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Nov 1, 2012
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Brazil fashion industry struggles to take flight

Nov 1, 2012

SAO PAULO - Sao Paulo's Fashion Week is in full swing, giving Brazil the chance to celebrate its status as the world's fifth largest producer of textiles and the fourth biggest producer of finished garments.

Models present creations by Vitorino Campos (photo: AFP)

But Brazil also wants to be a major player on the global fashion stage, a breakthrough which has eluded it so far.

Sao Paulo Fashion Week (SPFW), the top such event in Latin America, kicked off Monday to present joyful and colorful designs of its 2013 winter collection.

But organizers of the fashion showcase acknowledge with consternation that fully 95 percent of clothes made in Brazil are produced for a domestic market, and only five percent for export.

According to the Brazilian Association of Textile and Apparel (ABIT), Brazil's fashion industry sold 63 billion dollars of goods in 2011 -- mostly garments worn by Brazilians themselves.

"Brazil is a major producer and a major consumer of textiles, but still not a big player in the global apparel market," Fernando Pimentel, one of the association's senior managers, told AFP.

Fashion experts offer differing opinions on why this country -- on the cusp of military greatness and an emerging economic powerhouse -- limps along in the world of couture.

Some blame what they say are government-imposed barriers, including high taxes on manufacturers here, for preventing them from selling more of their wares overseas.

"Manufactured goods here still suffer from the so-called 'Brazil surcharge,'" said clothing manufacturer Oskar Metsavah, one of about 20 companies set to show its creations during Fashion Week.

The "surcharge" refers to "high taxes, poor transportation infrastructure" and outdated labor laws which make it harder to export Brazilian goods for a reasonable price, he said.

But Metsavah said the costs are not the only issue holding back Brazilian wares.

"Why do so few Brazilian labels manage to get sold by stores overseas? In my opinion, it's because of the lack of originality and the lack of quality in the vast majority of them," he said.

His company, Osklen, is one of a handful of Brazilian firms that has managed to get a toehold in overseas markets, with its clothes sold on racks in the United States, Argentina and Japan.

Metsavah said that not all designers here have figured out how to create designs with an international appeal.

Joao Pimenta, a menswear designer who attended Fashion Week, said that part of the problem was a lack of willingness to innovate.

"Brazilian fashion is still very afraid to experiment," he said. "I think it's the most important thing happening in Brazilian fashion industry, allowing us to find our place in the world."

The organizers of the Fashion Week are doing their part to help re-position the clothing industry in Brazil for a big breakthrough on the world fashion stage.

For one thing, they have lengthened the interval between the fall and spring shows, to give designers and manufacturers more time to perfect the tailoring of their collections.

The simple tweaking of the schedule has gone a long way to help "professionalize" and expand an industry that is still "very young," said Fashion Week's organizer Paulo Borges.

"It is a maturity thing, because it is a young industry that is just discovering its personality," he said.

But Borges also agreed that "Brazilian fashion has failed to establish itself as product and brand in the global marketplace because of high costs and problems getting financing."

There is a consensus in the industry that in order to bring their clothes to a bigger overseas market, Brazil will have to reduce barriers to credit, bring down the cost of overpriced labor and improve infrastructural limitations.

"Goods produced here are expensive, labor is pricey and the taxes that have to be paid by businesses are very high," said Fabienne Muzy, head of planning for Luminosidade, a group which organizes major fashion events in Brazil told AFP.

"If you compare a product made in Brazil with international brands such as Prada and Chloe, you'll see they have about the same price," said the French-born Muzy.

"Which are you going to buy?" she asked rhetorically. "The choice is clear: Prada."

Industry officials have urged the government of Dilma Rousseff to cut taxes -- a move that already provided a shot in the arm for the country's automobile industry.

Muzy said the same could prove true for the fashion industry.

"There is creativity, there is quality," she said. "The problem is the price."by Natalia Ramos

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