HERCHCOVITCH: BRAZIL’S MIX MASTER

Byline: Michael Kepp

RIO DE JANEIRO — When top Brazilian designer Alexandre Herchcovitch calls his fall collection “visual pollution,” he’s being a provocateur rather than a master of self-deprecation.
The collection made its Paris debut on Saturday, his second time showing there. It is a mix of details, textures, cuts and bright colors, and is visually complex, which is what Herchcovitch, with a teasing smile, explains when he calls it “visual pollution.”
The detail work alone — all the sequins, fringe, and heavy embroidery — makes this collection very busy indeed, which was Herchcovitch’s intention.
“This collection is so visually elaborate,” he said “that, unlike a simple black dress that is understood immediately, it takes a lot time to decipher.”
The 29-year-old Herchcovitch said “overdressing” inspired his collection, “And my intention is to provoke serious thoughts and discussions about overdressing.”
Among his offerings are fluorescent emerald stockings worn under a pink wool dress coat, closed by a giant button and featuring black fringe on the sleeves and chest, and a big multi-colored chest flower. Dresses are covered with green, blade-of-grass-shaped, reflective sequins and worn with fluorescent pink stockings and heavily embroidered scarves, while tight vinyl cherry trousers are worn below an above-the-knee, highly-fringed pencil skirt, and a bright pink wool jacket, covered with abstract cherry-colored embroidery.
Some of the pieces in this 230-piece line, whose items retail between $100 and $2,000, also have a western motif, as seen in his cowboy-design-inspired embroidery, his heavy use of fringe and the shoes that go with many of his outfits — multi-colored footwear modeled after cowboy boots — from the pointed toes to the squat, inward-slanted heels.
In a review of the collection shown Saturday, WWD said Herchcovitch sent out an intriguing and interesting collection that was full of ideas.
“Urban dwellers are like chameleons who, once in the country, dress like cowboys, or, once at the beach, don surfing suits to ride the waves,” said Herchcovitch. “They dress differently for different occasions and we’ve tried, in our winter 2001 collection, to put all those occasions together.”
This Brazilian free spirit has also mixed styles from different cultures to create striking new looks. Three years ago, his winter collection was a mix of Spanish and Japanese styles — kimono-like dresses with long red-laced skirts with Flamenco tails. Another season featured multi-layered, voluminous African-Brazilian skirts worn with rigid, geometric, Japanese-inspired tops.
“Mixing clothing styles from different cultures allows you create something new out of contrasts, ” he said.
Herchcovitch prides himself on his innovative selection of fabrics. His summer 2001 collection featured a white silk dress with rectangular patches that change color under the UV rays of natural sunlight. Drawing lots of attention at that show was a black rubber top with crystal webbing, a denim mini-skirt and black net stockings with crystals.
“It’s not something I advise wearing on a hot summer day, but rather to a chic summer evening party,” said the designer.
Herchcovitch said that “if there’s a short way to sum up what sets me apart from the rest of the fashion world, it’s the freedom I give myself to mix — whether it be fabrics, cuts, colors or cultures — and the freedom I give myself to use new materials.”
His gripe with fashion today is that, “while there is a new generation of designers whose clothes are bringing back a sense of fantasy and a world of illusion, the fashion world is, in general, still too commercial, too square, too worried about the taking risks, and the commercial gamble caused by doing so.”
One designer he admires is Japan’s Rei Kawakubo, whose Comme des Garcons brand is experimental in terms of silhouette.
“She has no form limits to the proportions of her designs,” he said, “which allows her to be very poetic.”
As for some of fashion’s more commercial successes — particularly major American labels — he said, “I admire their marketing expertise more than I admire their clothes.”
Herchcovitch has shown that his collections can be innovative and commercial at the same time, in Brazil as well as abroad. The clothes are produced at his Sao Paulo studio — where Herchcovitch spends most of his time and which employs 25 people — and at outsourcers, who account for 40 percent of his production. His fall collection actually made its debut in Sao Paulo during fashion week there in late January.
Herchcovitch has two of his own stores in Sao Paulo, one in front of his studio in the fashionable Jardins area, often called the Brazilian equivalent of Madison Avenue, and the other at one of the city’s high-end shopping malls. He also sells to 75 other stores in Brazil, mainly in large cities and upscale resort towns outside Sao Paulo, where only one other retailer sells his label. He’s also in doors in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London. Counting his three collections — his signature rtw, his secondary line for more mainstream tastes, and his jeans line — he sells 30,000 pieces a year.
Herchcovitch estimates that the 5,000 pieces a year sold at his two Sao Paulo stores retail at an average price of $75. He estimated that the 25,000 units he wholesales each year to other retailers average $150 a piece, bringing his sales to around $2.5 million a year.
“In terms of dollar volume sold, I’m still a little fish in a big market,” said Herchcovitch. “But, relatively speaking, I’m just starting out.”
The bulk of Herchcovitch’s sales are in Brazil, though foreign retailers are beginning to buy his collections, which he doesn’t modify to suit foreign tastes.
“The modern Brazilian woman is just as open to new clothing styles as the modern American or European,” he said, adding, “That’s why the collection I sell in Brazil is the same that I sell abroad.”
Herchcovitch began selling in the U.S. in 1996 at Patricia Field in New York and in Europe in 1997 at The Library in London. Now, Henri Bendel of New York as well as two Los Angeles stores, Madison and Naked, buy the line, as does Beauty By of Paris and Joseph of London, which last year did a retrospective of his work in its display windows during London Fashion Week. Herchcovitch has presented three recent collections in London since 1998.
“We buy Herchcovitch because of his sophisticated design sensibility in regard to fabrics and silhouette, and because of his creativity, like clothes that change colors in the sunlight,” said Ed Burstell, Henri Bendel’s general manager. “Herchcovitch appeals to women between 25 and 45 who like new ideas.”
Fatima Lomba, the owner of a 4,300-square-foot , multibrand store with 4,000 items that specializes in Brazilian designers, said that Herchcovitch sells well and that the first collection of his that she bought, which was last year, sold out in 15 days.
“Herchcovitch sells to the young modern woman who wants a different fabric and a different cut, women who want to stand apart from the crowd without having to spend a lot of money to do so,” said Lomba. “And as his prices are affordable — you can spend as little as $40 for a really simple Herchcovitch top and as little as $150 for a jacket — a lot of women fit this category.”
Yoo, a two-unit multibrand retailer that carries Herchcovitch in the swinging beach resort of Balneario Camboriu, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, sells lots of Herchcovitch jeans for $75 to $100 a pair and ornate tops at $100 to $150, which Zizi Flor, the chain’s owner, says “puts him in the middle of the price range for top Brazilian designers — not cheap, but not all that expensive.”
“Herchcovitch appeals to irreverent young, upper-middle-class and middle-class women willing to pay a little more to wear something unique,” said Flor. “These are women who, when they go out dancing at this city’s discos, want to make the statement ‘I’m irreverent, there’s nothing mainstream about me.”‘
Zoomp, one of Brazil’s top ready-to-wear fashion labels (it makes two million pieces a year and has 73 wholly-owned stores and 600 sales points in Brazil) brought Herchcovitch into its design room six seasons ago and Herchcovitch has done innovative wonders with Zoomp’s jeans collection. He has taken a pair of jeans and covered it with silk chiffon and washed it so many times that the silk tore apart. He brought back snow-washed jeans for Zoomp and made them once again popular in Brazil.
And Herchcovitch has designed popular Zoomp dresses and tops of geometric squares and stripes in 12 different colors.
“I hired Herchcovitch because he is very creative in terms of material and the way he adapts that material to create fresh new ideas,” said Renato Kherlakian, the owner of Zoomp. “He is provocative in a way that draws the consumer to the product rather than distancing her from it, which also makes him very commercial.”
Zoomp also produces Herchcovitch’s jeans line. A recent Herchcovitch jeans collection featured indigo denims with a big, curving, front zipper from the bottom of one leg to just below the crotch, and two big zippers that run up and down the side of each leg. It also had white jeans and black jeans with wide, white, silicone rubber brush strokes — relief-like features that look painted on — that gave the jeans an added dimension.
Iesa Rodrigues, the fashion editor of Rio de Janeiro’s Jornal do Brasil newspaper, said that Herchcovitch’s charm also lies in his tailoring adaptations.
“Some of Herchcovitch’s women’s suits have sleeves that are a bit shorter than normal and have pants that have a skirt-like cut with side ruffles,” said Rodrigues. “Such adaptations appeal to Brazilian women who want to look daring and different, without looking vulgar.”
Herchcovitch also has a men’s collection — including a strong-selling jeans line — which accounts for 20 percent of his sales, and which follows the stylistic trend of his women’s collections, though is far more subdued.
Herchcovitch also produces his own lingerie line, which comprises black and white body-hugging spandex, and he also started a jewelry collection last year with pieces from $250 to $16,000. Some of the biggest sellers have been golden cube earnings with diamonds on one side and double rings, which fit over two fingers.
Herchcovitch, like his collections, is a study in contrasts. For example, the boyish-looking designer with short, blond hair — that looks bleached — often wears drab white shirts layered over wrinkled khaki trousers. The bland garb belies the lace-tablecloth tattoo that covers most of his right upper arm and shoulder and the garlic tattoo on his right arm.
“What you see me wearing today is what I usually wear, even when I go out,” said Herchcovitch. “I don’t really get dressed up because my own feeling is that what looks good on me is something very simple.”
Herchcovitch got involved in fashion at the age of eight when he decided it was more fun to hang out at his mother’s Sao Paulo underwear company, than at home. She taught him how to cut and sew and by 12, he was making long-sleeved, A-shape dresses for her. By 15 he was making clothes for friends — from T-shirts to trousers. One T-shirt he designed — one of the first pieces he ever sold — featured a big black skull, became popular among Sao Paulo office boys and is still part of his men’s collection.
At 17, he spent a year at a fine arts college in Sao Paulo and then studied for four years at a Sao Paulo fashion college. During that time, he met a drag queen and a doorman at an underground club, and after dressing the former in an S&M outfit and the latter in a bright checkered embroidered jacket, they got press coverage and so did he.
But it was his 1993 graduation show that really brought the press to his front door. Veja, Brazil’s biggest newsweekly magazine, called the show “a scandalous parade of torn and bloodied clothes that barely covered the models wearing them.”
Herchcovitch’s main collaborator is Mauricio Ianes, whom he met when they both attended fine arts college and who is now the artistic director of the Herchcovitch label. They seem well suited to each other in terms of eccentricity — the bald-shaven, goatee-bearded, 27-year-old Ianes sports silver earrings that leave a gaping hole in each ear and has tattooed both of his arms black, except for his elbows. Herchcovitch, who had rented his own studio by 1989 and who had opened his first Jardins store in 1994, invited Ianes to collaborate with him on his winter 1994 collection, his first.
Herchcovitch said that his and Ianes’ ideas come from everything from Brazilian TV soap operas to fashion designers who made clothes in the Forties and Fifties for U.S. country-western singers. Their creative process goes something like this: “I want to use a Japanese kimono motif and I ask Mauricio what other country to mix with this motif and he says, Spain, and we’re off,” said Herchcovitch.
Herchcovitch, while innovative, differs from many other young Brazilian designers who are now hot because of the sensuality of their body-baring collections. While Herchcovitch admits that his secondary line features more open-cut, tighter-fitting clothes to appeal to a sexier, more universal taste, his main collection is anything but that.
“The main body of my work isn’t sexy, but covers most of the body and is meant to make a comment on something, like overdressing,” said Herchcovitch. “I don’t create clothes that are sexy. I create clothes that are meant to be thought-provoking.”