On a Sunday afternoon in October—80˚, clear skies—Ipanema’s endless crescent of white sand stretches from Copacabana to the foot of Dois Irmãos. There is nowhere Francisco Costa would rather be than this beach. “The later you go, the better it is,” he says while walking down the shorefront promenade. “People go to the beach at three o’clock and just hang out until seven.” Well, not everyone, at least not today. While throngs of his fellow Brazilians, suntanned and exposed in those famously skimpy bikinis, pass by, Costa, 45, in town for an industry event honoring him along with Donatella Versace, Marc Jacobs and Riccardo Tisci, is more conservatively turned out to take a guest on a tour of the city. Specifically, he’s wearing a beige polo shirt and black linen shorts, custom-made ostrich driving loafers and sunglasses from Calvin Klein, the design house where he has helmed the women’s ready-to-wear collection since Klein stepped down in 2003.
Rio de Janeiro is where it all began. In 1980 the teenage Costa left his hometown of Guarani, roughly 100 miles northeast of Rio in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, to enroll in the Center for Technology of the Industry of Chemicals and Textiles (CETIQT), a government-run school in the Rio neighborhood of Riachuelo. “I studied knitting and manufacturing organization,” says Costa. “In other words, how to program knitting machines, set up the machinery, the line of production, the lighting, everything. Obviously it was way too technical for me.”
If the idea of Costa, chief designer of one of the most important houses in American fashion history and two-time winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s award for women’s wear, heading a production line seems far-fetched now, it wasn’t so at the time. His parents owned and operated a children’s wear factory in Guarani, where he and his five brothers and sisters worked growing up. “We used to come from school and go to work,” says Costa, whose first job was attaching hangtags. “There was not a moment when you could just close yourself in the house and read a book or listen to music. That was not in the vocabulary.” Nor was a factory-based future part of his. “My idea was that I needed to get out of my little town,” he says, explaining his rationale for attending a technical school. “It was the only thing in Brazil that offered some sort of outlet to explore and see and move on.” And move on he did. Prior to Calvin Klein, Costa worked in the design studios of Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford at Gucci.