Living in the shadow of the Zika virus, presidential impeachment and one of the worst economic forecasts for a century, Rio is a city charged with a sense of febrile social urgency. A new tram network is about to be inaugurated in advance of the Olympic Games the city will host in three short months; the scaffold that will contain the Olympic Games’ beach volleyball tournament is beginning the take shape on the city’s famous Copacabana beach; and the downtown district is emerging as an artsy cultural hub after years of redevelopment and investment.
And yet despite the sense of hopeful optimism engendered by a major global spectacle like the Olympics, Brazil remains a country beset by socio political dramas. As the choice of destination for a fashion show staged by the luxury fashion house Louis Vuitton, it wasn’t altogether obvious. But then again, Chanel went to Cuba earlier this month. And next week Dior will land at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. That fashion houses are showing up in unexpected, unpredictable international destinations appears to have become its own trend in recent weeks.
It was only after arriving at the strange, futuristic, space-agey white Niterói Contemporary Art Museum — completed by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1996 — that Nicolas Ghesquière’s decision to stage his third cruise collection for the LVMH-owned fashion house really made sense. The designer’s sporty, fluid, modernist collection, with its bold accents and quaint nostalgic touches, was custom-made for the modernist landscape from which it emerged: the giant red ramp that transports visitors upwards to the museum was reborn as a magnificent crimson catwalk.
Ghesquière’s show was a synthesis of Brazilian tropes — “bingo, soccer and colour” — all bound up in sporty luxe layers and worn with dynamic hybrid shoes — part-sneaker, part-flip-flop, part-flipper or mountain boot — and worn with a “boombox” trunk bag, a modern take on the ‘70s ghettoblaster reworked with speakers and bluetooth settings for the millennial age. Ghesquiere had looked to the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica for his punchy palette, and the looks had the self-assured flamboyance — paper-thin ruffled leathers, silvery minis, and poppered jersey dresses that flapped about the body and exposed the skin — as the women one finds on the beach at Ipenama.
“Tropicality and urbanity were my big themes,” Ghesquière explained backstage. “Rio is built into this unique landscape, where nature continues to explode in the urbanity. It’s a great interaction. I wanted to study what it means to be exotic.”
The clothes were designed with “movement in mind”. The steep ramp that marked the models entrance and exits demanded flat shoes and a purposeful stride. Looks were layered to work in different combinations. “It’s free,” said Ghesquière, “and very body-conscious.” The sports elements were writ large, though not so typically Olympian as some might expect. Thin, shower jackets were light and functional; the house’s famous Damier check was remade in a punchy motocross monochrome and printed on sweaters and leathers. Dresses were decorated in prints recalling the nation’s nostalgia for the “beautiful game”, and there were tracksuit pants, running shorts and lots of boldly coloured jersey fabrics.
Sportswear has a subject of endless exploration in Ghesquière’s design. How to do it? How to elevate it? How to make it more sophisticated? “The new casual, the contrast between being dressed up to go out and at the same time being very casual, is clearly defining our time in fashion,” he explained. “It’s the strongest thing now happening in luxury, this fusion of the sophisticated and the sporty, and how it all works with the reality of what we wear.”
The thematic ideas of the show were clear, and challenging. Yet, nothing must have been so challenging as the decision to come to Brazil in the first place. How many times had the executive team at Louis Vuitton questioned the wisdom of staging a major fashion show before 600 invited guests at a time of such political and economic disquiet?
“Business has been phenomenal in Brazil in the past five years,” said Michael Burke the brand’s chief executive as dusk cast the Niterói museum in a sparkly white light (Burke has been investigating the museum as a show space for the past five years). “Brazil is now our tenth biggest global market and the home of six of its stores. The current situation is a blip. We invest for the long term at Vuitton. We don’t time our events based on social economic factors. It’s a communications exercise for us”.
First launched as a show concept in 2014, the Louis Vuitton Cruise event has grown in scale and ambition during its three-year lifespan, acting as a brand platform that reaches far beyond the collection of ready-to-wear on which it is based. Once conceived as a small collection of off-season clothes that arrived in store in December to outfit travellers journeying to warmer climates during the colder winter months, cruise is now one of Vuitton’s most visible moments, commanding unrivalled attention in a fashion calendar clamouring with events. “We chaperone clients to places they might not ordinarily have come to,” explained Burke. “It’s a cultural exchange.” More importantly, a show like this “puts the brand of Louis Vuitton at the front of everyone’s mind.”
Despite the bleak economic forecast in Brazil, Burke insisted the show would generate more business. “This is not a Potemkim village,” he explained (a sly reference perhaps to the Chanel show in Cuba earlier this month, a country in which designer brands are still largely unheard of). “We don’t just want the backdrop. We’re here to make a lasting impression. To create memories: just as Christian Dior did when he went to Moscow in 1956 and which people in Russia still talk about.” He added. “Everybody comes to a country during the boom times. But it’s more significant to come to a place when it’s having a harder time.”
A crowd of Brazilian kids had gathered behind the railings outside the museum. As if on cue, a huge whoop carried across the air as Jaden Smith, the young US actor recently taken on as the brand’s new ambassador, got into his car. He was closely followed by the Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander and long-time Louis Vuitton stalwart Catherine Deneuve. The whooping continued. “The memories of this will generate new relationships,” added Burke. “Brazil won’t forget that we were here.”