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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 June 2007, 07:45 GMT 08:45 UK
Rio favela fashion wows catwalks
By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Sao Paulo

It has been a long journey for AfroReggae from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the catwalks of Sao Paulo fashion week.

A model shows off one of the AfroReggae designs during Sao Paulo fashion week
The collection was described as casual and colourful by its designer

Since it was founded in 1993, the Brazilian group has worked to engage young people from the poorest shanty towns of Rio, drawing them away from a life of gangs and drugs.

It has done this most famously through music - a mix of reggae, pop, hip hop and rock along with distinctive Brazilian percussion, providing role models for young black men in particular, where few existed before.

It has been a remarkable tale of success, despite the most difficult of circumstances.

Their story has been told in the acclaimed film Favela Rising, they have played alongside the Rolling Stones on Copacabana beach, and in venues across the world, from the Barbican in London, to New York's Carnegie Hall.

This week in front of a packed venue at Sao Paulo Fashion Week, AfroReggae took its brand for the first time to the fashion world, and won a standing ovation from an audience that included Sao Paulo State Governor Jose Serra.

Models at the AfroReggae show
The favela is chic... the favela is beautiful, the favela is black
Anderson Sa
AfroReggae lead musician

The clothes were created by one of Brazil's leading designers, Marcelo Sommer, who drew together his ideas by going to work among the communities in Rio. He dismisses the idea of "Favela chic".

"I think that is a bit of a cliche. It's a very casual and not pretentious collection, very colourful and optimistic. I wouldn't say 'Favela chic'.

"I found it really challenging as a designer because they had a group but without a brand, so we created a brand from zero."

Wonderful work

But for lead musician Anderson Sa, there is some value in the term.

"For sure, the favela is chic... the favela is beautiful, the favela is black, the favela is north-eastern," he said, referring to the poorest part of Brazil. "This is the community."

He went on: "We have violence and you cannot escape from that, but you also have happiness, love, style and beauty. We are very rich with our culture from the favela, which is the Brazilian culture.

Male model wears the AfroReggae collection
The collection included menswear as well as women's fashion
"Today in Rio we have got more than 800 favelas, but unfortunately the community is always shown in a negative way in the media. But now they are starting to show that there is wonderful work there and wonderful people as well."

Jose Junior who helped found the group agrees: "If I were to sum up AfroReggae in one word it would be self-esteem.

"I think the most important thing that AfroReggae does is to build up the self-esteem of young people in the favelas. It creates a bridge both ways for people from different social classes."

The group hopes funds raised by the new fashion line will make their project self-sustainable and the clothes will be marketed in top outlets. They also hope it will engage young people in the the favelas who are often attracted by the glamour of leading brand names.

However there is a lot of work to be done.

Rio is in the news again with the authorities launching a renewed effort to break the power of drugs gangs in some of the favelas. In one area, more than 20 people have been killed and more than 60 wounded in the last few weeks.

AfroReggae model
AfroReggae's aim to show there is more to Rio than violence

"Unfortunately there is a lot of violence, but I believe it is possible to reverse that," says Jose.

"But it is not with more violence.

"The way to prevent violence is not to put more policemen on the streets. What you need to do is work with education, culture, sport and leisure, basic sanitation, and employment to improve the wages.

"If they keep the focus on the police, nothing will be resolved."

These problems seem set to dominate the headlines for some time to come.

But on one evening in Sao Paulo, with the applause ringing in AfroReggae's ears, it was the optimism drawn from the communities who live in Brazil's favelas that was on display.

AfroReggae's band will be performing at the Barbican in London on June 28 and 29


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