Rio fashion's race issue

How Brazil's black and indigenous beautiful people are campaigning for recognition at Rio Fashion Week

Educafro protest

Power Dressing explores the politics behind the clothes we wear. Every month, Index On Censorship’s Daisy Williams will look at a different issue behind fashion. 

As Rio Fashion Week opened on 7 November, direct activists Educafro gathered outside the doors of the venue to protest against low diversity on the catwalk. Seeking the inclusion of black, indigenous and disadvantaged people in Brazil, they campaign for a demographic who, whilst in the majority in Brazil, have the quietest voice in the world of fashion. David Santos, Head of Ecucafro said:

“Producers and designers disregard the most beautiful thing Brazil has to share with the world: its ethnic diversity. Designers have a very strong Eurocentric cultural heritage, which create difficulties, consciously or unconsciously, preventing the Brazilian diversity from embracing the catwalk and engaging with the world.”

Putting their best foot forward, models strode on amidst the outcry with designers delivering light, low key sophistication for autumn/winter 2013. Though still in its infancy when pitted against New York and its fellow fashion forerunners, the Brazilian scene is expanding rapidly. The same can be said for Brazil as a country, which now boasts the sixth biggest economy in the world. Whilst black and indigenous people account for 53 percent of the country's 194-million-strong population, they are economically disadvantaged - on average, Afro-Brazilians receive only half ​​of what whites earn.

In a country where the extent of the colonialism of the past has been gently brushed aside, institutionalised racism is still a residing factor in Brazil. In a controversial decision on April 10, the Supreme Court introduced an ‘affirmative action’ style policy, for positive discrimination in higher education, securing university places for students dependent on their ethnicity or family income, in a bid to address the "social debt of slavery".

In 2009, São Paulo Fashion Week was forced to adopt a Conduct Adjustment Term, ensuring the minimum employment of African or indigenous descent models reached ten per cent. Typically, around 3% of the 350 or so models who took to the catwalk were black. The regulations were barely in place a year when they were dropped, allegedly deemed unconstitutional by a prosecutor. Santos said:

“Fashion is one of the most profitable industries. In addition they receive much public money to fund these events. The money from a multiethnic society is used to qualify an event that excludes blacks and Indians. We want a powerful fashion industry that loves the whole of Brazil. The easiest way to exercise and apply this is by allowing everyone equal opportunities.” 

Brazilian state Rio Grande do Sul has only 5% of the country's population but provides 70% of its fashion models. It’s no coincidence that it’s the state with the fourth highest human rights development index in the country, with some of the highest standard of living. As well as one of the most prosperous states, it is also the whitest – the last National Research for Sample of Domiciles (PNAD) surveyed that 80.8 per cent of the region was dominated by Caucasians.

The United Nations Unesco office recently wrote: “Although it has a large number of poor people Brazil is not a poor country, but still has to overcome social injustice and inequality...Difficulties are still to be overcome in education, health, income distribution and employment conditions.”

Brazil is divided by the staggeringly wealthy and the devastatingly poor. More than 1,393,000 people inhabit Rio de Janeiro’s desolate favelas, playing spectator to the development of the dazzling and ever expanding city it borders. If Brazil opens its eyes to racial and cultural segregation, it could prompt the fashion industry to open its own doors to a wider audience. Free expression is a natural cause for the fashion world and should be celebrated for its successes in the liberation of borders and prejudices. It should not be selective with who it chooses to give a voice to. 

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