Fashion’s sleekest designer finds a new Latin groove.
We are here, high above Rio, surrounded by tourists and postcard hawkers and itinerant photographers, taking in the view from beneath Christ’s outstretched arms. We are here because, contrary to expectations, the man whose perfectly tailored evening gowns sell out at Barneys and Bergdorf’s, the man who designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s wedding dress, has been dreaming about this—Rio’s kitschiest emblem. We are here because Narciso Rodriguez has visions. “I had a recurring dream of standing underneath the statue of Christ, looking out over Sugarloaf,” says Rodriguez, gesturing with his hands to indicate Rio’s signature mountain—a boulder really—clearly visible across the bay. “When I finally came to Rio in 1999, it was like being on top of the world—it really was a dream come true.” I can see what he means; there’s something mythical about the city from here, all its contradictions resolved in a collision of pastel buildings and lush vegetation. Even the favelas that line the mountain on which we’re standing are softened to a blur of rich colors and undulating lines.
In Rodriguez’s hands, even the most graphic lines become fluid, sexy. “Sometimes what happens in fashion is that people forsake beauty in their effort to be original,” he says. “I always try to pull back to very basic ideals—that clothing should be beautiful, well-made, and make you feel good.” For Rodriguez no detail is too small. He often makes his own lasts for his shoes. He once covered Birkenstocks in cashmere, in pursuit of the kind of luxury that may be anathema to that company’s hippie founders but seems ideal for a city where adults walk the streets in bathing suits. Rodriguez insists on giving elegance a funky, street-smart edge. “Here sexy doesn’t have to mean vulgar,” he muses, as we survey the parade of bodies on the beach below. “It’s so much more interesting to insinuate ‘sexy’ than to say it.”
No surprise, then, that he is drawn to the architecture of Rio native Oscar Niemeyer. The founding father of Brazilian free-form Modernism, Niemeyer bent the rationalist architecture of Le Corbusier to the rhythms of a brave new Latin world. “I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man,” he wrote in “The Poem of the Curve,” an essay that summed up his design philosophy. “I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman.” In many ways Rodriguez’s designs embody a similar kind of Modernism, a celebration of form that incorporates a graceful sensuality. And like Niemeyer, Rodriguez has a love affair with minimalism that is equaled only by his attraction to the exuberance of the Brazilian Baroque.
Born in New Jersey to Cuban parents, Rodriguez readily acknowledges his affinity for things Latin. “There’s an energy that everyone who comes here just responds to,” he says. He should know. In the past two years, he has made regular pilgrimages to Rio. Now 40, Rodriguez is changing the manic pace of his life as well as its focus. No longer designing for the Italian fashion house Cerutti or Spain’s luxury leather company Loewe, he is now devoting all his time to his own label. Clearly, it has benefited him as much as his business. In Rio, he seems at ease with himself and his surroundings. The affectations that go with the job description of “fashion designer” are entirely absent; in their place I find only beguiling warmth and a relaxed charm. But then, what did I expect? This is Rio.
The high-rise beachfront apartment he rents from his friend, renowned musician Caetano Veloso, seems to embody much of what attracts Rodriguez to this city. The interior, accented in light stone and dark jacaranda wood, serves as a modest frame for a panorama of sea and sky and the busy, chic neighborhood of Leblon below. “When I start to design I approach it in a very architectural way,” he says, gazing out the window. As we talk, he begins sketching what I assume to be the outline of a building. “Tailoring forces you to self-consciously construct things out of a given palette of materials. As with architecture, it becomes a question of what is taken out or put in by the cut or seaming that goes into the final construction.” I look at the drawing again. I couldn’t have been more off the mark. What I’d taken for ground-floor windows are perforations in the body of a shoe; a looping arc is the trajectory of a fiercely spiked heel.
“There is this great, glamorous, insanely seductive quality to a city built from such extremes,” Rodriguez says as he leads me to the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Glória do Outeiro, an early-18th-century structure whose curvilinear volumes were beloved by the Brazilian Modernists. Inside this Baroque jewel, which rests on terraced limestone, we are greeted by decorative scenes made up of azulejos, the distinctive blue-and-white hand-painted tiles brought here by the Portuguese. As if to remind you that this is indeed Rio and not Lisbon, a stroll down the nave reveals nymphs cavorting in a series of shockingly anatomical scenes based on Solomon’s “song of songs.” But our wonderment is soon cut short. It’s Saturday, and families bearing infants swaddled for baptism are gathering.
For a designer committed to the reinvention of a streamlined minimalism, it’s curious that Rodriguez should be seduced by such Baroque ecclesiastical architecture. “I was raised the same way Brazilians are, with a deeply embedded sense of Catholicism,” says Rodriguez, who is fond of delivering cryptic truisms. But I sense that there’s more to it than just upbringing. His designs, though indisputably classic, always have an element of surprise that gives austerity a sexy edge; it might be a bit of embroidery smuggled in under the arm, or the fraying of a hem. One suspects that at heart Rodriguez believes purity is best sullied by the operatic.
For Rodriguez, the epitome of the Brazilian vernacular is Niemeyer’s Canoas House, which the architect built for himself and his family in the hills overlooking the southern bays. Leaving Ipanema, we head south through Gávea, one of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods, which abuts one of its poorest—the hillside favela of Rocinha. The Estrada das Canoas climbs through the ever more lush vegetation of Tijuca until the coastline below disappears into a distant white fringe. The house is easy to miss, it blends so perfectly into the landscape.
The essence of Canoas House is the lily pad—shaped concrete canopy whose contours might have been lifted from the surrounding mountains. Like a domestically scaled Sugarloaf, a giant granite boulder anchors the fluid composition of transparent glass and solid-cast concrete; the glass wall suddenly seems one with the pool outside. It’s an escapist’s dream firmly anchored in the ebb and flow of a Carioca lifestyle. “It’s like this little oasis or station in the mountains,” says Rodriguez as we circle every aspect of the house. “It’s not the first time I’ve seen materials used to such effect, but it is the only time I’ve seen it done in such a beguiling way.”
We drive to the Centro district, along the Rua Primeiro de Março, where shutters painted in pastel shades of Brazil’s national colors—green, yellow, and blue—open onto wrought-iron balconies that lend the street the feel of 19th-century Paris. Nearby is one of the largest and wealthiest of Brazil’s imperial churches, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária, which fuses Neoclassical and Baroque to startling effect.
The church stands at the end of Avenida Presidente Vargas, one of the wide boulevards built in the forties under the national leader whose name it bears. As part of Brazil’s then newfound commitment to progress, buildings, even churches, were swept aside to create broad avenues. Just a few blocks south, however, the flavor of Rio’s old downtown survives. Around the saara, an area of vendors selling fake jewelry and watches, are carnival outfitters and shops filled with paraphernalia for the practice of candomblé (a syncretic religion popular with the urban middle class). The narrow balconies of the small houses seem to lean into the cobbled streets. A few blocks away is the famed Confeitaria Colombo, a tearoom built in 1894, a pièce de résistance of beveled mirrors and porcelain that is popular with Rio’s new bohemia.
But for all of Rodriguez’s interest in parts of Rio that seem to have been preserved in amber, he can’t help but marvel at the city’s deranged, seductive eclecticism. Apartment buildings painted in Copacabana pastels shoulder unclad concrete high-rises, Neoclassical columns, and ultra-Modernist glass façades. Standing in the square out- side the Theatro Municipal, Rodriguez reaches for an apt metaphor—and finds one. “Rio is a spectacular car crash of styles and periods,” he says. “It’s like a big bouquet of flowers gathered and bunched together by the mountains.” The theater itself, built in 1909 as a direct homage to the Paris Opéra, was precisely the kind of building that challenged Lucio Costa, Roberto Burle-Marx, Niemeyer, and the other founders of modern Rio to create a city true to their own experience of Brazil.
On the drive back to the city center along the scenic coastline of the Avenida Niemeyer, which begins in Leblon, Rodriguez remarks on Niemeyer’s insistent sensuality, how it distinguishes his buildings from those by Frank Lloyd Wright or even Frank Gehry. Later that evening the discussion continues over drinks at Bar d’Hotel. It’s full, as usual, with a colorful in-crowd of music glitterati and glamorous women of recently acquired gender hopping tables and packing the bar. We bump into Preta, daughter of the great Bahian musician Gilberto Gil. Gil, along with Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, and Caetano’s sister Maria Bethânia, founded a musical genre that became known as tropicalismo—a mixture of pop, jazz, and African rhythms. The conversation turns to the Sambadrome, the double-arched monument to Carnival we visited the day before. With a succinctness only a true Carioca could muster, Preta describes it, simply, as “a mulatto ass.”
In Rio, what may be lacking in art is more than made up for by the richness of design. “I love very clean things, objects that marry line and form,” says Rodriguez, who is determined to discover a source of Brazilian Modernist design. We follow a tip and head for the Shopping dos Antiquários, an indoor market in Copacabana. The ground floor is a letdown, with most of the stalls carrying the sort of early-20th-century and Deco bric-a-brac common to the street fairs. Once we’re upstairs, however, Rodriguez’s eyes light up. Graphos Tradição is a treasure trove of work by one of Brazil’s best-known designers, Joaquim Tenreiro. Nothing is expensive. We’re offered a set of six chairs designed in 1960 for less than $1,000. The combination of wicker and dark jacaranda has a sleek modernity that is instantly appealing. The chairs are tempting, but in the end a Tenreiro tripod side table is more so. “It’s work that I admire,” Rodriguez says, “because it seems to reflect a life in which the boundaries between art, craft, and design no longer matter.”
The look of Rio owes as much to Modernism as to a peculiarly Brazilian ability to fuse disparate styles into something altogether unexpected. And nowhere is this skill more evident than in the country’s music. Rodriguez discovered Brazilian music in his teens. When he’s in Rio, he’s likely to head to the Lapa, a working-class neighborhood where you can hear forro, a type of dance music that’s heavy on accordion and is influenced by the blues, and is particular to Brazil’s northeast. Sometimes he prefers to visit the samba schools in the hills or the chic clubs of Leblon and Ipanema. In Rio, music is part of the air you breathe. And for Rodriguez, who has become fast friends with Veloso, tropicalismo’s founding genius, it’s about something else too. “Caetano embodies so much of what Brazilians are about,” he says. “Soul, spirituality, kindness, and warmth—he and his family just opened their arms to me.”
Everything in Rio seems to echo the curves of the body, the waves, the shore—even the sidewalk. Along the beachfront from Leblon to Ipanema, chains of rounded squares loop together in an Escheresque conga line. The rhythm is broken by the headland nestling the Colônia de Pescadores, where the daily catch is cleaned and nets are mended under the shade of almond trees. A few steps on, the sidewalk picks up again, this time in a series of fat-bellied S’s that undulate along the crescent sands of Copacabana.
RODRIGUEZ INSISTS THAT NO VISIT TO RIO IS
complete without a trip to the Carmen Miranda Museum, located in the Parque do Flamengo, landscaped by Burle-Marx. “Only here would you find all this Hollywood costume in the middle of a tropical park,” Rodriguez remarks as we leave the sunlight behind for the starry world of mannequins and memorabilia. He lingers by a beautifully constructed jacket from the forties—short sleeves and body—that stands out as wholly contemporary among the fruit-salad headdresses and sequined platforms. Made of velvet covered in an overlay of fine golden brocade, it is both minimal and luxe. I ask Rodriguez if he knows what the gold material might be. “I guess it’s just something subtle and simple—coiled bullion maybe,” he says. Like the wall texts that demurely describe outrageous confections of conical breastplates, earmuffs, and slit skirts as “Evening clothes from Beverly Hills parties of the 1950’s,” there is something satisfyingly surreal about this shrine tucked away in a concrete bunker in the park.
Antidotes to such kitschy divinity are numerous; the most recent is Niemeyer’s latest building for the city, the Museum of Contemporary Art, erected in Niterói in 1996. To get there one must cross Guanabara Bay by hydrofoil or drive north to the Rio-Niterói bridge. There are few indications that until 1975 this section of the city was the seat of the region’s government seat. And there is absolutely nothing to prepare you for the future shock of the building itself.
A giant flying saucer precariously balanced on a liquid landing pad, the museum is a sci-fi utopia realized in a natural paradise. “From the photographs I’d seen, I honestly thought that it wasn’t very attractive,” Rodriguez says. “But when I first visited, the building was closed, and I was able to really focus on its relationship to the surroundings.” At one level it has the comic aspect of a Woody Allen film set; you enter via a looping fallopian passageway. The interior, however, is disappointing—the future, utopian or otherwise, has no place for acres of gray carpet. Which only proves once again that architectural statements tend to be antithetical to the display of art.
The flip side of the city’s irrepressible fun-loving vibe is a lingering bass note, an undertow. Poet and lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (author of “The Girl from Ipanema”) captured it on one of bossa nova’s greatest standards, “A Felicidade”: Tristeza não tem fim/Felicidade sim. (Sadness has no end/Happiness does.) It’s a song written for Carnival about the beauty of the transient; it’s a song that makes melancholy sexy.
On a rainy afternoon, back at the apartment, Rodriguez pages through a Niemeyer monograph. “I can get very intense in the early stages of designing a collection,” he says with a sigh, putting the book down for a moment, “but there is something special that happens here that pushes you to relax and just go with it.”
Rio de Janeiro
Rio has long been known as a pleasure-seeker’s paradise. Below, a few stylish places to whet your appetite.
Caesar Park Hotel 460 Avda. Viera Souto, Ipanema; 55-21/2525-2525, fax 55-21/2521-6000; doubles from $357. In the heart of Ipanema. The hotel ropes off a section of the beach for guests.
Copacabana Palace 1702 Avda. Atlântica, Copacabana; 55-21/2548-7070, fax 55-21/2235-7330; doubles from $350. The epitome of Rio’s grand and decadent past. Elegantly refurbished in the late 1990’s.
Sofitel Rio de Janeiro 4240 Avda. Atlântica, Copacabana; 800/763-4835 or 55-21/2525-1232, fax 55-21/2525-1200; doubles from $187. A Rio landmark. Frank Sinatra sang here.
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
Siri Mole & Cia 50 Rua Francisco Otaviano, Ipanema; 55-21/2267-0894; dinner for two $76. Bahian cooking at its spiciest.
Confeitaria Colombo 32 Rua Gonçalves Dias, Centro; 55-21/2232-2300; tea for two $16. A Rio institution. Closed Sunday.
Claude Troisgros 62 Rua Custódio Serrão, Jardim Botânico; 55-21/2537-8582; dinner for two $100. As haute as it gets in Rio.
Esplanada Grill 600 Rua Barão da Torre, Ipanema; 55-21/2512-2970; dinner for two $56. A must for carnivores, this well-established churrascaria serves some of the best meat in the city.
Cipriani At the Copacabana Palace; 55-21/2545-8747; dinner for two $90. That of Italian fame. A chance for a glimpse of Rio’s most iconic hotel.
Bar d’Hotel 696 Avda. Delfim Moreira, Leblon; 55-21/2540-4990. On the second floor of the Marina All Suites Hotel, this is the hangout of choice for Rio’s music and entertainment industry.
Guimas 5 Rua José Roberto de Macedo Soares, Gávea; 55-21/2259-7996; dinner for two $35. Creative haute cuisine in a chic, open-air setting.
Grill 360 1117 Rua Prudente de Morais, Ipanema; 55-21/2525-2200; dinner for two $32. At the top of the Everest Hotel. The emphasis is on meat—a veritable fetish of Brazilians.
Antiquarius 19 Rua Aristides Espnola, Leblon; 55-21/2294-1049; dinner for two $100. One of the best Portuguese restaurants in the city.
Tia Palmira Caminho do Souza, 18 Barra de Guaratiba; 55-21/2410-8169; lunch for two $30. Seafood in one of Rio’s old fishing ports. The South Atlantic is on one side; the Marambaia salt marshes on the other.
Theatro Municipal Avda. Rio Branco; 55-21/2262-3501; www.theatromunicipal.rj.gov.br.
Canoas House 2310 Estrada das Canoas. Visits by appointment only, through the Oscar Niemeyer Foundation (55-21/2509-1844).
Museu Carmen Miranda 55-21/2551-2597. At Avenida Rui Barbosa in Parque do Flamengo, whose gardens were designed by Brazilian Modernist Roberto Burle-Marx.
The city’s biggest market, Feira de Antiguidades, is downtown on the Praça do Mercado, and offers everything from curios to antiquities. At Feira do Nordestino, in Pavilhão São Christovão, more than 700 vendors, mostly from the northeast, sell regional food and clothing, with the accompaniment of the province’s African-inflected music. The fair begins Saturday afternoon and stretches to late Sunday morning.
Shopping dos Antiquários 143 Rua Siqueira Campos, Copacabana. An indoor market devoted mostly to turn-of-the-century furnishings and kitschy paraphernalia. On the second floor, stores such as Graphos Tradição (55-21/2256-3268) sell modern Brazilian pieces at affordable prices.
Letras & Expressões 276 Rua Visconde de Pirajá, Ipanema; 55-21/2521-6110. Drop into Rio’s only 24-hour international magazine and book store to fuel up on news and coffee.
Toca do Vincius 129 Rua Vincius de Moraes, Ipanema; 55-21/2247-5227. Once a record store, now a shrine to bossa nova. Books on the life of Tom Jobim and Nara Leão, as well as a small auditorium.
MUSEUMS AND MONUMENTS
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói Mirante da Boa Viagem, Niterói; 55-21/2620-2400; www.macnit.com.br.
Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro 915 Rua Pacheco Leão; 55-21/2294-6012; www.jbrj.gov.br.