By  on July 20, 2007

SAO PAULO — Brazil's two major fashion events offered retailers strikingly different choices in terms of style and price — and price often won out.

The upmarket Sao Paulo Fashion Week gave foreign buyers two price options — expensive, established designers or the more affordable, underdog brands. At the more mainstream Fashion Rio, also showing summer 2008 collections, buyers found prices, even among top stylists, more palatable.

Most foreign retailers at SPFW found the dollar-based export prices of top brands hard to swallow because they have risen as the local currency, the real, continues to appreciate against the dollar. Although the dollar depreciated against the real by 8 percent in 2006, and by 10 percent in the first half of 2007 — less than the 27 percent it weakened between mid-2004 and the end of 2005 — its continued slide has forced foreign buyers to opt for less-costly, lesser-known SPFW brands that have kept prices stable, even if it meant cutting their margins.

The latest editions of these biannual events, both open to the public, drew the usual-size local and foreign crowds. The June 13-19 SPFW, in Brazil's fashion capital, drew nearly 105,000 attendees and several dozen foreign retailers, most of whom were newcomers. Fashion Rio, June 4-10, attracted 90,000 visitors and 80 foreign buyers, agents or distributors. At both events, 15 to 20 percent of local attendees were trade.

Both editions boasted mostly European and Asian foreign buyers, although Fashion Rio, unlike SPFW, also drew a sprinkling of South American and U.S. retailers. The only foreign buyer at both events was Venue, a Southeast Asian chain of 12 multibrand stores.

Other multibrand stores at SPFW included Barneys Japan, Lane Crawford of Hong Kong and Corleone's of Madrid. Among the foreign boutiques were Sisters, New Zealand; Carouzos, Athens; Bossa Nova and Yeung, Belgium; La Villa, Deauville, France, and Antonella of Argentina. International buying consultants included the London-based Boutiqueye and Diptrics, a Tokyo fashion distributor.

The collections of the 48 SPFW designers and the 41 at Fashion Rio couldn't have been more different, industry observers said.

"SPFW designers had more masculine themes, with lots of sports jackets and light wool vests, whereas Fashion Rio stylists favored a 'Lolita' look — short, voluminous dresses, with bows and ruffles," said fashion consultant Lilian Pacce. "The only thing the two events had in common was the fluorescent colors of the new rave scene, now strong here."The swimwear brands at Fashion Rio all used new-rave colors and showcased "trikinis," — which from the back "trick" one into thinking they're bikinis, but whose tops and bottoms are joined by a strip in the front. "Lolita" looks could be seen in Juliana Jabour's strapless, pink taffeta shirtdresses bunched into a huge frontal bow; Cantao's voluminous, taffeta short dresses and jumpsuits, and the bow-tied bikini tops of Salinas.

SPFW's most overtly masculine theme was the deconstructed tuxedo. Alexandre Herchcovitch showcased a carnation pink, strapless organza dress, whose jagged-cut and folded top looked like a carnation and was showcased by a black satin cummerbund. Movimento offered a black and white one-piece swimsuit with buttons and a black asymmetric tuxedo-lapel neck strap. SPFW's new-rave colors stood out in Huis Clos' bright lemon, hourglass-shaped tops and the orange reflective strips on Ellus' satin poncho dresses. Some of the brand's other utility details included drawstrings on hoods and hems.

Retailers at SPFW were more interested in styling and colors than prices. Diptrics consultant Robb Young said that "foreign buyers there were presented with two choices: high-priced, labor-intensive, luxury brands, like Isabela Capeto or Neon, who don't market abroad, or those with better prices and marketing, like Ellus or Osklen. And most buyers opted for the latter, which also offer a casual chic, day-into-evening look that many women want."

Bossa Nova owner Philippe Faucon concurred. "Top designers like Capeto and Neon are expensive, cater to domestic clients and seem unaware of prices abroad, whereas some stylish, lesser-known ones like Iodice, Osklen, Gloria Coelho, Ellus and Jefferson Kulig have prices more aligned with those abroad. Some top designers also have unreliable delivery dates and don't provide marketing help or follow-up, whereas these underdog houses offer foreign buyers a structure to market their apparel abroad."

Faucon applauded Iodice's pastel print, silk satin tops with a bare shoulder and back as being "sexy but classic," and Jefferson Kulig's futuristic, black neoprene blouses as being "edgy but contemporary."

Corleone's buyer Elena Florez de Urcola, who purchased $120,000 worth of clothes from 10 designers, added, "We are buying far less from brands like Herchcovitch and Forum whose prices have, with the depreciating dollar, constantly increased, and are buying more from brands like Osklen, Zoomp and Gloria Coelho, who have kept their prices stable and still offer quality and creativity."De Urcola singled out Osklen's open-backed, rainbow-hued silk evening dress and Gloria Coelho's flared tulle evening gown.

Alex Hascher of Venue, who is buying Osklen and Zigfreda for the same reason, said, "these brands have elegant day-into-evening wear that is inexpensive yet as innovative as the pricier, fashion-forward SPFW designers."

Hascher, who went to both trade fairs, added, "if you want fashion-forward Brazilian design, go to SPFW. If you want more affordable, one-stop shopping, go to Fashion Rio."

He found the prices of Fashion Rio's top designers more attractive than those at SPFW. He will buy Maria Bonita Extra's white, cotton honeycomb-textured A dresses and pink viscose-spandex, high-waist wrap dresses with a flicked-paint print, "because they are classic, creative and price-competitive."

Some foreign buyers, however, bought a mix of tiers because of the varied buying power of their clients.

"Because the New Zealand dollar isn't as strong as the U.S. dollar and imports are heavily taxed, I buy lesser-known designers, like Iodice, who are stylish and price-competitive," said Rodelle de Vries of Sisters. "But I also buy pricier name brands like Tereza Santos because for some of my clients, price is no object."

Haru Suzuki, fashion merchandising director of Barneys Japan, is also buying Santos' powder-blue pullover knit dresses and Capeto's peach beaded cotton halter dresses "because, although they are expensive, I just can't find this casual, stylish, day-into-evening wear anywhere else."

Patrick Deitch, a representative for Luly Yang Couture, a Seattle boutique, said he was interested in Mara Mac's draped, silk evening dresses with sequin detailing and Victor Dzenk's draped, silk chiffon cocktail dress. "I liked their price, quality and body-conscious sexually, something Seattle women look for in Brazilian brands."

Norma Jimenez, a buyer for Allegro, a chain of five shops in San Jose, Costa Rica, who has bought Blue Man, this time opted for $3,000 worth of Mali, a lesser-known brand. "Mali will make its abstract flower print, hand-embroidered bikinis slightly bigger for me," said Jimenez. "I could find cheaper bikinis in China, but not with embroidery and not with customized fits unless I buy huge volumes."Bill Adams, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based eXM Global, a buyer for 25 boutiques in 10 states, bought Enseada da Praia's vibrant, African print bikinis for the same reason. "At $25 apiece wholesale, they don't beat China's prices, but my clients like Brazilian styling and quality," he said.

Juan Mangado, buyer for 60 upscale boutiques in Spain, was one of the few foreign buyers who left Fashion Rio empty-handed. "I found either good-quality, overpriced bikinis or poor-quality, low-priced bikinis," he said. "I used to be able to find affordable, high-quality swimwear here. But the overvalued local currency has changed all that."

Because of a rebounding economy (a projected 4.5 percent growth rate this year, compared to 3 percent in 2006), Fashion Rio and SPFW each registered increased domestic business. Fashion Rio's 82 on-site showrooms, for designers with and without runway shows, generated $218 million in domestic orders and $14 million in foreign orders, up from $190 million in domestic and $12.5 million in foreign orders at the July 2006 event.

At the SPFW's 57 on-site showrooms, 490 orders were placed, up from 400 orders placed at 73 showrooms at the July 2006 edition. (SPFW does not tally by currency volume.)

"The fewer showrooms at this event compared to the edition last July had more space to show more of [the] collections," said SPFW organizer Graca Cabral. "And more orders were placed at this SPFW than at last July's because the economy has rekindled since last year."

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