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

In Favelization, The Imaginary Brazil in Contemporary Film, Fashion, and Design, a book originally published by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Adriana Kertzer sets out to understand the ways in which specific producers of contemporary Brazilian culture capitalized on misappropriations of favelas (informal squatter settlements that grow along the hillsides and lowlands of many Brazilian cities) in order to brand luxury items as “Brazilian.”


Favelas are the informal squatter settlements that grow along the hillsides and lowlands of many Brazilian cities. Most of their inhabitants — favelados — are immigrants from the northeast of Brazil, indigenous people or descendants of slaves. Not all urban poor in the country live in favelas, nor are all favelados poor. However, it is possible to make the generalization that most favelados are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Analyzing Favelization

Favelization will emerge as one of the most important aspects of postmodern Brazilian design and identity. The debate around the term tackles issues of ethics, the potential impact of cultural production and explorations of appropriate responses to the use of references to underprivileged communities in a commercial setting.

Favelization in Film

Focusing on the fiction film City of God (2002) and the documentary Waste Land (2010), this branch of the project’s research discusses favelization in the context of music videos, movies and documentaries. These types of cultural production have been most effective in molding, changing or reinforcing perceptions of favelas in Brazil and abroad. The overwhelming number of movies released since 1996 about Rio de Janeiro’s slums or the city’s history of crime, combined with their far-reaching international dissemination, means that images of favelas have reached a large number of people, most of whom have never entered one. The marketing of luxury items using references to favelas would not be possible were it not for the existence and dissemination of these films. Film also provides a context for the exploration of four recurrent themes in favelization: interpretation, transcendence, aestheticization and domination.These themes are often interplayed in favelization in film, alongside the repetition of familiar tropes related to the Primitive, Otherness, and manufactured exoticism.

Favelization in Fashion

This section of the project’s research analyzes the 2009 Campanas + Lacoste project, a collaboration between French clothing brand Lacoste and designers Humberto and Fernando Campana, commonly referred to as the Campanas. In 2006, Lacoste launched a Holiday Collector’s Series, a yearly collaboration with designers to create limited editions of polo shirts. The Campanas + Lacoste 2009 project resulted in six types of shirts, the most expensive of which sold for USD$7,000. The project was thoroughly embedded with references to favelas in all of its marketing materials. As Brazil’s most famous contemporary designers, the Campanas often reference Brazilian themes in their work; Brazilianness is an important aspect of the production and marketing of their luxury products outside Brazil. An exploration of advertising and press coverage of the Campanas + Lacoste project illustrates how an international clothing company alongside these designers uses references to favelas to brand a line of luxury products as Brazilian. At play in this case study are theories of commodification, fetishization and the use and creation of a primitive Other in the process of defining national identity. Ultimately, an analysis of this project sheds light on the power relations among unequal economic actors.

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

Favelization in Design

This research section explores designer Brunno Jahara’s Neorustica high-end furniture line, in which each object is named after a favela in Rio de Janeiro, alongside designer David Elia’s Stray Bullet chair and Pacification shelves, designed for Design da Gema. Both Jahara and Elia are Brazilian designers in their thirties who, despite the many differences between them, actively employ the tropes associated with favelas to brand high-end furniture as “Brazilian”. Following a number of years studying and living abroad, both Jahara and Elia returned to Brazil in 2009 and 2010, respectively. This analysis argues that both designers replicate a tactic used successfully by their predecessors: blending strategic references to Brazil’s poverty with fantasy and desire in the service of commerce. An exploration of the objects, as well as the language used by the designers to increase their appeal among non-Brazilian consumers, allows to then situate the objects within a larger discussion about exoticism, primitivism, the carnivalesque and domestication.

Favelization and National Identity

In Negotiating National Identity, author Jeffrey Lesser successfully argues how Brazilian identity is constantly being redefined. Furthermore, how Brazilians define national identity is often influenced by how Brazil is perceived by foreigners. In 2012, the exhibition From the Margin to the Edge: Brazilian Art and Design in the 21st Century at the Somerset House, in London, showcased contemporary art and design that questioned clichés associated with Brazil. One section in particular challenged the dichotomy between notions of “savage” and “civilized.” The curator, Rafael Cardoso, discussed the influence of foreigners’ perceptions of Brazilianness, stressing the permeability of Brazilian national identity and the influence of the foreign gaze. While Cardoso references only Europeans in his analysis, North American perceptions of Brazil are an equally important influence on Brazilian self-perception. The permeability of identity means that when a particular aspect of Brazilian society not commonly deemed “desirable” becomes popular outside of Brazil, this external attention often results in a reframing of attitudes within the country. Such is the case with favelas.

Future Discussions of Favelization

Any discussion of favelization is bound to be controversial, since it challenges myths on Brazilian inter-class cordiality. Such an analysis requires an identification of who controls the interpretation of favelas, dominating and domesticating this interpretation in the form of consumer products. As this research project reveals, what one person might regard as an apolitical reference to favelas in a commercial context could also be seen as an enhancer of a larger trend that exacerbates Brazil’s prevalent political, economic and social asymmetries. The examples discussed reveal an opportunistic portrayal of a certain segment of the Brazilian population by middle- and upper-class Brazilians and non-Brazilians.

About the Author

Adriana Kertzer is a Brazilian-Texan NY-based entrepreneur with a focus on design, culture and real estate.

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

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