, is buying around $15,000 worth of Haten’s collection.

“I’ve been carrying Fause for seven years, and his backless and low-necktops, as well as his embroidered silk dresses, are perfect for this city’s year-round tropical climate,” she said.Valquíria Cheim, owner of an 8,600-square foot multibrand boutique in the eastern city of Vitoria, said she was buying a mix of cheaper designers as well as more expensive ones like Villaventura, whose dresses cost upwards of $4,000.

“Brazil’s economic slump [a no-growth GDP, 25 percent annual interest rates and high unemployment] doesn’t seem to be affecting my upscale clients, who aren’t changing their fashion-buying habits because of it,” said Cheim.“And this year’s SPFW, featuring a number of designers who target upscale buyers, showed the resilience of the local fashion industry in the face of tough economic times.”

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