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.
Francisco Costa in Rio de Janiero.
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.
Though Costa spent four years at CETIQT, the school is not on today’s itinerary. His much younger half brother and half sister (the children of his father’s second marriage) are currently enrolled, but Costa hasn’t been back to his alma mater since he graduated. It’s situated in “the worst area ever,” he explains. Instead, he favors more user-friendly attractions, such as Garota de Ipanema, a restaurant with panoramic windows whose name translates as “the girl from Ipanema”—unremarkable aside from its legend. Yes, it’s where Vinícius de Moraes penned the famous bossa nova song, inspired by a girl who walked past every day on her way to the beach. “He used to sit here from breakfast to whenever,” says Costa. “He would just live here in his bathing suit.”
Rio’s coastal architecture, full of imposing modern marble high-rises and multimillion-dollar gated residences, stands in contrast to the Belle Epoque relics, some in cheerful shades of pink, blue and yellow, of the city center, or Cinelândia, which is home to several of Costa’s favorite galleries, bookshops and cafés. “It’s almost a little Cuban,” he says of downtown Rio’s contradictory facades, an image accentuated by the abundance of retro Volkswagen Beetles and buses parked on the streets. “We have the great old buildings that are completely dilapidated and collapsing and a little bit of new architecture. It’s quite incredible. Very bohemian.” A prime example of a 19th-century colonial Portuguese influence is Confeitaria Colombo, “a kind of institution,” says Costa. “Brazil was one of the largest producers of coffee at the time, and a Portuguese family called Colombo built this café and pastry place. It’s very beautiful. A postcard, really.”
As many establishments are closed on Sunday, timing gets in the way of a firsthand experience at the café. Costa redirects the journey to the Museu de Arte Moderna, the MoMA of Rio. His detour runs through Botafogo, the “normal, middle-class” neighborhood he lived in while he was a CETIQT student. He points out the Jardim Botânico and Parque Lage, a lush public garden and mansion, the latter of which houses an arts foundation where Costa once saw a production of The Tempest. “I haven’t been here in so long. Oh, my God,” says Costa, as memories are triggered by, of all things, traffic. “You know the fun thing of me [living] here? I mean, it wasn’t so fun because I had to commute, but the public bus,” says Costa, as an example barrels past. “It’s so tight and on Sundays everyone’s in a bathing suit. They are superfast. It’s a very interesting ride, let’s put it that way.”
The museum, an angular gray concrete structure by Affonso Reidy, is surrounded by a Roberto Burle Marx garden. The famed Brazilian landscape artist designed many of Rio’s parks, Brasília’s hanging gardens and Copacabana’s iconic sidewalk mosaics. Marx’s signature was using native plants in abstract arrangements, explains Costa, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all manner of local trivia—artists and architects, imports and exports, the Dutch settling in the north and the Portuguese in the south. Inside, a Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition is on display, but Costa finds the view more appealing. “You’re more tempted to look out than to look in,” he observes. “I’m sure [Reidy] had total sense that the building would be so much more important than anything you put in it. It’s a very self-centered way of design, but it’s great.” The place is practically deserted today and the desolate concrete monolith exudes an eerie beauty. “People don’t really go to museums in Rio,” says Costa, citing a recent Vik Muniz exhibit as a rare example of something that got the city excited about the arts. “I shouldn’t say it’s not sophisticated, but you know, they go to the beach.”
Yet Rio is known as a city of contradictions and divides, which are perhaps nowhere more evident than in the favelas—on panoramic view from the Santa Teresa hills. While Costa notes that the slums are essential to Brazilian culture, they are also highly symbolic of poverty, drug wars and corruption. Crawling up the hills like weeds, the slipshod houses make for a mesmerizing image, but when a favela photo op is proposed, Costa isn’t interested. Instead, he diverts attention uphill to the retro tram that runs along the historic streets of Santa Teresa, where Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus was filmed. At the peak is Hotel Santa Teresa, an oasis of chic perched among the colonial mansions. In a former life, it was a place of refuge for divorcées, or divorciadas, but it has been reborn as a luxury boutique hotel replete with a spa and a restaurant with a chef imported from France. The manager interrupts lunch to greet Costa, offering the hotel’s finest suite for photos and boasting that Calvin Klein was a recent visitor.
A museum, a hotel—such destinations don’t necessarily paint an intimate portrait of Costa as a Rio de Janeiran expat. In fact, some—specifically the Museu Carmen Miranda and Garota de Ipanema—are, by the designer’s own admission, kitschy, a little touristy. Then again, Costa, who left Rio for New York 25 years ago and became an American citizen in 1995, is a visitor himself these days. His trips to Brazil are less frequent than he would like—a week or so once or twice a year split between Rio and Guarani. When in the former, Costa typically stays at a friend’s house in Ipanema, but this trip has him at the Philippe Starck–designed Hotel Fasano. “Rio was a period of my life and then, poof, I’m gone,” says Costa. “I was very young living here, just kind of floating. New York was a foundation for everything I do today. Rio was the bridge.”
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.
Any malaise is forgotten by the next night’s CK party at the Fasano’s rooftop pool, where Costa is surrounded by such friends as Dree Hemingway and Astrid Muñoz; family, including his sister, two nieces and both half siblings; and white-jacketed waiters proffering an endless supply of champagne and caipirinhas. “Brazil is not what you see but what you feel,” he says. “Once you spend time here—a week, two weeks—you get in the vibe. It’s really intoxicating.”