Reunidas founder Edward Neale speaks with Lusophone magazine OBA about dressing Brazilian icons, his peculiar Portuguese accent and where to buy sushi-grade fish in São Paulo...
Or continue below for an English translation of the full unedited interview:
Please tell us the story of Reunidas in your own words.
While living between the gaúcho heartlands in the deep south of Brazil and the cosmopolitan dynamism of São Paulo, I realised that there was a startling amount of fascinating history in Brazil that the world, and many Brazilians, were not aware of.
I too often came across gringos or Brazilians focused on importing products and ideas from abroad. Everyone was so dismissive of the idea of quality being associated with Brazil and the country can come across as having a cartoonish image of tropicalia. Today, almost every Brazilian concept launched outside of Brazil involves the beach, or the ubiquitous twirl of verdant green tropicalismo. Brazilian fashion is no exception – sand, samba and football still dominate. At a stretch, a zest of Amazon rainforest may make the collection.
I kept asking myself - how has a nation larger than the contiguous United States, with the largest descendancy of Italian and Japanese immigrants in the world, not to mention the rich African heritage, come to have such a narrow brand narrative? It turns out that it was not always the case.
I became particularly drawn to the elegance and history of Brazilian tailoring that was connected to the old immigrant communities in São Paulo but was largely forgotten. I spent years investigating in the state archives of São Paulo and in the libraries and museums across the state and working with local tailors. I wanted to build awareness of these overlooked, deeply cosmopolitan parts of Brazilian history & culture and champion the forgotten craft of Brazilian tailoring.
Where does your obsession with Brazil come from?
It’s a vast country with such diversity, both in nature and society. It’s immense immigrant history connects it to so many cultures across the world and it is unique in that regard. There is still so much that is undiscovered or overlooked across the country and that inspires and excites me.
Many of the social values particularly resonate with me. I love the warm and inclusive nature of society and Brazilians have a great sense of humour. I’m drawn to the fact that it’s not a culture built around cynicism.
More personally, after several years working within relatively rigid corporate structures and living in more inflexible old world cultures, Brazil restored my sense of wonder and natural curiosity and I shall forever carry a great deal of gratitude towards Brazil for doing so. I sometimes feel like I owe it to Brazil to help tell these fascinating stories to the world.
What do you think of the Portuguese language?
I originally learnt Portuguese in Rio Grande do Sul so I often speak the language with a slight southern drawl and throw in some gaúcho slang for good measure. I have always been fascinated by sociolinguistics and I love how they roll the ‘r’ more in the south and almost sing it on account of the Spanish and Northern Italian influences. It’s amazing how the accent changes so rapidly just across the border in Santa Catarina where it has more Azorean intonations due to its immigrant history. I then remember moving from Porto Alegre to São Paulo and struggling for the first few weeks with the Paulista accent. You could almost hear the southern Italian intonations and mannerisms, which would not feel out of place in Naples or Palermo.
Curiously, I find speaking Portuguese allows certain characteristics in me to flourish that otherwise wouldn’t when speaking British English for example. It’s looser, warmer and more amorous. Even when reading Brazilian Portuguese literature, there are colloquial themes that are much rarer in English literature and that I find novel, thrilling and amusing. For example, the pages of Machado de Assis drip with jealousy and are quite unique. I sometimes can’t help but feel that sense of jealousy is still hanging over every conversation.
Where does your obsession with tailoring come from?
I think my obsession for craft and design was instilled in me from growing up in craft nations such as Italy, India and the UK. My father was a foreign correspondent so I was lucky enough to grow up across Asia, Africa and Europe. Furthermore, he was always immaculately dressed and had a marvellous wardrobe of suits, shirts, shoes and leather goods that, due to his appreciation of quality and care, lasted his entire life and which he still has to this day! I remember growing up in India and how my father would employ local artisans and tailors to craft knock-offs of his Italian and English tailored suits and trousers. I remember watching these skilled old men sitting on the porch stitching away during the monsoon in New Delhi or my father hunting for fake Gucci crocodile skin loafers in contraband markets in Bangkok!
When I was older and working in London, I used to spend my lunch breaks in Mayfair sneaking into the old tailor's cutting rooms on Savile Row or wandering into all the shirt makers of Jermyn Street and asking them detailed questions about how British shirts differed to Italian shirts for example. I am fascinated by the history and precision of it all and how tailors used to be such an integral part of society and each region had their variations depending on the culture, climate and raw materials. It’s all so timeless.
What differs with Brazilian tailoring from European?
A rich and diverse immigrant heritage was once dispersed across traditions such as craft and tailoring in Brazil. From the large Italian community, who’s shirt makers and craftsmen poured into São Paulo from the 1880s onwards, to a Japanese diaspora including artisans as well as lesser known British traditions that spread through commercial ties during the 19th Century.
These rich craft cultures, from the Japanese attention to detail to the Neapolitan panache for unstructured silhouettes, made for an exceptional tailoring tradition and a differentiated menswear style in the Brazilian climate.
In shirt making, they moved away from the more rigid old world structure to make something that’s more relaxed. The yoke at the back is curved to make the shirts more comfortable. The collar is an appropriation of the classic Brazilian collar - it has a subtle curve to it and follows the natural line. The button is lowered so when you wear it without a tie, it looks better. It’s the traditional but adapted. Little tweaks, little twists that make it uniquely Brazilian but still familiar.
By the 1970s many of these Brazilian crafts - that benefited from an abundance of local South American raw materials including cotton, leather and rubber - started to decline as the country slid into turmoil under the military dictatorship.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I consider myself fortunate enough to be a sort of ‘vira lata’ - half South African, half British and raised in southern Asia. I have spent the majority of my life living in developing world cities where, often, despite the poverty or strife, there is an energy and an element of hope within communities. It always inspires me to want to be part of the solutions and the changes going on within those societies.
A lot of ideas come to me when I walk the streets and observe the stark reality of human life. I must have walked the vast majority of central São Paulo, flyovers included. I’m naturally curious about stuff people aren’t paying attention to.
I’ve also been heavily influenced by early 20th Century literature as, for the most part, the insights and observations by my favourite writers were only possible because they got as close as they could to their subjects. Good novels are produced by people who go deep and report from the depths on what they find.
Which Brazilian icons do you wish you could dress and why?
I would have loved to have dressed Cândido Rondon, particularly while he was building his telegraph lines deep in Mato Grosso. He is a fascinating character who did so much to progress indigenous awareness and yet was always sharply dressed with such classic and versatile outfits. For pure fun it would have to have been Brazil’s playboy par excellence ‘Baby’ Pignatari, particularly during the 1950s heyday of the Oasis nightclub in Edificio Esther on Republica.
But today it would have to be Brazilians who have excelled at their craft and are bringing attention to Brazil on an international stage such as Paulo Mendes da Rocha the great modernist architect or Alex Atala the chef working with local produce and communities. For a touch of Brazilian urban luxury I would love to work with hotel empresario Rogerio Fasano or even a younger entrepreneur like Facundo Guerra who is breathing life into forgotten old heritage buildings across São Paulo.
What about Brazilian design? What sets it apart and what attracts you to it?
During the 20th Century, modern Brazilian design grew not from blindly following European ideas but in assimilating them into something that became uniquely Brazilian. There’s a word in Portuguese that means ‘cannibalisation’ – in design they say that the Brazilian style cannibalised the old world and out came this beautiful and distinct style.
The mid-century aesthetic is a strong part of Reunidas. In the story of Brazilian tailoring, the 1950s was the golden age – they’d refined their craft and it had become unique. It was a kind of glamorous time – Sao Paulo and Rio were glamorous places.
Brazil is a large country with huge Italian and Japanese migrant communities who contributed to this craft. This led to a fusion in design which is very on-trend – an aesthetic that’s extremely coveted right now. A younger generation are becoming more aware of it and using this old branding in bars, coffee shops and restaurants across downtown Sao Paulo.
You see it from Oscar Niemeyer’s architecture to Brazilian modernist furniture – a Brazilian style that incorporates relaxed and natural curves. You start to see that being applied to tailoring. They removed the old world’s more rigid structure.
What next for Reunidas?
Expansion in Brazil. I would love to collaborate with other champions of Brazilian heritage in different industries and fields, particularly within education as I want to get more involved with helping younger generations of Brazilians appreciate their own history and the potential in the country.
Give us your top five São Paulo tips:
I buy sushi grade fish from Peixaria Mitsugi in the dystopian Japanese district of Liberdade. It is hidden in the back of what looks like a semi-abandoned 1960s shopping gallery and you can also ask for fresh sashimi (no cream cheese…) to eat on the spot with an ice cold beer and just pull up a chair.
If it’s on, Sundays at Paribar in Praça Dom José Gaspar when Selvagem are playing then stumbling past Estadão for the best sanduiche de pernil in town. I feel very connected to that area because I spent a lot of time researching Brazilian history in the wonderful art deco Biblioteca Mário de Andrade opposite and staring out the window over the shoe shiners in the park in front of Paribar.
Wake up early and head to the wholesale food market at CEAGASP and behold the amazing products that flood in from around the country. I particularly love bartering with the old Japanese ladies who seem to have monopolised the market for parsley and other herbs.
Go for a stroll, preferably at dusk, along the brutalist motorway that cuts through the heart of São Paulo known locally as Minhocão. At the weekend it closes to traffic and is open as a park, if you can call it that, complete with skateboarders, joggers, churrascos and street artists. It’s a bizarre and unique way of seeing the city from the ground and allows you to take in some architectural masterpieces like Oscar Niemeyer’s curving utopian COPAN building and see a cross section of urban Paulista life. Depending on what end you finish at, you can include a visit to the organic food market at Parque da Agua Branca or walk down to the newly opened Pedro Mendes da Rocha designed Sesc 24 de Maio cultural centre.
I love wet shaves and, despite the recent explosion in chic barbershops offering cocktails and DJs, there are still a handful of skilled old barbers hidden in the old immigrant neighbourhoods of São Paulo. The Portuguese Seu Joaquim has been shaving customers for half a century at his blink-and-you-miss-it space next to the cemetery in Pinheiros on Rua Horácio Lane. Few know he is there and, sadly, he won't be around for much longer.