In the US and the UK, designers, retailers, and celebrities have been admonished for appropriating traditional design elements—whether “Navajo-inspired” prints or full-feathered headdresses—from Native Americans.
It’s a minefield, to be sure, but of course, none of us live in a cultural vacuum, and there must be a way for creative people to integrate ideas and inspiration from our rapidly globalizing context, with respect. That’s what Alberto Hiar, the founder and creative director of the São Paulo-based fashion brand Cavalera, navigated rather bravely at São Paulo Fashion Week.
On April 13, Cavalera closed the first night of São Paulo’s five-day fashion extravaganza with a collection—and show—inspired by his stay with the Yawanawá tribe, who live in the Brazilian state of Acre, which borders Peru. He wrote about his trip for the website Terra (link in Portuguese).
Hiar wrote about how spending time with the Yawanawá—getting to know the crops of corn, banana, and pineapple; hearing generations-old stories from their shaman; fishing in a stream; and sleeping in hammocks under the stars—left him forever changed. The trip was not without its challenges; Hiar didn’t romanticize the ravenous mosquitoes or an eight-hour journey in a motorboat.
He also took part in a ritual recently favored by his fashion neighbors to the north: an ayahuasca ceremony, which involves drinking a hallucinogenic tea. (Ayahuasca, which often results in an intense psychedelic trip, has long been part of traditional ceremonies in the Amazon. It’s a relatively new addition to the regimens of city-dwelling professionals seeking renewed perspective.)
Although Hiar’s experience and the Yawanawá’s design motifs informed prints and beadings (done in India, not Brazil) in the Cavalera collection, Hiar shared something more tangible with the crowd.
Nearly twenty Yawanawá traveled from their village—some eight hours by boat, seven by car, and five in a plane—to come to São Paulo Fashion Week, where they closed Cavalera’s show, performing ceremonial songs and dances in their traditional body paint and dress.
“We want you to see that we exist,” Kenewama, the daughter of the tribe’s chief, told Fashion Forward’s Marina Pontual (link in Portuguese). “But we also want to offer our culture and spirituality, especially to São Paulo, which is going through a major crisis with the drought.”
The tribe’s shaman, Matsinim, shared a similar sentiment backstage: “We want to bring the energy of the forest to São Paulo,” he said.