This story first appeared in the June 5, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

From jeans to models to waxing treatments, all things Brazilian are hot right now. So the timing couldn’t be better to open K-la, a boutique celebrating the South American country’s racy fashions.

Located in Buckhead in the Around Lenox strip shopping center, the 1,100-square-foot boutique is unlike anything in Atlanta: It’s the first retail operation devoted nearly entirely to Brazilian clothing lines and accessories (a few basic pieces hail from New York designers).

Co-owner Keila Mesquita, a Brazilian expatriate from Sao Paulo, moved 15 years ago to Atlanta, where she majored in business at Emory University and worked at a consulting firm for three years after graduation.

She never envisioned herself working in retail, but her focus changed after comments about her fashion sense — characterized by clothes she picked up during trips to her homeland — began pouring in from friends, as well as passers-by on the street. “They would just go crazy for them,” the 25-year-old said.

The interest in Brazilian fashions, as well as a desire to run her own business, prompted Mesquita and her younger sister, Julie, to open K-la in May.

Although the Brazilian aesthetic is popular with the fashion crowd, Mesquita said she was concerned how the store would be received.

“At first, I was concerned that Americans wouldn’t understand what Brazilian clothing meant, that they would think it too skimpy or trashy, or even think of native costumes,” she said. “But now it’s working to my advantage to be labeled as a Brazilian store. The idea of Brazil is very attractive to Americans right now.”

It took several trips to Sao Paulo to convince upscale manufacturers that the sisters could carry off the right image. Iodice, a well-respected manufacturer of low-rise jeans there, signed on, and then others fell into place.

Along with Iodice, nearly all of Brazil’s other large vendors are represented. Tufi Duek’s collection is sold at K-la, as is Zoomp, one of the country’s biggest clothing exports, was featured in Elle magazine this spring in an article on the Brazilian denim craze.

“They also do glamorous, sexy collections with lots of detail and cutouts in silk, chiffon and cotton,” said Mesquita. Retail prices range from $50 for a tank top to $300 for a dress.

K-la also carries Maria Vrs Madalenda, a line popular for its laser-cut chiffon dresses. Recently, eight units sold in two days at $230 a piece, said Mesquita.

On the junior front, the store carries Maria Bonita Extra, a division of Maria Bonita, a popular line from Rio de Janeiro. Mesquita in July plans to add another junior line, Triton, which will retail between $50 and $150. “Triton is trendy and youthful in silhouettes like short skirts,” she said.

K-la carries Brazil’s hottest swimwear line, Rosa Sha, a favorite for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

“Everyone asks if I carry Brazilian bikinis, so it’s sort of a must,” said Mesquita, who’s a little doubtful about Americans warming to the idea of baring more. She also isn’t sure how larger-figured Americans will fit into Brazilian sizes. A size 14, common in the U.S., isn’t even available from her sources, which range from 0 to 12. For example, a size 0 is really a negative 2, she said. Surprisingly, small and medium sizes have outsold large thus far.

To ensure further exclusivity, K-la in July will begin carrying a private label line of Brazilian footwear. Mesquita described the sexy, high-heeled, shoes as “affordable versions of Manolo Blahnik and Gucci, at $100 to $300.”

Mesquita said one of the store’s biggest challenges is to maintain affordable price points, in light of the duties, import and export broker fees and shipping costs it must pay. She said the store doles out an additional 40 percent in costs over wholesale prices. The Brazilian government, however, automatically gives an 18 percent discount off all exports, which wholesale prices reflect.

“It’s more involved than I could ever imagine,” she said. “When I do write things in New York, I’m always so surprised at how easy it is. But it’s worth all the trouble because people are attracted to something different. Plus they think the prices are great, despite all the higher costs.”

Because the seasons are reversed in South America, U.S. retailers hear of top-selling items six months in advance, a tremendous advantage when writing orders.

“They’re selling winter now, and vendors tell me what sold before I bring it in in August,” said Mesquita, adding that Atlanta and Brazil share a similar climate.

Another perk is Brazil’s knack for setting fashion trends years ahead of the rest of the world, said Mesquita, who listed silicone bra straps and low-rise bottoms as some of Brazil’s fashion gifts to the world. “I think they are as creative as Italian designers,” she said.

To keep up with Brazilian trends and brands, Mesquita visits Sao Paulo’s cutting-edge boutiques and writes collections twice a year in her major lines’ showrooms.

K-la mimics a true Brazilian boutique, beyond just clothing, said Mesquita. Aside from brilliant red velvet curtains on the dressing rooms, dark wood ottoman frames and a large, tropical floral arrangement, white is the decor’s dominant color — the sunken, polyurethaned, epoxy floor, brushed cotton upholstery and floating walls beaming fluorescent light from top and bottom. “Brazilian stores are always white because retailers believe color interferes with clothing,” said Mesquita.

Beyond its decor and apparel offerings, the Mesquitas were so insistent on Brazilian authenticity that they had the store’s logo, furniture and shopping bags designed and produced in Brazil.

Mesquita said there are plans to open additional units, beginning with Miami. First-year sales are projected between $300,000 and $500,000.

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