São Paulo’s High-Voltage Pretty Social Scene

In São Paulo—fast-paced, noisy, and popping with creativity—fashion is hot, food makes headlines, and art charges into new territory. Alexandra Marshall plugs in.

Golden sand, jiggling samba queens in slinky rhinestone nothings, the slushing ice and lime in a caipirinha, and a bossa nova singer’s minor-key coo: so goes the standard travelogue of Brazil. Except for the caipirinha and one peripheral Gisele sighting, none of this corresponds to the Brazil I know best. I’ve done the tropical beach getaway, and it’s been transcendent, but for me, the chaotic metropolis of São Paulo is a far more engaging place, full of creativity, traffic, sprawl, and electric contradiction.

Begun in 1921 and inaugurated in 1953, the granite hulk juts out of a busy intersection on the edge of São Paulo’s vast central park, Ibirapuera, a teeming meeting point between nature, history, and gridlock, and a reminder of how the city has evolved from a literal jungle into an urban one. Once I’d checked into—and quickly become bored by—my overdesigned hotel, I had a few hours to myself and decided to go for a walk. (I didn’t yet know that no one does this in São Paulo.) Traversing a wide, sooty street lined with brashly colored two-story houses serving, bizarrely, as medical, dental, and plastic-surgery clinics, I turned into Jardim América, one of the poshest garden neighborhoods I’d ever seen.

Where there is greenery—as in Ibirapuera, in Parque Buenos Aires, in the graceful, 19th-century neighborhood of Higienópolis, in the unmissable gardens of the Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano, or in upper-class areas like Jardins and Morumbi—it’s lush. There are said to be 50 species of birds at Oscar Americano alone, but there are also giant tracts of the city where telephone poles have taken the place of trees.

Built over a former swamp, with no waves to surf or wild river to ford, São Paulo is 800 square miles shared by more than 16 million people of vast ethnic diversity: Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Africans, and the largest Japanese community outside of Japan. (To put the numbers in perspective, that’s twice as many people as in New York City.) I first visited the city four years ago, for its fashion week—a massive pop-cultural event rivaled only by the World Cup in Brazilian TV ratings—and my debut afternoon there set the tone for every return trip to follow. Emerging from a crowded, graffiti-lined highway into the center of town, I came face-to-hoof with the Monumento às Bandeiras, Victor Brecheret’s magnificently imposing sculpture depicting Portuguese conquistadores on horseback leading Indians and Africans on a journey to the interior.

Around me were slick International Style houses and ivy-covered colonials shaded by every kind of tree you can imagine. The lots were huge, the streets winding, and the contrast between the expensive silence—my footsteps were softened by a lilac carpet of fallen dilobo blossoms, moistened by rain—and the choking diesel fumes and discount lingerie boutiques 15 blocks away was immense. This was when I realized that the tropicalism for which Brazil became famous does exist in São Paulo, but in isolated pockets, filtered through an architect’s imagination—more an idea than a raw reality.

Though much of São Paulo’s pulsing energy is due to its congestion—made less oppressive by Brazilians’ quickness to smile—the city’s historic lack of planning has helped. São Paulo’s endless streets conform to no orderlygrid, so blocks upon blocks of high-rises—many of them washed in pastels or sprayed with confetti mosaics—stand shoulder-to-shoulder like chatty guests hobnobbing at a cocktail party, their clusters shot through here and there by arching freeway overpasses. The few Baroque buildings that have survived are engulfed by 1950’s and 60’s towers, many of these shopworn enough to lend the cityscape an air of decadence.

This tangential relationship with nature gives São Paulo a bad rap among Brazilians. They say it’s ugly and that because it’s the country’s center of commerce and media, the people there live too fast. But the paulistanos I know, most of whom are in the fashion business are loyal in the extreme. “São Paulo is crazy, but it’s sophisticated,” says Tufi Duek—one of Brazil’s best-selling fashion exports—in his blindingly white Forum boutique on Rua Oscar Freire, São Paulo’s answer to Rodeo Drive. “On any given night there are a dozen parties. People work all day, the restaurants are full at ten, and no one even arrives at clubs before midnight. São Paulo has a very fast heartbeat.”

For many, the city’s tireless pace is a source of inspiration. The rising independent design duo Neon makes up Technicolor swimwear and loungy evening dresses with a dash of golden-age Norma Kamali, commissioned a vivid graffiti-like print of the São Paulo skyline as their label’s motif last season. The precocious Alexandre Herchcovitch, whose clothes could be Alexander McQueen’s viewed through a kaleidoscope of postmodern kitsch, puts it this way: “São Paulo is like an enormous pressure cooker about to explode.

Every Thursday morning, the sidewalks of Rua Barão de Capanema, between Rua Padre João Manuel and Alameda Ministro Rocha Azevedo, turn into a greenmarket that really brings the country to town. Tanned and weather-beaten trabalhadores from the fazendas (plantations) hawk arugula, enormous mangoes, lychees, chiles, and pitanga-leaf tea, shouting out with broad grins to housewives and uniformed maids: “Bom día, meninas,” and “Oi! Barata aquí!“—anything to beat the competition one stall over. Chef Alex Atala, whose D.O.M. Restaurante is considered among the best in the world, and who leads a new wave of Brazilian cozinha contemporanea, fills his larders here regularly. The dedicated Slow Foodist supplements his market finds with produce from his own farm, in the state of Amapa in the northern Amazon.

São Paulo is closer to being a world capital than a Latin American one, thanks to the cross-pollination of cultures and lifestyles. Fashion plays an enormous part in the mix—but so do design (the mod furniture of the Campana Brothers and Mikasa, the jungle chic of Jacaré do Brasil, the wild colors of Sig Bergamin), contemporary art (São Paulo’s Bienal is the second-oldest in the world), and architecture (Oscar Niemeyer, anyone?).

There are a few cities anywhere that offer such a range of shopping opportunities, and boutiue-hopping has always been one of my favorite ways to lose several days here. There is a raft of excellent designers who have little or no distribution in the United States, and though Brazil’s currency, the real, has gained 30 percent against the dollar in the past couple of years, local threads are still a relative bargain. The first place that anyone goes to dive into the racks is Rua Oscar Freire, a street whose name now designates a whole district of wide, sunny avenues filled with shops carrying brands both homegrown and imported. Alongside Duek’s Forum and the evening-gown king Carlos Miele, Tiffany, Armani, and Ferragamo get plenty of foot traffic. From the looks of the shopping bags carried by tanned and glossy women with are-they-or-aren’t-they cleavage, you’d never guess that it was only in the early 1990’s that Brazil’s government opened the market to imported luxury goods.

Even the hours in traffic make me think of new ideas.” And when Gloria Coelho, who emerged in the 80’s as one of Brazil’s first wave of high-end designers, participated in a recent tourist-commission initiative to tout Brazil to the outside world, the city she chose to lionize was her own. “Here you get the best of Brazil: food, theater, art—but you can breathe,” she says. Indeed, there are urban delights in São Paulo to satiate any New Yorker, but there’s also the near-universal attitude that meets any potential difficulty with “no praaahblehm,” whether it turns into a praaahblehm or not.

“The Brazilian DNA is still jeans and sporty clothes, but we got a fast fashion education in the nineties after the country became flooded with imports,” says Costanza Pascolato, an elegant but down-to-earth grande dame who wears many chic hats: columnist for Vogue Brasil; consultant to Brazilian jewelry giant H.Stern; and director of Santacostanzia, a leading textile firm based in Italy and Brazil. Now that they’ve gained fluency in upper-end international labels and more global ideas of style, Pascolato says, Brazilian designers have come full circle and begun to develop their own identity. “They’ve started to believe in what they’re doing now: it’s sexy and not difficult to understand.”

For evidence beyond Oscar Freire, you can head across town to the famous emporium Daslu, 25,000 square feet of boutiques selling everything from cars to Chanel, housed in a contemporary high-rise whose rooftop helipad has helped many a daughter of Latin America’s robber barons haul home the Gucci. Recently, Daslu set aside a big new section dedicated to Brazilian talent: blouson and trapeze styles by Juliana Jabour in drapey cotton blends; Reinaldo Lourenço’s more avant-garde tailored and knit pieces; the rainbow silks of Cris Barros and Neon; and the sporty Bermuda shorts and puff-sleeved polos of Pelú, whose main boutique, a multibrand shop and hair salon, is in the bohemian Baixo Jardins neighborhood on Oscar Freire’s border. “Some years ago we were thinking about what Europeans were doing and trying to follow them, but the younger designers here have their own ideas,” says Donata Meirelles, Daslu’s head buyer.

São Paulo’s Santa Marcelina fashion school has encouraged local designers’ independence: since the first class graduated in 1991, the impulse to knock off the Europeans has weakened with every passing season. Now, but for a few exceptions, the clothes at Clube Chocolate, a three-story shop on Oscar Freire featuring minimalist wood interiors and a small aviary of tropical birds, are all Brazilian. The house label, formerly designed by Rio-based Isabela Capeto (think Marc Jacobsesque naïf-cool with handcrafty knotting and top-stitching) is now in the hands of Adriana Barra, a young paulistana with a rapidly expanding business and a following of her own. Her namesake boutique, like Capeto’s, is in a town house nearby, but while Capeto’s digs are sleek, Barra’s are a psychedelic riot that almost competes with her bright kimono tops and contrasting-print, tiered long dresses. Were her designs less feminine and easy, one might not want to remove one’s sunglasses.

Oscar Freire’s consumerist appeal isn’t just about clothes. São Paulo is a serious food city. One requirement while in the neighborhood is to refill your tank by lunching in the shade of a gigantic, centuries-old fig tree at A Figueira Rubaiyat, a swanky landmark supplied by a cattle ranch just outside the city. Outsize cuts of beef are served up with vinegary herbed red onions, while the occasional fig leaf floats onto your table from the tangle of branches above. The wood-burning oven turns out not only steaks but everything from fish casseroles to caramelized fruit, and the enormous wine list will convert even the most insufferable old-world snob to the vines of Chile and Argentina. Surprisingly for such a high-rent district, you can also eat on the cheap, grabbing a perfect cafezinho (coffee) and a fried coxinha (a dumpling of chicken crusted with mashed potato) at the precious patisserie Cristallo, right across the street from Clube Chocolate.

When D.O.M. opened in 1999, Brazilian dishes like Bahian moqueca (fish stew with coconut milk, peanuts, and chiles), or all-you-can-eat rodizios, were an even more humble affair. The seasoning of Brazilian food is, if not hot like that of some other Latin countries, intensely flavorful, and the quality of the raw materials is high (a simple chicken thigh pit-barbecued churrasco-style has more taste and texture than any robo-chicken I’ve had in Gringolandia). But at D.O.M., Atala has lightened and brightened Brazilian grain staples like tapioca and farofa, and given the Michelin-star treatment to local fish and tropical fruits. (One of D.O.M.’s best-known desserts is banana ravioli with passion-fruit sauce and tangerine sorbet.) The result is refined, as much a treat for the mind as for the taste buds.

Despite the vastness of São Paulo, its creative community has the feel of a village. One exemplary convergence of art, nightlife, and fashion is the House of Erika Palomino in Vila Madalena, the city’s answer to the East Village circa 1987. Formerly fashion critic for the major newspaper Folha de São Paulo, Palomino is now a magazine publisher, Web entrepreneur, trend forecaster, and gallerist, running an all-purpose loft-office space that hosts parties, art shows, and concerts. Her fashion and culture glossy, Key, launched a year ago; its fashion director, Emanuela Carvalho, is also the head of image and marketing for Trama records, a music label started by the son of bossa nova star Elis Regina. The rest of Palomino’s staff are graphic designers, artists, skateboarders, writers, and anyone sooty-eyed and bushy-haired with enough desire to stick around, lend a hand, and learn a thing or two.

Thanks to D.O.M.’s success and that of the other restaurants it has influenced, such as the more casual Sabuji, fine dining in São Paulo isn’t just Italian or sushi anymore. Not that the sushi here is merely average. The offerings at Kosushi and Jun Sakamoto, a quiet, minimalist-modern temple where your raw tuna might come in iced shiso-flavored consommé with a ring of foie gras, can go up against anything you’d find in Tokyo or L.A. And the Italian cuisine at Gero, and at its mother restaurant, Fasano, is impeccably prepared. The Mercado Municipal, in the city’s center, is another place where this diversity is clear: under the speckled light that filters through fin-de-siècle stained-glass are two stories of Italian-imports stalls; beer gardens supplied with Belgium’s best; Portuguese olive-oil and salt-cod vendors; and Amazonian fruit and vegetable stands with generous sampling policies. The crowd noise is deafening and the colors frenzied, making it an easy—and tempting—place to get lost.

Its owner, 40-year-old events producer Cacá Ribeiro, had his choice of sizable spaces all over town, but Centro was the only area he would consider. “It’s so chic here with all these old buildings,” he told me on a packed Friday night as the hip-hop blared and the thick crowd of blowouts and designer jeans preened and chatted through the smoke and the noise on their next-generation cell phones. “We are proud of this area,” he said and listed some of the other new developments that made him such a believer: the cultural center of the Banco do Brasil, opened in 2001 to house theater and dance; the concert hall Sala São Paulo, reopened in 1999 for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra; and the Pinacoteca do Estado, or national gallery, an important nexus of the country’s art.

São Paulo’s Centro—the urban jumble of Beaux-Arts and 1920’s buildings and modern glass skyscrapers surrounding the Mercado Municipal—has been undergoing a revitalization of its own. Of course, even with last year’s rash of bus torchings fading from memory, São Paulo is still known, deservedly, for its crime. The wholesale-shopping area along Rua 25 de Março, a hilly hive with stores of Carnival gear, animal hides, Havaianas flip-flops, and costume jewelry, is no farther from the Mercado than you could toss a mango, and it can be a little rough. (A few years ago, as I giddily emerged from it, my arms weighed down with glitzy fake-gold bangles and cuffs, my companion’s tote bag was sliced through with a box cutter.) But the global barometer of neighborhood trendification is twitching: nightclubs have started rolling in. One of the most talked-about on this visit is Royal Club, a newly opened disco-lounge fashioned out of a fancy office-tower restaurant called Paddock.

Reorganized in 1998 by former director Emanuel Araujo, Pinacoteca is a beautiful salmon-colored brick building from the turn of the last century; it was recently restored by architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha, who won a Mies van der Rohe Prize in 2000 for his efforts. Constructed to take full advantage of São Paulo’s seemingly eternal springtime weather, it’s a sunny place to see Brazilian art from the 19th century to the present. The expansive collection of São Paulo artists includes Antonio Ferrigno, an Italian immigrant from the early 20th century who painted scenes of agricultural life, and Evandro Carlos Jardim, an etcher with a passion for cityscapes who is today a professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo.

After moving on from the Pinacoteca a few years ago, Araujo, who is also a sculptor, developed a riskier and more soulful project: the Museu Afrobrasil, one of the most provocative museums I’ve visited. Opened just two years ago in Parque Ibirapuera, Oscar Niemeyer’s complex of High Modernist masterpieces, it lies at the end of a long, low pergola that rings with the distorted acoustics of skateboarding teenagers. A joyous detonation of ocher, cerulean, and jade-green walls, the museum displays more than a century’s worth of art, much of it from Araujo’s own collection. Afro-Brazilian here is more a state of mind, or an orientation, than a hard-and-fast definition: historical, as in the Bahian ritual costumes of candomblé deity Babá Egum; thematic, as in pieces by conceptualist star Nelson Leirmer, who toys with Brazilian identity (skateboards with monkey motifs); or biographical, as in the case of outsider artist Walter Firmo, who first became known for his mixed-media sculpture in the 1970’s. In the museum’s three-story space, slave-ship paraphernalia is displayed next to graffiti art, which is next to documentary photos of Amazonian tribes. Tour groups, mostly made up of working-class, black Brazilians, circulate frequently, thanks to an exchange program with adult-education centers in the suburbs.

Clever and animated, Palomino “got bored with the politics of big companies and wanted to do my own stuff,” as she tells me on yet another sunny day while we sit out on her patio and an old Smashing Pumpkins track plays in the background. “I prefer to connect people, at a place that they can reach by walking.” By freeing guests from the dreaded taxi—an expense most indie paulistanos can’t easily justify—Palomino’s place has attracted a more democratic mix of passers-by than some of São Paulo’s other “it” spots ever see. “This place has a wonderful, vital energy,” she says with a contented smile, referring to her gallery, her neighborhood, and her hometown. On this lazy afternoon, with a gentle breeze blowing and my belly full of churrasco, I couldn’t agree with her more.


When to Go

Temperatures in São Paulo rarely drop below 60 degrees even in the dead of winter (June to September), and stay below 90 in the summer (December to March).

Where to Stay

Emiliano Hotel The airy lobby has Campana Brothers chairs and a dramatic bar-restaurant. Rooms offer welcome comforts, like the best mini-bars in town. 384 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3068-4399; www.emiliano.com.br; doubles from $430.

Fasano Hotel e Restaurante Built around the famed Restaurante Fasano (55-11/3062-4000), this see-and-be-seen luxury property is modern and warm at once. The service and the rooftop spa stand out. 88 Rua Vittorio Fasano; 55-11/3896-4000; www.fasano.com.br; doubles from $440.

Grand Hyatt São Paulo 13301 Avenida das Nacoes Unidas; 55-11/6838-1234; saopaulo.grand.hyatt.com/; doubles from $285.

Where to Eat

A Figueira Rubaiyat 1738 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/ 3063-3888; lunch for two $50.

Antiquarius Refined Portuguese dishes in a classy but slightly kitsch setting. 1884 Alameda Lorena; 55-11/3082-3015; dinner for two $150.

Cristallo 914 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3082-1783; snacks for two $4.

D.O.M. Restaurante 549 Rua Barão de Capanema; 55-11/3088-0761; dinner for two $187.

Gero 1629 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3064-6317; dinner for two $100.

Jun Sakamoto 55 Rua Lisboa; 55-11/3088-6019; dinner for two $150.

Kosushi Arthur de Mattos Casas’s Modernist design is as fetching as the crowd. Oh, and the cooking is magnificent too. 139 Rua Viradouro; 55-11/3167-7272; dinner for two $120.

Rodeio Beef is the specialty and picanha, or top sirloin, is the favored cut. 1498 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3474-1333; dinner for two $83.

Sabuji 40 Rua Sabuji; 55-11/3814-1240; lunch for two $120.

Where to Shop

Adriana Barra 1801 Rua Peixoto Gomide, Casa 5; 55-11/3062-0387.

Alexandre Herchcovitch 1151 Rua Haddock Lobo; 55-11/3063-2888.

Clube Chocolate 913 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3084-1500.

Daslu 131 Avda. Chedid Jafet; 55-11/3841-4000.

Forum 916 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3085-6269.

Galeria Melissa This giant, pop-tropical shoe store is a must-see whether you buy or not. 827 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3083-3612.

Gloria Coelho 2173 Rua Bela Cintra; 55-11/3085-6671.

Isabela Capeto 3358 Rua da Consolação; 55-11/3898-1878.

Osklen What was once a maker of board shorts and technofabrics has become a sophisticated, Southern Hemisphere DKNY. 645 Rua Oscar Freire; 55-11/3083-7977.

Pelú 1257 Alameda Lorena, Casa 2; 55-11/3891-1229.

Reinaldo Lourenço 2167 Rua Bela Cintra; 55-11/3085-8150.

Iguatemi A massive and well-stocked mall. Highlights include denim boutique Ellus, and swimwear from Lenny, Jo de Mer, and Blue Man. 2232 Avda. Brigadeiro Faria Lima; www.iguatemisaopaulo.com.br.

What to See

Auditório Ibirapuera Even if you don’t attend a concert, the undulating red porch will beckon. Parque do Ibirapuera, Rua Pedro Alvares Cabral; 55-11/6846-6000; www.auditorioibirapuera.com.br.

Fundação Maria Luisa e Oscar Americano 4077 Avda. Morumbi; 55-11/3742-0077; www.fundacaooscar americano.org.br.

House of Erika Palomino 790 Mourato Coelho; 55-11/3813-0414.

Mercado Municipal 306 Rua da Cantareira; 55-11/3228-0673; www.mercadomunicipal.com.br.

Museu Afrobrasil Parque do Ibirapuera, Rua Pedro Álvares Cabral, Pavihão Manoel da Nóbrega; 55-11/5579-8542; www.museuafrobrasil.com.br.

Pinacoteca do Estado 2 Praça da Luz; 55-11/3229-9844.

Where to Go Out

Clube Glória A nightclub that has everyone talking, housed in a former church near the Centro. 830 Rua 13 de Maio; 55-11/3287-3700.

Royal Club 222 Rua da Consolação; 55-11/3129-9804.

Vegas Club A new dance club in an of-the-moment neighborhood, Baixo Jardins. 765 Rua Augusta; 55-11/3231-3705.

How to Plan

Matuete This Sao Paulo-based boutique travel agency specializes in custom luxury itineraries from Bahia to the Amazon. Robert Betenson is an invaluable local resource for everything from locating the perfect pousada in Fortaleza to gallery hopping in Caruaru and finding secret beaches in Natal. info@matuete.com; 011-55-11/3071-4515; www.matuete.com.

Security Note

Taxis are the safest and most reliable way to navigate the city, and most hotels and shops will be able to call one for you. The U.S. State Department urges travelers to São Paulo to use common-sense precautions: visit ATM’s in busy areas, during the day; safeguard laptop computers; do not carry valuables or wear expensive jewelry; and avoid walking alone at night.