RIO DE JANEIRO — Plastic might have been Benjamin Braddock’s key to the future in “The Graduate,” but it’s also the stuff of the two hottest-selling fashion items for young women during the South American winter season here. 

Women between 15 and 25 years of age make up about 23 percent of the population in this fashion-conscious city, and spend much of their disposable income chasing mercurial fashion trends.

The must-haves this season: a plastic handbag made by top fashion label Triton, for about $43, and plastic Melissa pumps made by Grendene, Brazil’s largest plastic shoe producer, for around $26 a pair.

Grendene said it sold 70,000 pairs of Melissas, in 16 models, here between February and July. Of those, 40,000, or nearly 60 percent, were two sandal-inspired pumps. One had a low heel and the other featured a high wedge sole, and both were designed by Alexandre Herchcovitch, among Brazil’s top designers. The pumps are called Scarfun, or “fun pumps” (derived from escarpim, which means “pump” in Portuguese).

Triton said in its own three stores here, it sold 1,574 of the popular handbags between July 2003, when they were launched, and last month. The plastic purses are zippered, with a textured-leather look, come in eight bright colors, four models and bear the Triton logo. The best-selling style, the Carla, accounted for 703 units, or nearly half of those sold.

Triton is also carried in 39 multibrand shops in the city. 

At Contemporaneo and Index, two independent shops here, owner Monica Allen confirmed that Melissa shoes and Triton bags “have, in the past few months, been the hottest sellers in my stores.”

The two shops carry 10 handbag brands and sell 160 bags a month, of which 120 are from Triton and most are Carlas. The stores also carry six shoe brands, selling 300 pairs a month — 250 are Melissas and 210 of those are Scarfun pumps.

“Young Rio women love the Triton handbags because they’re inexpensive, colorful and practical. The Carla bag is roomy enough to fit school books,” said Allen. “The Scarfun pumps are inexpensive and versatile…and serve as both a casual pump and a fashion pump.”Fatima Soares, the owner of three Lusk multibrand stores on the outskirts of Rio, concurred that Melissa shoes and Triton handbags are her biggest sellers. Lusk carries six handbag brands and sells 130 units a month; 100 are Tritons. It also offers three shoe brands, sells 300 pairs a month, of which 200 are Melissas and 120 of those are the Scarfuns.

Connie Mae, owner of Zero Vinte Um, another local shop, sells 250 Melissas a month, 100 of which are Scarfuns. “Young women find status in wearing any design by Alexandre Herchcovitch,” said Mae.     

Fashion observer Flavia Cortês, regional account director of beauty products at the São Paulo office of J. Walter Thompson, agrees.

“Scarfun sandals are the current rage in Rio because they are cheap and because Herchcovitch has found a way to make sandals look fashionable, even though they’re plastic,” said Cortês. “Triton plastic handbags are also a huge hit because they fit Rio’s clean, uncomplicated fashion sense, as opposed to the fake, overdressed style in São Paulo.”

— Michael Kepp

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