Carol Barreto, an Afro-Brazilian multi-disciplinary artist who has been shifting and reshaping the dialogue between Black aesthetics and fashion in Brazil for almost two decades, has shown her designs at places like Black Fashion Week in Paris, runways in Luanda and Dakar and in art galleries across the U.S., Mexico and Canada. But while her work has brought her international acclaim, similar recognition in her own country has been difficult to come by.
All this could soon change, however, as Barreto's name is one that hundreds of Afro-Brazilian activists, creators and writers are throwing into the ring to take the fashion director position at Vogue Brazil — an influential role which currently sits empty.
Born and raised in Brazil's North Eastern state of Bahia, Barreto started designing from an early age, creating looks and styles from the things that caught her eye. "When I was 14, I bought a fashion magazine with a story on fashion schools in Paris. Before that, I never imagined this was something I could turn into a profession," she says.
At the time, Barreto couldn't afford to attend the institutions that could help turn her dream into a reality, so she began to teach herself the ins and outs of fashion design: sketching, cutting and sewing. It was only when she moved to the city of Salvador that she was able to save enough money to study fashion in college. "By then, I had already taught myself most of what I needed to know so that all I had to do was improve in specific areas where I needed technical help," she explains. Those experiences have deeply affected how Barreto approaches fashion.
"I have been designing since I was a child and I realized then that the universe I loved was the same one that was excluding me," she says. "My first drawings portrayed the white princesses I saw in school books. It's only when I was older that I began to draw more Black women and clothes, because for most of my life, whiteness had been the only thing synonymous with elegance."
Barreto describes her work as moda ativismo (fashion activism) and she uses it to examine and deepen the relationship between fashion and human identities, specifically that of Afro-Brazilian women from the Recôncavo in Bahia, where she was raised. For Barreto, fashion is not simply a career, but an avenue she has been using to carve a layered discourse around Blackness and the role of Black Brazilians on the national landscape.
"My anti-racist stance came from looking at my mother's behavior and understanding that I should seek to create images that resemble me," she explains. "This attitude was then translated into the models I chose to work with, the themes that defined my collections and other technical-conceptual steps that I took to build the collections."
Her designs lean towards accessible avant-garde with clear inspiration taken from the cultural legacy she is surrounded by, such as the Black Brazilian women of acarajé and the Sisterhood of Good Death, an Afro-Brazilian fraternity started by black women in the 1800s as an avenue to combat the slave trade and safeguard their spiritual African customs.
"I am inspired by Afro-Brazilian and African culture and I use art as a way of rewriting the history that was usurped," Barreto says. "I look at fashion as a way to understand the power of images in moving Black existence and culture from a sub-alternate position, and into one that finds direction in using the art of our ancestry."
Barreto's appointment, if made possible, would be a step towards inclusivity from Vogue Brazil, which has largely failed to properly engage with Afro-Brazilian culture and aesthetics. Recent blunders include an African-themed party in 2016, and a headpiece reminiscent of slave gear worn by a social media influencer to Vogue Brazil's carnival ball last year.
Most recently, in February of this year, former fashion director Donata Meirelles resigned after pictures emerged from her birthday party which many felt disrespected the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. The pictures, posted and later deleted from her Instagram, also featured two Black women dressed in clothing similar to those worn by Black women during Brazil's slave period. Meirelles apologized, and so too did Vogue Brazil, but apologies mean nothing without steps towards meaningful change.
This is where followers hope Barreto and her work can help, according to a petition started by Coletivo Entidades Negros (Black Entities Collective), one of the largest Afro-Brazilian organizations in the country. "Carol Barreto is a Black woman who represents the majority of Brazil's population and honors and defends Black culture in fashion on a daily basis, but who because of racism has been kept out of the industry," it reads in part.
The exclusion of Black designers within fashion — not just in Brazil, but globally — is a sobering but well-known truth. It's a systemic issue which stems from the fact that few people in fashion leadership positions represent the racial and cultural diversity in society; in the almost 45-year history of Vogue Brazil, an Afro-Brazilian has never held the role of editor-in-chief nor fashion director.
Currently, change in fashion seems to be driven by consumers with a strength that feels unprecedented. The public is using social media and the power of the collective voice to demand change from companies that have largely coasted under the pretense of inclusivity with no actual evidence. This petition marks a movement from the Afro-Brazilian fashion community, and since its release in mid-February, it has continued to gain traction, being shared across Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
The fashion director position remains open at Vogue Brazil, a prominent role which will greatly affect the faces we see, the designers featured and the visibility offered to a historically marginalized people. Barreto could be a fitting leader and along with her multidisciplinary and innovative approach, she would be able to greatly diversify the vision presented by Vogue Brazil.
"The brands created by white people here often link our [Afro-Brazilian] material culture to the bodies of white people, and in a way that is in keeping up with the history of exclusion in this country," Barreto notes. "As one of the few Black Brazilian women with international visibility in this field, I work artistically and intellectually so I can show the little respect for human diversity that exists on Brazilian catwalks and art galleries."