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By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – You could say that Ipanema, with its beautiful daily parade of glossy beach glamor, is the living catwalk of Rio fashion, but plenty of Rio fashion magic takes place some distance inland from Posto 9 in the North Zone neighborhood of São Cristóvão. Hundreds of fashion brands and clothing factories populate the area, and right at the heart of this activity is a small workshop in the Barreira de Vasco favela producing some of the most exciting Carioca style in the city.

Their unique Havaianas sandals are Retalhos Cariocas most popular line, photo by Retalhos Cariocas.

Retalhos Cariocas is the creative fashion label and social action initiative run by Silvia Oliveira, Fátima Souza, Vivian Santos, Luciana Meireles, Nadja Araújo and Luciana Almeida, located opposite the famous Vasco football stadium.

In a cozy, colorful space full of beads, buttons and lively bustle, the women create a range of sandals and accessories that has already caught the attention of Vogue Brasil, TV Globo and top Brazilian fashion brand Osklen.

The initiative started in 2006 when fashion graduate and Barreira de Vasco resident, Silvia Oliveira, 32, began offering courses in customizing clothes and dressmaking to community members using donated materials. “People started to know about the course and donated textiles, fabric, threads,” explains Oliveira, who has lived in the community since the age of 9.

Left to right, Silvia Oliveira, Nadja Araújo, Luciana Almeida, Fátima Souza and Luciana Meireles, photo by Retalhos Cariocas.

“Factory managers donated things they didn’t want any more. We used them in the classes and started creating things with a Rio theme – Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf mountain, the Lapa arches – and selling them at markets.”

Going by the name Retalhos Cariocas (meaning Carioca Retails) since 2008, the collective’s unique style is less about Rio’s iconic imagery and more about the vibrant Carioca spirit: a thrilling clash of bold color, bright print, multiple textures and cute detailing.

As Silvia explains, “it’s about joy, fun, lots of colors and is very Carioca. It gets an identity from the things donated and transforming waste into fashion. There’s the question of sustainability and recycling that we maintain… People that buy our products want this and to show Rio.”

Their signature pieces and biggest selling products are their unique range of customized Havaianas. A far cry from the gaudy jeweled numbers out there, Retalhos Cariocas create chic bright gladiator sandals using Brazil’s most famous footwear export. Available in five different styles including a masculine line, prices range from R$40 to R$70.

Singer Márcia Guzzo models Retalhos Cariocas fashion, photo courtesy of retalhoscariocas.com.

The rainbow burst theme continues with a variety of belts, accessories and bags ranging in price from R$20 for a belt to R$70 for larger bags. Clothing is by request and custom-made using a patchwork of print, color and texture that infuses traditional feminine cuts with a feisty spirit.

In addition to their fashion line and the courses they offer, the ladies put on events including a fashion show collaboration with women from the Santa Marta favela in Botafogo. They have also been invited to design the decor for a new restaurant and designed costumes for Afroreggae‘s recent performances in London.

Following a successful Carmen Miranda-inspired collection of sandals launched at the last Fashion Rio, the team is looking to the future with plans for their first clothing collection for the Summer 2011/12 season, shows next June 2011 and a Banco do Brasil webtrade account that will allow them to sell to customers abroad. They also have hopes to expand production to a different space in the community and open a store in Zona Sul.

Brazilian born Marcelo Fujimoto is a former investment banker from Chicago currently volunteering with the project. Of the business prospects he says, “It’s pretty exciting. They’ve been getting a lot more press and publicity in the last year so they’re definitely growing on the demand side. I think with better understanding and control over their costs that they’ve definitely got a sustainable, profitable future.”

As Silvia highlights, though, profits were never the objective. “It was always my dream to study fashion in college. When I got there I was a bit disheartened because it was an artificial world, but I understood that as a fashion designer I could help people change their lives,” she explains. “I started the courses because I wanted to share my knowledge and put in people’s minds that even though they live in a favela and are poor, they can go to college and succeed. I think this is a real spirit of Retalhos Cariocas.”

Retalhos Cariocas products are available at Karioka in the Galeria River arcade, Rua Francisco Otaviano, 67, Ipanema, the Rua do Lavradio market in Lapa every first Saturday of the month or directly through the website www.retalhoscariocas.com or Retalhos Cariocas Facebook page.

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