By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Translating the vibrant Carioca spirit with all its casual, colorful joie de vivre, into simple, stylish accessories has been artist and designer Gilson Martins‘ signature ever since his first ‘bag-sculpture’ of Sugarloaf mountain in 1993. Using the city and its landmarks as inspiration and motif, Martins’ internationally acclaimed designs now have a showroom on the iconic patterned sidewalk of Avenida Atlântica in Copacabana.
“The new store is like a gift” beams Martins, over a Coca-Cola at a beachside kiosk across the road, “Look around us, it’s great for me and my staff and it’s a perfect location for the products.”
Growing up in Santo Cristo in the old center of Rio with a panoramic view of the city, Martins was always enchanted by the visual charms of the city. He developed his first bag designs while studying fine art at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in the early Eighties, but it wasn’t until his line of bag sculptures in 1993 that his distinctive brand (combining unusual materials, from automotive to carpet, and contemporary Rio design) first started to be realized.
A major line to this day is the bags, purses and accessories using the Brazil flag, which Martins first used in 1995. “I wanted to use the Brazil flag in a work of pop, of design. Certainly at that time there was a difficulty with being proud of Brazil and being Brazilian”, he says. “I took this symbol that was ignored and discredited and used it as a way to represent the flag in a new sense of fashion and design.”
The designs were picked up by the government campaign at the time to create a new ‘Brazil’ brand, with Martins receiving support and his products being exhibited in international exhibitions promoting Brazil.
His first store opened in Ipanema in 1996 followed by outlets in Barra Shopping, Shopping Rio Sul, and now Copacabana. The growth in the retail side of the company was matched by corporate contracts producing specific items for clients such as L’Oreal, Warner, Sony and Coca Cola.
While business acumen is a clear strength – in his 2008 autobiography commissioned by Estação das Letras e Cores he talks of selling fruit and lottery tickets as a child – what marks Gilson Martins’ products is the commitment to the art of design.
Using Rio motifs such as Christ the Redeemer, the Lapa arches and Copacabana’s iconic sidewalks combined with bright rainbow colors and sophisticated simplicity, Gilson Martins’ items are at the same time Carioca calling cards, and universally wearable style items, which of course makes them perfect souvenirs.
Current collections include I Love Rio implicitly spelled using the Christ, heart and Sugarloaf symbols, a high fashion range of monochrome accessories, and the Lixo Nobre range that uses off-cuts to create luxury patchwork items produced by women in Rio’s communities, referencing favelas in the design.
Retaining the purity of the connection with the city and inspiration is vital, and Martins chooses his projects carefully. “With the work, the location is specific, it’s very much of Rio and of Brazil. I decided I didn’t want to be too big, to become banal, but to stay artistic.”
For the long-term Leblon resident who talks with infectious enthusiasm, his inspiration and love of life are clearly linked to the surroundings. “When you have this natural beauty, when the geography offers the colors to inspire you of course you are going to want to dance and enjoy life. Rio’s like this because that’s exactly what the city demands.”