The View From the Catwalks Around the World

I began with Brazil—São Paulo, to be exact. then Mumbai. then back to Brazil—Rio this time. Then Berlin. Belo Horizonte, Lisbon, Brasília, and on and on. It's been an interesting, and exhausting, 10-month itinerary, and I've spent most of it sitting around waiting for things to begin. I'm part of the mobile fashion press corps, a strange subset of the larger fashion-media machine. While most fashion writers and editors make biannual pilgrimages to New York, Milan andParis for the ready-to-wear shows, I exchanged those chic, if a bit staid, destinations a couple of years ago for a more unexpected roster. These days, I'm more interested in exploring emerging fashion markets. Seeing the world through a sartorial lens is exciting, and as instructional as any guided tour. The surrounding scene reveals distinct cultural truths about each destination, demonstrating how Fashion Weeks can serve as social statements, highlighting the aspects that make a particular locale unique.

Across the planet, countries have come to realize the branding power that a Fashion Week can have. Evidence of the public's affection for the category is obvious in the success of shows like "Project Runway" and the various incarnations of "Next Top Model," and by organizing their own runway events, developing countries hope to tap into this air of sophistication. Brazil alone hosts Fashion Weeks in each of its four largest cities. India has three competing weeks, sponsored by rival companies and organizations; Russia and South Africa, at last count, had three apiece as well. Even though none of these countries has a particularly large international market for their high-end designs, they can't seem to get enough of the glamorous atmosphere generated by a fashion scene.

The formula is simple. Take one large venue. Fill it with 20 or 30 leggy models, 30 or 40 designers of varying ability, 50 rich and/or beautiful women and five local celebs to fill out the front row, a horde of hangers-on and three camera crews, and you've got yourself a Fashion Week. The quality of the show, of course, varies dramatically from city to city. But my interest lies more in the social anthropological aspect of the experience: how do different countries perceive themselves? Brazil's four Fashion Weeks, for instance, follow a strict hierarchy. São Paulo's is the biggest, then Rio, then Capital Fashion Week in Brasília, and lastly the Minas Gerais Trend Preview in Belo Horizonte. Despite their different scales, they share a common view of how to portray women: strong, glamorous and unabashedly sexy. They revel in revealing cuts, feminine fabrics and fun styles.

Berlin, on the other hand, finds itself in the uncomfortable position of playing catch-up to the continent's principal couture capitals. As with the city itself, Berlin's Fashion Week, held in January and July, gives the sense of a story still being written. There are some wholly unique voices who owe their freedom of expression to the city's blank postwar cultural landscape, and then there are those who brazenly—and sometimes bizarrely—approximate creations by other, more famous designers. At its best, Berlin's fashion incorporates tailoring with a Teutonic rigor and an openness to subtle avant-garde effects, but overall the city and its fashion give the sense of being midstream.

Mumbai is the cultural epicenter of India, teeming with sights, smells and sounds, and impressive textiles tell one part of its expressionist tale. Its Fashion Week—a major social and style event for the city—is fittingly over the top, with Bollywood celebrities sitting front-row center or walking the runway, socialites glittering in gold and diamonds, and paparazzi swarming all over the place. The clothes tend to be colorful and ornate, and often feature contemporary adaptations of the exquisite embroidery found on traditional saris, elevated to a new level of excess symbolizing India's economic explosion. But it's the spectacle surrounding them that leaves the biggest impression. Sitting in the audience, you get the sense of all the newly minted money bubbling, the exhilaration that accompanies historic success. (Despite the global recession, the front row at the Lakme Fashion Week in March was as decked out in diamonds as ever.) Yet the sometimes amateurish creations coming down the catwalk make it clear that, when it comes to capturing the panache of the best Western designers, India still has some distance to cover.

In most Western culture capitals, everything has already been done to death, and people seem to suffer from a chronic case of cynicism and ennui. But in emerging fashion markets, I have the opportunity to witness history being made, as new powers rise up, carried by their own cultural and economic revolutions. The tension between a tendency toward globalization and the desire to preserve what makes each place unique plays out before my eyes, embodied in the creations that parade past on the catwalk.

For many of my fashion-writer colleagues, the world orbits around the three main fashion capitals. But I'll take the flowing silks floating past on a muggy Mumbai afternoon over Chloé's polish in Paris any day. In the current scheme of things, the fashion power centers of the West are still in vogue, but a new day is dawning all over the world. They might not reach their peak by the fall/winter '09 season, but stay tuned—São Paulo Fashion Week just might be the next big thing.