Favelization: The Imaginary Brazil in Contemporary Film, Fashion and Design

A book about the use of references to Brazilian favelas to market luxury products to a primarily non-Brazilian audience.

Book Summary

Through case studies that look at films, fashion, and furniture design, she explains how designers and filmmakers engage with primitivism and stereotype to make their goods more desirable to a non-Brazilian audience. Favelization looks at the films Waste Land and City of God, shirts designed by Fernando and Humberto Campana for Lacoste, and furniture by Brunno Jahara and David Elia. Kertzer argues that the processes of interpretation, transcendence and domination are part of the favelization phenomena.

The book locates design as part of a broader constellation of representations that includes a variety of forms from printed media to film. It provides visual and material analyses, as well as theoretically discussions that draw on works by scholars in cultural and postcolonial studies such as John Tagg, Edward Said, Mariana Torgovnick, Mike Davis, and Trinh T. Minh-Ha. While focused on favelization, this work raises questions about the ethical conundrums associated with using the “Other” in commercial design work.

Overview

Yet despite the negative connotations attached to favelas by Brazilian media and public policy, and the fact that most middle- and upper-class Brazilians avoid these spaces, apparel companies, furniture designers, artists, restaurateurs and filmmakers use references to favelas to brand their products, projects, or spaces as “Brazilian.” Their target audience is almost always non-Brazilian. Often, the luxury objects in question bear little or no resemblance to favelas themselves or to what favelados can afford.

Few of the people referencing favelas in the context of luxury goods are from these settlements, drawing instead from an obvious circulation of stereotypes in the international luxury market. How have favelas become signifiers of Brazilianness and why are they used to market luxury products?

Brazil has long been stereotyped as tropical, fun, musical, beautiful, and lawless; its inhabitants sexual, gregarious, flexible, great at soccer and dark(er)-skinned. Contemporary Brazilian culture producers have, in recent years, added favelas to this list. References to favelas have become increasingly common and popular since the early 1990s, creating an image of these settlements as hallmarks of contemporary Brazilianness, interacting with established stereotypes about the country. This is a process through which something that has been maligned throughout Brazilian history is transformed into a signifier of attached value, stereotypes, “coolness” and Brazilianness. This is Favelization.

The contemporary fascination with favelas is the result of multiple factors. It emerged partly due to social sciences, which have in recent years turned favelas into the world’s most studied low-income communities. While social scientists play an important role in describing the reality of these settlements, film, marketing campaigns and consumer products have fueled the international fascination with favelas we witness today.

The rise of rap culture and the “ghetto fabulous” style during the 1980s and 1990s might be seen as a precursor to favelization. Both trends took the population and social issues of certain urban spaces and turned them into fetishized commodified styles. Similarly, Brazilians and non-Brazilians have gained “access” to favelas through music videos, documentaries, fictional films and even favela tours. This visual access both demystified and re-mystified favelas, turning something that is not exotic into something titillating, mysterious and even mythical.

However, when favelas are mentioned in regard to certain luxury goods, the communities that inhabit these areas are not “seen”. This degree of invisibility leads consumers to believe details are unnecessary, allowing for the treatment of all favelas and their realities as interchangeable. Here, the concept of marginality may have been debunked, deconstructed, dismissed, rediscovered and reconstructed. In design and marketing, favelization marks how artists, designers, filmmakers and entrepreneurs have reconstructed interpretations of marginalized people and spaces for commercialization.

How did a symbol of Brazil’s poverty, much maligned by the Brazilian press and often feared by inhabitants of the formal city, come to signify Brazilianness and its attached values? Is favelization evidence of a deeper cultural shift in which Brazil’s poverty is repositioned as part of its national brand? Or is something else at stake in these endeavors that makes favelization a patronizing and opportunistic way of portraying the reality of a certain segment of the Brazilian population, fetishizing a space and its inhabitants, to brand products as Brazilian?

These questions prompt an assessment of the difference between the meanings attached to favelas in Brazil and those employed by companies and individuals using references to the settlements in the marketing of high-end products. They also challenge the myths of racial democracy and intersocial class cordiality that are common in a mainstream discourse about Brazil. It becomes impossible to talk about the role of favelas in Brazilian society without addressing discrimination based on race, socioeconomic origin and place of residence.

Analyzing Favelization

Other terms have been used to describe favelization — “favela chic,” “favela factor” and “slumification”, among others. Here, the word favelization is chosen since the suffix “-tion” refers to a process that entails some form of transformation and manipulation.

A series of case studies, outlined below, allowed for an in-depth discussion of written and visual materials pertaining to a given project, alongside a comprehensive theoretical analysis. The subjects of research are divided into producers, consumers and favela residents. There is very limited, if any, overlap between these three categories; this strict division is a characteristic of favelization.

A discussion of favelization requires the inclusion of Brazilians, non-Brazilian natives and individuals whose life experiences challenge traditional notions of nationality. Favelization requires one to think carefully about what is “Brazilian”, as well as who is “foreign” and who is “Brazilian.” It is a powerful example of how cultural trends are the result of active exchanges between nations as well as unequal power dynamics within a country. This essay adopts a supra-national, anti-territorial and anti-national perspective, advocating that favelization challenges conventional territorial demarcations and traditional understandings of national identities.

Favelization in Film

Favelization in Fashion

Shirt, “Men’s Super Limited Edition”, 2009. Fernando and Humberto Campana.

Favelization in Design

Favelization and National Identity

Meanwhile, Brazilian culture is appropriated everyday by non-Brazilians who reference its art, architecture, music and poetry. The same appropriation occurs with favelas. Today, designers, marketing professionals and filmmakers, both Brazilian and foreign, interpret and appropriate a notion of favela, often producing something hybrid, which tackles reality in a superficial way and does not truly depict it. More importantly, the constant cannibalism in appropriations and reappropriations of the signifiers of Brazilian identity kickstart a hybrid process through which Brazilian identity is now created, in which individuals of varied national backgrounds influence what can be considered “Brazilian”.

Future Discussions of Favelization

The trend of favelization leads to a consideration on the ethics of design. Being often — maybe even always — political, design not only reflects but also affects power relations and human relationships. Design projects that employ favelization reflect and affect existing hierarchies of power as well as interactions between individuals of different social status. Regardless of the designer’s original intention, what they produce becomes political. While some design objects are political by nature, others become political because of how they are used, presented, marketed, and branded. Branding, for example, requires the accentuation of differences, often relying on the processes of dichotomizing, essentializing, and “otherizing”. This is true of both product branding and national branding. Favelization is a form of both; it applies to products and urban spaces that are treated as a national stereotype that can be generalized. Yet what is implicit in favelization is the creation of a problematic “us” and “them.”

Films such as City of God and Waste Land, the marketing of the Campanas + Lacoste collaboration, Brunno Jahara’s Neorustica line, and David Elias’ Stray Bullet chair and Pacification shelves are examples of constructions of the favela as the Other. They also evidence two additional consequences of “otherizing”: the commodification of the exotic and the dehumanization of the people identified as Others. By treating all favelas and their inhabitants’ realities as interchangeable, favelization strips away their identity. Many design projects that receive international recognition use stories about people, instead of the products, to increase the perceived value of goods being sold. An understanding of favelization may help us identify and challenge other design trends that exacerbate stereotypes and unequal power relations. Doing so will advance the debate on the ethical dimensions of design.

Favelization is available in paperback and ebook form on Amazon. More details and images are available on the book’s website, Pinterest, Twitter account, and Facebook page.

About the Author

Adriana has built a reputation as a fierce project manager who delights in managing complex analogue and digital projects, legal transactions, exhibit design, digital research, and public speaking. She is able to apply the discipline and drafting skills developed as a corporate lawyer to cultural, real estate and tech-related projects.

Adriana worked for the Obama Administration as the Senior Advisor to the Senior Deputy Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Prior to that, she was a Curatorial Assistant & Digital Strategist at the Museum of Arts and Design, Teaching Assistant at Parsons The New School for Design, Curatorial Fellow at the Cooper Hewitt Museum, and Acting Assistant General Counsel at the Guggenheim Museum. Prior to her life as a design entrepreneur, Adriana was a corporate lawyer at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, focused on Brazilian IPOs.

A leading expert on the use of references to the Brazilian slums in the branding of luxury items, Adriana is the author of Favelization: The Imaginary Brazil in Contemporary Film, Fashion, and Design, a book originally published by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is currently working on a new book, Rebranding Pot, about the changing aesthetics of the cannabis industry.

Adriana has been a featured speaker at SXSW 2018, Museo Amparo, Brown University, Parsons The New School For Design, Queens College/CUNY, General Assembly, The Line, Zona Maco México Arte Contemporáneo, University of Hong Kong, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

She received her BA from Brown University, JD from Georgetown Law Center, and MA from Parsons The New School for Design.

Adriana grew up in São Paulo, Brazil and now lives in New York City with her husband and dog, a Havanese named Cachaça. Her hobby is managing her Airbnb rental, Olivebridge Cottage. She is fluent in Portuguese, English and Italian and is known for having a healthy disregard for the impossible.

www.adrianakertzer.com

Partner at Plant Medicine Law Group and founder of JewWhoTokes.com.