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In the forefront of a revolution

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On the ramp: Rich in colours and textures.
On the ramp: Rich in colours and textures.

VINOD SREEHARSHA

It is the right place and right time for designers in Argentina. Despite the challenges they face, career options in the fashion industry are looking up.

VERO IVALDI began designing clothes in 1988 as a favour to her boyfriend. Ricky Rua asked her to design the wardrobe for his new band, Los Rujos. She was then 14 years old. She says that, "It was a great opportunity to experiment." Los Rujos would go on to become a famous Argentine rock `n' roll band in the 1990s, but Ivaldi's efforts also paid off. Today she is one of Buenos Aires's leading designers. Rua and Ivaldi are also happily married. Sol Acuña along with two partners founded what today is another leading Argentine brand name, Rapsodia. Before doing so, Acuña was a runway model, hosted a television programme on snowboarding, and even lived out her fantasy - singing for a rock `n' roll band. She was born in 1970, but in her heart is a child of the 1960s. This is obvious from Rapsodia's hippie-chic clothes, increasingly a must-have for women in this stylish South American country.

Few local designers

Buenos Aires is often described as Latin America's most sophisticated capital. Its opera house was modelled after Milan's La Scala, and it has a thriving art scene. Its denizens are known for their elegant dress. Argentine women in particular have a near-obsession with their appearance. In other Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, women are normally scantily clad, seeking men's attention. Argentine women face a much more difficult task. They dress to get noticed and accepted by other women. The peer pressure is intense. Women entering upscale clubs are immediately checked out by other women. Despite the enormous importance of clothes, surprisingly Argentina has had few local fashion designers. But Ivaldi and Acuña are changing that. They are in the forefront of a burgeoning design industry, one that hopes to rival London and Milan. Ivaldi says, "Earlier the option to buy local clothes did not exist. The industry did not exist." Today Argentines are buying Ivaldi's clothes. Her sales have tripled between 2003 and 2005. She also has customers in France, Spain, Chile, and the United States. She is the only designer to have closed Buenos Aires Fashion Week twice. Her current collection, Topiario, invokes the character Edward Scissorshands. It turns cutting shrubs and trees into a decorative form.

Possibilities ahead

Giselle Casares, a leading Argentine fashion journalist, says about Ivaldi, "she has an obsession with perfection. She has enormous possibilities ahead of her."Ivaldi's start into the fashion world was atypical not just because she was dressing rock `n' rollers. She initially studied chemical engineering in university. But after developing an allergy to chemicals, her doctor urged a change in careers.Yet the engineering background has helped her clothes stand out. Casares says, Ivaldi "has achieved maximum control over the art of moulding (clothes to the human body)" and understands the form of the human body like few others. Rapsodia and Sol Acuña also have a promising future. Rapsodia's clothes are rich in colour and texture. At fashion shows, Rapsodia's models typically wear long, flowing skirts and oversized sunglasses. Acuña says that, "Our clothes are meant to have a romantic and bohemian spirit, with a lot of rock `n' roll." Rapsodia imports materials from India, where Acuña travels often. Rapsodia's main showroom is in the Las Canitas neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, an area filled with upscale restaurants and discos. It has an inviting living room and lacks the pretentiousness found in boutiques in Milan or Paris. Acuña says she and her partners wanted to create a space in which shoppers would feel, "they are at home". She adds that, "We opened not just a brand, but a concept."Argentines now flock to the showroom, a marked change for a country that previously never prioritised buying homemade clothes. Argentines, particularly the wealthy, have long fancied being viewed as European by outsiders. Part of this is due to their mostly Italian and Spanish ancestry. But another part is the typical inferiority complex seen in wealthy Third-World countries, one Indians know well. So buying European brand names has long been the norm. Economics also have played an important role. During the 1990s, Argentina strictly adhered to the IMF's neo-liberal policy. As part of that, the Argentine peso was pegged one to one to the dollar. Argentines' purchasing power skyrocketed, and suddenly shopping trips to Europe became commonplace. At the same time, this policy decimated the local textile industry. Thousands of factories closed, unable to compete with suddenly affordable imports. The 2001 financial collapse presented Ivaldi and other aspiring designers with an opportunity. The peso devalued by 70 percent. Travel overseas suddenly became prohibitively costly for Argentines. A new market emerged for locally produced clothes. Additionally, Argentines have been experiencing increased nationalism after a decade of neo-liberalism failed to alleviate poverty. Ivaldi says that, "It is very important for me to work with local textile factories."

Future challenges

Today's young Argentine designers are in the right place at the right time. Ivaldi was among the first generation of Argentines to be able to study design in Argentina, at the University of Buenos Aires, the country's largest public university. The career simply never existed before. Other young designers of her generation include Mariana Dappiano, Martin Churba, and Jessica Trottman. Challenges do exist. The local textile industry remains weak. Designers here are limited to low-volume production. The Government has not helped much. Even Ivaldi acknowledges "we are still in an apprentice phase. " But today's young designers here have at least one advantage over their European counterparts. They have lived through Argentina's debt defaults, devaluations and massive inflation. They are accustomed to instability. And they may be better off for it. Acuña says that, "when you are under such pressure, you are more creative."


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