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A teensy-weensy, zebra-striped, strapless bikini was just one of the many sexy little numbers worn by Brazilian beauties as they energetically bounced — one step short of a samba — down the catwalks of Fashion Rio in Rio de Janeiro last month.

While Rio’s big urban sister Sao Paulo shows off experimental fare during its fashion week, Fashion Rio presents casual attire fit for any event short of a ball; clothes that could be plucked from the runway and taken straight onto the streets. An influx of emerging designers combined with innovations in textiles production has the Brazilian government placing heavy bets on successful global expansion for the industry.

Brazil is famous for its beachwear, and Rio de Janeiro’s ocean-lovin’ natives live to show off some of the most unique swimsuits in the world. For 2009, top brand Lenny designed architectural pieces with precariously curved cut-outs that miraculously managed to hold everything in place. Brazilian label Luiza Bonadiman presented intricate swimsuits made of shredded and woven Lycra, and Salinas Swimwear brought quirky prints inspired by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s films.

“The clothes at Fashion Rio are representative of the local lifestyle,” said Rafael Cervone Netto, director of ABIT (Brazilian Textile and Apparel Industry Association) during the event. “This goes for all Brazilian fashion. It is a package: The clothes come with an experience of the lifestyle. This is how we are marketing our apparel internationally.”

And Brazil has the goods to deliver. The domestic apparel market, including textiles, is already one of the largest in the world, and the country is the sixth-largest producer of all textiles (the third-largest supplier of knits alone). The fashion market as a whole is the second most important industry in Brazil and employs around 1.65 million people. The industry launched an ambitious 15-year expansion plan last year, in which specialized offices for promoting Brazilian products, such as shoes, jewelry and textiles, will be opened in 36 countries, and by the end of 2009 Brazil will have participated in 64 international apparel events.

“We are one of the only countries in the world that can produce every part of a garment, from the fiber down to the last stitch,” pointed out Cervone. “This allows us to support innovation, and it comes out in the form of new fashion as well as the discovery of new sustainable fibers.”

Brazil is hoping the excitement about its products will be felt in Japan as well.

“We’ll only be doing business with countries with which we have a strong relationship, and since Japan is one of our strongest allies, it is very high on our list,” Caervone said.

Last year marked the centennial of Japanese immigration to Brazil, and the South America country hosted a number of Japan-themed events during last year’s Sao Paulo Fashion Week. There were symposiums, panel discussions, exhibitions and a fashion show by the Japanese brand Mintdesigns. Although attendee Nobuyuki Ota, the president of Issey Miyake, raved at the high- production levels, energy, and potential seen at the Brazilian fashion week, the event made only a ripple in the wake of other global fashion events that were of interest to Japan.

Brasil Fashion Now, another high-profile event sponsored by top Brazilian apparel and export bodies including ABIT and the Brazil Trade and Investment Promotion Industry (ApexBrasil), was held for several seasons at Omotesando Hills during Tokyo’s own Japan Fashion Week. While the hope was that it would open up a dialogue between the two countries’ fashion industries and facilitate more trade, it was put on hold last year.

“The relationship with Japan is strong, but unfortunately the trade still needs working on,” said Julio Cesar Carmo Bueno, Brazil’s secretary of economic development, during Fashion Rio.

There are other kinks to work out before we see a major influx of Brazilian frocks on Japanese store racks, and the major culprit are the taxes Brazil imposes on exported apparel goods. At a staggering rate of 60 percent, they stand as the highest in the world.

“The taxes are so high that we couldn’t expect to make any real money on the imported designer goods alone,” said Miki Nagai of H.P. France’s PR01 shop, which represents a healthy portfolio of popular Brazilian designers including Alexandre Herchcovitch and Osklen. “We have to think about other ways to do so — for example, making Japan-produced licenses to sell alongside the main line which would be cheaper for consumers.”

Other problems exist, such as demands from designers that are unrealistic for the Japan market.

“It’s really difficult,” said accessories buyer Mariko Soya of United Arrows, who was in Rio de Janeiro during Fashion Rio looking to replenish stocks of Brazilian goods for her stores. “For example, I would love to buy some swimsuits from Salinas, but the minimum store order is 1,000 pieces. And that’s per look!”

While there are some bumps to get over, interest in Japan seems to be readily increasing for some in the Brazilian fashion industry.

“Our business is doing so well in Japan. In fact, we thank God we have the Japanese market in this recession,” said Maria Bonita Extra designer Luiza Bomeny, who showed girly pouf skirts and neon sequin T-shirts at Fashion Rio.

“We make sure our customers know that what they are buying is Brazilian,” said Soya. “Just knowing that gives the products an upbeat, happy mood and I think they are attracted to that energy.”

This fall will see Brazilian companies try out fashion events in Tokyo again, including a collaboration with Bunka Fashion College. Some who have been keeping their eye on Brazilian fashion for a while believe a movement is under way.

“I feel like Brazilian fashion is now what Japanese fashion was in the ’80s,” said Nagai. “We had Comme des Garcons, Yohji Yamamoto and others really break out with innovative ideas when they were able to expand outside of their own country’s borders. That is what is happening there now, and they are coming up with their own inherently Brazilian creations.”

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