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||His space-age elegance is reminiscent of Courreges. Geometric forms counterbalance the body's curves. Marcelo Gomes talked with Merlino at his atelier in S. Paulo's Pinheiros neighborhood, as the media spectacle that is S. Paulo fashion week was winding down.
MARCELO: Some designers here in S. Paulo caricature Brazilian culture with booty jeans, super-low-cut party dresses, and all that. You're quite the opposite.
LORENZO: I don't believe in regional fashion. I find it crass and dated. Regional fashion was modern in 1970, when Yves Saint Laurent went to Morocco and brought djellabas back to Paris. In 2004, it's no longer relevant.
MARCELO: Were you born here? I know your parents are French.
LORENZO: I was born in S. Paulo, but we used to go to Paris twice a year until I was twenty. Most of my family is there. When I left home and started working in fashion,
I became even more attached to Paris. In fact,
I was the first Brazilian designer to be represented in a Paris showroom in 1998. That taught me how the fashion business works in Europe the magazines, the shows, word-of-mouth the whole scene. But the market in Paris was saturated with young designers, and it was very xenophobic. It was a struggle.
MARCELO: You studied in Paris with Marie Rucki at Studio Bercot, the small elite fashion school that Martine Sitbon, V?ronique Leroy, and Isabel Marant also attended.
LORENZO: When I studied there in 1995, I was considering moving to Paris permanently, but Marie warned me that I would be missing out on a great opportunity if I left Brazil. She recognized the potential for young Brazilian designers before anyone else.
MARCELO: Commercial brands like Zoomp, Forum, and Ellus not individual designers dominated the market here for a long time. They're the equivalents of Diesel and Benetton. It's only recently that small designer labels have become influential in Brazil.
LORENZO: In the mid-'90s, designers like Marcelo Sommer, Alexandre Herchcovitch, and myself began developing our own labels here. Before that, it had always been a very anonymous business. That was the moment when Brazilian fashion started to attract international attention.
MARCELO: You now employ eight people full-time, and your clothes are sold all over the world. But your production process is painstaking, almost like haute couture. Do you plan to turn your artisanal approach into a large-scale manufacturing process?
LORENZO: Brazil really lacks high-end industrial clothing manufacturing, by which I mean factories that can produce pants, jackets, and suits on an industrial scale with the same craftsmanship as an artisan. When an American like Marc Jacobs orders two thousand suits, they're made with the quality of a hand-tailored piece. In Brazil, the more pieces you produce, the worse the quality will be. It's very frustrating. I usually end up having to simplify what I do. Otherwise, it just doesn't come out like I want it to.
MARCELO: You would never think that the manufacturing here isn't up to par. S. Paulo Fashion Week gets more coverage than the World Cup soccer tournament!
LORENZO: Honestly, the media coverage hasn't done that much for Brazilian designers. Even though S. Paulo Fashion Week receives a lot of attention, the exposure does not translate into sales. Since our show last year, I've received only two calls from people in other parts of the country wanting to see our clothes. It's an issue that Paulo Borges, the creator of S. Paulo Fashion Week, must address.
MARCELO: Most fashion shows here are held in the building that houses the famous S. Paulo art biennial, but you stage your shows in unusual locations. Yesterday, you showed your Spring 2005 collection in five classrooms at the local Lycée Fran?ais.
LORENZO: Showing in an unexpected place can add depth to the presentation. The space comments on the clothes, and vice versa.
MARCELO: What was the reaction to the show yesterday?
LORENZO: You know what's funny? The
person I was the most excited to see was Senator Aloisio Mercadante. I believe in him I actually voted for him. Being a politician, he doesn't know anything about fashion. He dresses pretty poorly he'll wear pleated pants, for instance. When he came over to talk to us after the show, he said, "I like the way you used the veil to refer to the controversy in the French schools."
MARCELO: Muslim girls can no longer wear religious headscarves in public schools in France, right?
LORENZO: Yes. For Brazilians, religious militancy is an unfamiliar concept. It's not uncommon for a Brazilian to go to a Catholic church in the morning, a Buddhist center in the afternoon, and then that night stop by a Candomble court, where a type of African religion is practiced. In the show, I wanted to convey a message of tolerance by evoking Judaism, Islam, and Christianity at the same time. All three religions have traditional headdresses, so we designed veils made out of
MARCELO: It was subversive, and beautiful.
LORENZO: My mom was the funniest. She burst out with, "I didn't like what you did with the veils, because the veil is a symbol of feminine oppression. There! I said it." And then she left. So I had a senator elaborating on how amazing the show was, and my mother telling me how much she hated it.
MARCELO: I would think that the best compliment is when people like the Senator, who are outside of the fashion world, appreciate your work.
LORENZO: Definitely. I was amazed. I don't subscribe to the notion that if people don't like your work, it's because they're not sophisticated enough. We're simply making clothes, and we hope that people will like them.
MARCELO: How did you meet Humberto Leon, who helped you start selling your
collection in New York?
LORENZO: At my S. Paulo show in 2003, I played stuff like The Smiths, Stone Roses, and Barbara, a French singer whom I love. I used these schoolroom chairs as a runway prop. That July, I went to New York to try to get into a showroom. I was walking around Chinatown when I saw the same chairs I used in my show in the window of a store called Opening Ceremony. When I went inside, a DJ was playing The Smiths' "This Charming Man." I thought they had gone to my show and seen my set-up! Then I met Humberto, who owns the store with his partner Carol Lim.
MARCELO: Humberto and Carol have a unique concept every season they choose a different country to spotlight at the store. Then they sell pieces by the best designers from that country.
LORENZO: Humberto told me he was going to start selling clothes by Brazilian designers later that year. It was very organic. Sales have been great. We even have a waiting list for some of our pieces. The collection is also available at several shops in Tokyo. I think American and Japanese consumers are more open to new things than the Europeans are.
MARCELO: Do you have any fashion heroes?
LORENZO: I respect Coco Chanel, because she invented the business. Another designer who really moves me is Claire McCardell. Her clothes are so modern. She pretty much invented sportswear in the 1930s and '40s. And Helmut Lang embodied the '90s for me.
MARCELO: Your clothes seem effortless in much the same way that Helmut Lang's clothes are. But I'm sure that's an effect that takes a tremendous effort to achieve.
LORENZO: You know, I like fashion, but it's not my whole life. I always tell my interns, "This is just fashion. It's not like we're splitting the atom or anything."