Cashews. Who knew it would take travelling to Brazil to learn that the fibrous fruit from which the nut is borne, which tastes like a subtle pineapple, is native to my home country of Ghana? Or that the fruit would spin a harmonious thread through food, fashion and overlapping cultures for me?
There are several prisms through which the culture of a people and the pulse of a place can be refracted. When South America’s largest airline, LATAM, launched its inaugural nonstop flight from Miami to Salvador, Bahia, last month, I thought I might use it as an invitation to learn about Brazil’s fashion scene. I immediately contacted my friend Thiara Collorec, a London-via-Paris-based former lawyer and current fashion editor for Elle.fr, or simply put, the most stylish Brazilian I know. She also happens to be a Baiana.
According to her, “Brazilian style is difficult to explain but easy to recognize. Brazilians dress to feel sexy and empowered, whatever the body type.” Of Baiana style, she told me, “You can still feel the influence of African heritage there, especially in that Bahia style is more colorful and vibrant than that of southern Brazil.”
Given Thiara’s words, I was ready for headwraps and shocks of color, but I was not ready for how much Bahia would feel like one of the places I call home. To attempt to enumerate all the ways Bahia reminds me of Ghana — from all the forms of cassava consumed throughout the region to the eyes, lips and noses that seemed spun from the DNA of my own — might be a task as feckless as attempting to drink the Nile. Suffice it to say that Ghana and Bahia are certainly tributaries that flow into the same river of whatever constitutes “Afro-ness.”
Once, during an interview about the concept of home on the podcast On She Goes, host Aminatou Sow asked me whether I adapt to the places I travel to or make them adapt to me. My answer then and now is that I must find a symbiosis of the two extremes: Who I am will not relent because of a change in terrain, but who I am is also allowing my being to be transfigured by the air of a place. Which brings me back to fashion and my exploration of it in the Brazilian context. Certain garments did not always speak to my inclinations, and yet I found a welcome challenge in molding those I wouldn’t otherwise gravitate towards into my own aesthetic model. Above all, it was a joy to learn about and meet some of the minds and hands driving the Brazilian fashion train.
Of Orixás and Caipirinhas
Alessandra Affonso Ferreira, the design brain behind São Paulo-based label Sissa, spent her formative years in Salvador, where she and her husband-turned-business partner, Julian, also got married. Alessandra loves the “rustic chic” of the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic district, known for variegated colonial buildings and the “air of African mysticism” of Bahia, and this is evident in her earthy design ethos.
Here I’m wearing her Claudia dress, which is your typical shirt dress with a touch more volume, as if an homage to traditional Baiana regalia and the festivals of Lavagem do Bonfim and Yemanjá, when the faithful of Bahia are clad in alabaster in homage to the Orixás (Yoruba gods) Oxalá and Yemanjá respectively. For a look to carry me from day exploration to a night of sipping caipirinhas, I layered it with a matching beaded and embroidered bra and jacket set by PatBO, the brand founded by Brazil’s goddess of embellishment, Patricia Bonaldi. Nothing’s ever black and white — neither Brazil’s African ancestry nor this outfit — so I chose midnight-blue knotted heels by perhaps Brazil’s most recognizable fashion name, Alexandre Birman. Streamlined yet whimsical, the trio of knots on the shoes are redolent of the ritual of tying garlands into three knots on the fences surrounding Salvador’s Bonfim church — each knot representing a wish — which culminates in fences festooned with a rainbow of possibilities: the dreams and prayers of a multitude rendered in living color and tickled by the passing wind.
Paula Raia is perhaps the Brazilian clothing brand with which I found the most consonance. With sharp lines and weighty fabric, her designs are often monochromatic but textured for nuance, like this ribbed cream ensemble. For a pop of color, I chose shoes by Brazilian fashion’s darling du jour, Lane Marinho. The bouffant-haired Salvador native, responsible for the made-to-order sandals that all of Brazil covets, started out at another well-known shoe brand before she began crafting her own shoes, at first making each pair entirely by hand. She now takes orders at her São Paulo atelier with a 45-day wait time for delivery.
Rise though her star has, Salvador and its rustic São Joaquim market (where I’m pictured) remain fondly ensconced in her heart. I found myself caught up in São Joaquim’s similarities to the markets of my youth, like Accra’s Santana market. White yams, sexy green okra and towers of sugarcane: A sea might separate us, but certainly food links the western coast of Africa and northern Brazil. “Linkage” is also the word that comes to mind to describe the pair of earrings I chose from Bia Daidone and its interacting orbitals. The earrings seem to be a study in concavity versus convexity and the interaction of opposites that results in seamless circularity. I finished the look with a clutch from Serpui, a brand known for its small handbags that range from amoebic toucan shapes to classic beveled boxes like the brushed brass one I am carrying.
Praia do Forte is a archetypal beach town about a 90-minute drive from Salvador where the sea breeze is relentless and the evening light sublime. There, in this sleepy enclave, among the coast-seeking masses and on its quiet village streets, this floral jacket from PatBO found meaning for me. The flow of the beaded fringe dripping from the sleeve hem found its way in the wind, just as a vendor of shell necklaces found me and offered to tie a green one of the ubiquitous Baiana garlands on my wrist in three knots for three wishes.
This much jacket meant the rest of the look had to be toned down, but not so much as to be drowned out. Enter Studio Chofakian shoes. The label founded by Sarah Chofakian is known for its minimalist, architectural form, and if any Brazilian shoe brand could withstand this much jacket with dulcet fierceness, this is it.
Orange Is the Warmest Color
By morning light at the Tivoli Eco Resort in Praia do Forte, I slipped on a three-part citrus symphony by beachwear designer Adriana Degreas. Degreas is known for her vibrant swimwear and breezy kaftans with surprising details and is a mainstay in the Miami market with shops at Aventura and Merrick Park malls. Encircling my neck is a choker I found at the aforementioned Bia Diadone atelier in São Paulo. Bia, though slight in appearance, is a tower of effervescence with graceful fortitude of spirit. Creating each 18k-gold-plated brass piece by hand, her process begins with feeling the metal in delicate yet calloused hands, bending and beating brass into geometric submission and allowing the process itself to reveal the form. The choker presents a powerful interplay of strength and sensuality: a whisper and the crescendo of an operatic aria all at once.
And who can resist the work of sea breeze against volumes of silk? I cheated a little on Brazilian designers — but fittingly, given Bahia’s African heritage — and pulled in this black silk and batik kimono from Ghanaian-American label Studio One Eighty Nine. It’s easy to feel like a formidable Orixà arising from the morning mist when wearing a bright orange turban and arabesques of obsidian silk, and isn’t that the feeling we all require from a holiday?
Silks and Stones
The Garcia d’Ávila fortress in Mata de São João, Bahia, is one of designer Juju Afonso Ferreira of Isolda’s favorite places. Yet another Bahia native in Brazil’s constellation of design stars, her brand is renowned for its ultra-feminine aesthetic. Against the decaying aubergine and brown walls of the skeleton of the castle overlooking the Atlantic, her sanguine silk skirt sings in harmony with this pink off-shoulder shirt. Another iteration of Alexandre Birman’s sandals, rendered in red and pink velvet, mirrors the gradient of rouges, but a middle tie in moss green cuts the color-coded look.
Paula Cadematori’s “Twi Twi” bag in tan, with its subtle yet defining pink edging, is also a nod to a red color story. The Milan-based Brazilian designer’s bags are often as boldly colorful as Brazilian culture itself. Not visible, unfortunately, is how the orbital pair of Daidone earrings I chose pair with the petite, gold, cashew-shaped buttons that fasten the shirt cuffs. The cashew closures are, of course, a quiet reference to the oft-overlooked slice of historic and cultural paradise that is Afonso’s hometown: Bahia.
Bahia itself is probably better suited to “spending the whole day in shorts, shoeless,” as is my friend Thiara’s definition of happiness, and São Paulo is undoubtedly the epicenter of Brazil’s fashion universe. And yet Bahia has borne some of the highest-hanging fruit on the tree of Brazilian fashion, perhaps because of the soul espoused by the place. Everyone told me I’d be intoxicated by the light in Bahia and, while I could drink its evening light to the lees, for me, Bahia represents finding a culture an ocean away that in so many ways resembles my own. Fashion was the icing on the cake (or in this case, the shrimp on the acarajé).
Follow Natasha’s adventures in travel and the arts at @natashanyanin.
Photos by Colby Blount.