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Weaving together style and empowerment, a fashion event in Rio de Janeiro spins out new business vistas for craftswomen.

Marlinelza B. de Oliveira

Whatever one's stance on the fashion industry and the unreal standards of beauty it promotes, there can be no argument that in Rio, it's here to stay.

Fashion Rio, the official Brazilian fashion event held bi-annually (spring/summer and fall/winter) for the past 20 years is the third largest employer in Rio de Janeiro. The region's fashion industry employs 51,000 workers 70 per cent of them women. Fashion Rio alone generates more than 3,000 jobs in one week.

Parallel to Fashion Rio runs Fashion Business. The sixth edition of this fashion fair was held recently at the Modern Art Museum in Rio, which is also the venue for Fashion Rio. Besides hosting the bigger players in the fashion industry, this edition also showcased the work of poor women organised in co-operatives or working with government projects and NGOs.

Sônia Onório, who works with the NGO Fuxicarte - an organisation of craftswomen - is one of the women who sold her work at the fair. She says, "My children are very proud of me. They tell everyone at school that their mother took part in Fashion Rio. My first luxury spending with the earnings at the fair was taking them to lunch at McDonald's for the first time."

An exhibition of photographs at the fair, called Operárias da Moda (labour fashion women), honoured women dressmakers, chambermaids and assistants who helped in building and sustaining the industry.

The exhibition also featured Lúcia Helena Folignus who had to stop studying because her parents could not afford to pay for her books. This 45-year-old woman began sewing when she was only 12 and, at 14, began working on confections (elaborately crafted clothes). Lucia married at 15, and started sewing clothes at home and selling them on the streets.

And with the money she made, Lucia set up a small store. Today, she is the owner of a store that has 53 employees and produces 20,000 pieces a month. "Sometimes when I stop and think, I can barely believe I have come so far," she says.

The works of Érica de Oliveira Xavier, 26, and Luciene Fortuna, 40, are also featured in the exhibition. They are part of the NGO Criola (Creole), which works to improve the quality of life of Black women.

Criola displayed the works of 27 craftswomen that were made at the fashion classes arranged by it.

Every day, over 1,500 people visited Fashion Business. On the Fashion Rio days, the numbers touched 80,000 including national and overseas buyers.

"The media gave much attention to our work during the Fashion Rio early this year. We received many orders after that and, today, we are able to sell our products in the Macaca store in the upmarket neighbourhood of Ipanema. We hope our participation here brings even more business," says Janice de Aquino, of the NGO Ação Comunitária do Brasil (Community Action of Brazil), which promotes and defends the citizenship rights of vulnerable youth. Janice says the NGO demands that buyers in the industry use the original label to respect the makers' copyright.

The Federation of Industries of the State of Rio de Janeiro (FIRJAN) and the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (SEBRAE) encourage the participation of these craftswomen at the fair. FIRJAN and SEBRAE, along with the Brazilian Textile and Confection Association, also organise business classes and bring in fashion stylists to help the women.

"There's no point in having a beautiful product that does not sell. It is important to adjust the products to the fashion trends, and also help the craftswomen understand the importance of deadlines and quality control," says Ana Maria Pianetti, Assistant to Director, Casa do Artesanato (House of the Craft), an organisation maintained by the state government, which gathers craftswomen from across the state of Rio.

Casa's participation in the previous Fashion Rio brought in so many orders that the organisation had to recruit afresh to meet the demand.

Fashion Business 2005 registered a 20 per cent increase in domestic sales (earnings of about $144 million) over the last fair. Exports are expected to double to $10 million in the next 12 months.

In fact, the event is now considered so important that the Governor of Rio, Rosinha Garotinho, has introduced laws that allow participants to pay taxes four months later, to allow them time to collect money from clients.

The fair also opens doors for the representatives of fashion poles, which are collectives of fashion producers from different regions in Rio. "This event is a store window for the world. Buyers invest in all regions, not just the capital cities. So, even small companies in small cities are represented," says Nilcéa Citeli Soares, representative of the Pole of Fashion of the Northwest Region, about 330 km from the capital and comprising 300 formal and non-formal companies.

Geisa Lobasco, who represents the Pole of Friburgo, says, "Today, the Pole brings together 800 labels. Our consistent participation in Fashion Rio has made us a reference point for lingerie, our speciality."

Women's organisations from other states of Brazil also participate in the event. They include Identidade do Sertão (Identity of the Backwoods), a craftswomen's collective from the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais; Apoena, a collective from Brasília; and the cotton producers' co-operative Fibra Nativa (native fibre) from Mato Grosso.

Women's Feature Service

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 26, 2005)
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