NITEROI, Brazil (AP) — The elite of the fashion world flocked to Brazil, defying an outbreak of the Zika virus, an economic meltdown and the deep political crisis afflicting the country to attend a runway show Saturday by revered French label Louis Vuitton. Around 500 guests, including A-listers Jaden Smith and Catherine Deneuve and fashion royalty flown in from New York and Paris, took in Vuitton's Cruise 2017 collection at a futuristic art museum in Rio de Janeiro's sister city of Niteroi.
With the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain shimmering in the background, the models strode the catwalk in sporty looks that channeled the street style of this beachfront metropolis and harkened to the upcoming Summer Olympics which will take place here in August.
For Michael Burke, Vuitton's chairman and CEO, the collection was pure Brazil. "Brazil is about color, it's about positiveness, it's about the future, it's about the body, it's about a strong woman," he said.
Cutout dresses in color-block neoprene looked like crosses between wetsuits and easy, breezy sundresses, and the squishy-soled shoes were equal parts sensible boots and the flip flops that are Rio resident's footwear of choice. Filing out of the spaceship-shaped museum in their chic gym wear, the models looked like fitness-crazed aliens determined to help humankind shed a few pounds.
Outside the heavily guarded museum, onlookers gathered on the balconies of neighboring buildings to gawk and cheer wildly at the well-heeled guests, who also included a cadre of Brazilian women who are among the Vuitton's top customers.
Brazil's wealthy elite have long been reputed to be among the world's most voracious luxury consumers, but the current recession — the worst since the 1930s — has put the brakes on spending of late. The snowballing political crisis that saw President Dilma Rousseff impeached earlier this month has thrust the South American giant into further instability, even as authorities here scramble to respond to an outbreak of the Zika virus, which has been linked to a terrible birth defect in infants.
For Vuitton brass, the very act of holding the first fashion show by a top European brand in Brazil at this troubled time represented an act of defiance against the onslaught of bad news besetting the country.
Designer Nicolas Ghesquiere said the show sent a signal to the world ahead of the Aug. 5-21 Olympics, which observers say could see low tourist turnout due to the trifecta of crises. "As the biggest brand in the world, I think it's good to give a strong message to people and say we're not scared," he said, after a makeup artist mopped the tropical perspiration from his brow.
CEO Burke went even further. "This was much more than a fashion show. It was about showing our love for this country, out appreciation, about giving back," he said, adding the big-budget event had created temporary jobs for some 5,000 people. "Is it a humanitarian activity? No, I wouldn't go that far. But it has a little bit of that."