Brief though it was, Costa’s time in Rio proved transformational. It was here that he first indulged his taste for opera and theater, two pastimes that didn’t factor into his parents’ industrial household. Nor did another passion, the ballet. Some of his closest friends were dancers in a company called Atelier de Coreografia. Asked with whom he keeps in touch, one dancer in particular comes to mind. “Marcello,” says Costa with a laugh. “He’s actually the first one who told me, ‘You’re gay, you’re definitely gay.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not gay.’ He said, ‘Okay, you’re Mother Teresa.’ He would just antagonize me like crazy. I didn’t know what I was. For me there was no label; I didn’t give a s---, basically. But it made me question a lot. Rio does that to you too.”
With that in mind, it’s easy to picture a young boy from the middle of nowhere reveling in Rio’s anything-goes attitude on the road to self-discovery. But Costa hints at a less liberal local perspective. “It seems to be very open-minded, and at the same time it’s such a macho culture,” he says. “Boys are very protective of their girlfriends. They’re walking, they’re holding their hands. There’s this adoration. I think it’s fantastic. Women are really adored here, elevated.”
Perhaps Brazil’s woman-as-goddess culture fueled Costa’s desire to dress them? He balks at the suggestion. It’s too easy. “When people ask me what it is about Brazil and my work, it’s not something that I can say literally. It’s unidentifiable,” he says. “It’s like when you do research and things inspire you. If you’re smart enough, then obviously you don’t take it literally. The inspiration will come out later somehow.” But if he has to draw a concrete parallel between his design ethos and something innately Brazilian, Costa chooses architecture, specifically the work of Oscar Niemeyer, whose buildings—such as the hovercraft-like contemporary art museum across the bridge in Niterói—are a hallmark of Brazilian design. “It’s so appreciated, because it really is the spirit of Brazil,” Costa notes of Niemeyer’s aesthetic. “It’s very organic; it’s very feminine. It’s almost like you’re looking at a woman. Everything is round and everything has that curve to it.”
While gentle and warm, a consummate host, Costa isn’t an open book. He’s a bit shy and errs on the side of caution, stopping himself in the midst of seemingly innocuous conversation to mention that it’s off the record. Among such banished topics: a sweet story about his mother; a G-rated addendum to his gay revelation; and how he really feels about Oi Fashion Rocks, the music-runway hybrid that is the main reason for this trip. Anyone who was there can attest to the event’s considerable cheese factor. For the finale, Costa’s fall 2009 collection was sent out to a live performance by Mariah Carey, which, as his first major Calvin Klein outing in front of a hometown audience, “almost gave me a nervous breakdown,” says Costa. While the other designer-musician pairings (Versace and Diddy, Tisci and Ciara) bowed with a gracious embrace, Carey, in an asphyxiatingly tight black mermaid gown (not a Calvin Klein, Costa points out), waltzed off the stage without a glance in the designer’s direction.