A row of ripe orange pineapples with green stalks, blossoms of fresh white orchids amid verdant foliage. A tranquil sunset of turquoise green, fuchsia pink and deep purple, a flock of yellow-beaked toucans, bright red parrots and lurid green macaws.
Is this how you see Brazil? A rainbow-coloured collection, a collaboration between Adidas Originals and the Rio de Janeiro-based fashion company FARM RIO, thinks so.
The collection references the vibrant colours and exuberance traditionally associated with Brazil while looking for affiliation with international fashion trends. It articulates some of the images of Rio constructed by the outside world – images that contribute to its enduring appeal as the ultimate exotic tourist destination.
One of the best ways of tracing how the international image of Brazil has developed is perhaps the popular journal National Geographic. Here it’s easy to see the effects of globalisation on how the rest of the world perceives Brazilian dress and of course, by extension, Brazilians.
National Geographic has positioned itself as a voice of authority on Brazil within mainstream American print media. It offers what purports to be an unprejudiced window onto the world.
But the magazine has a somewhat uneasy past, and is viewed critically by scholars because of this. Historically it has quite a reputation for its distinctive, quasi-anthropological outlook. Until relatively recently, it’s argued that its subjects were rendered into dehumanised objects, a spectacle of the unknown. In doing so the magazine pursued a kind of US-driven cultural imperialism.
But a turn can be seen in the late 1980s. Pictures in National Geographic’s centenary edition in September 1988 trace the beginnings of a different view, driven by globalisation. We see white lace European-influenced dresses worn by followers of Candomble in Salvador da Bahia, colourful bikinis worn by bronzed women of all shapes and sizes on Copacabana beach and an increased adoption of sportswear brands by indigenous people living in remote areas of the Amazon.
These images have resisted the processes of objectification, appropriation and stereotyping frequently associated with the rectangular yellow border. This is because they provide evidence of a fluid population, a various one, rather than the one dimensional images of old. The people in these pictures have selected preferred elements of American and European culture and used it to fashion their Brazilian identities.
So National Geographic has transcended its own popular stereotypes by documenting an increasingly multilayered image of Brazil for an international readership, which since the launch of National Geographic Brasil in 2000 has also included Brazil.
This shift in the representation of Brazilian dress is mirrored in other international media. And Brazilian consumers have become more critical and demanding about fashion produced at home as they are continually exposed to international tastes and trends online.
Brazil used to be notorious for copying the prints, ideas, models and colours of European and American fashion design. In the 1920s and 1930s, Brazilian women used to go around wearing expensive furs in Rio and Sao Paulo, because that’s what glamorous European women wore. But since the early 1990s, designers such as Ronaldo Fraga, Isabela Capeto, Alexandre Herchcovitch and Lino Villaventura have produced work that draws inspiration from Brazilian style and culture – and suits the climate. Improved political stability and economic growth have provided the conditions for these designers to flourish, and achieve international recognition.
Trend forecasters at Adidas clearly predicted the endless opportunities and cultural capital provided by Rio de Janeiro, the Cidade Maravilhosa, with its rainforest-covered peaks, sparkling coastline and spectacular views. The city is expecting 600,000 foreign tourists during the World Cup, not to mention the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.
But Adidas is not merely cashing in. The collection promotes a new way to view Brazil, a far cry from Adidas’s other recent (hyper-sexualised) tropical foray. As one of the main sponsors for the World Cup, the brand released two t-shirt designs in February 2014. One depicted a dark-haired Brazilian woman on Copacabana beach, dressed in a tiny thong bikini under the heading “lookin’ to score”. The other announced “I love Brazil” – with an upside-down thong bikini encased within a heart.
Both of the designs were pulled from the brand’s online shop after vehement criticism from the Brazilian tourist board and Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, who tweeted: “Brazil is ready to fight sexual tourism.”
The Adidas Originals/FARM RIO collection bypasses such sexualised stereotypes of Brazil (perhaps under strict instruction from head office). Instead it highlights how multifaceted Brazilian culture is – always borrowing or mixing with outside influences to create something new, something distinctly Brazilian.
The collection has been flying off the racks. And who knows, perhaps we’ll soon spot it in the next National Geographic.