Upon entering the biennial Brazilian trade fair Inspiramais, guests are greeted by a massive installation made from recycled materials. It was created by the Sao Paolo-born interdisciplinary artist Luciano Pinheiro and consists of patchwork, wattle and macrame. “I like to think of unconventional materials as something noble, something worth striving for,” said the son of a fisherman, who boasts of having brought the first naturally colored collection to Brazilian fashion week.

    While upcycling per se is nothing new in fashion, the seriousness of the artist’s message sets the tone for Inspiramais 2024. The fair is proud of its traditions but ambitious in its pursuit of innovation. It’s regional but focused on international exchanges and operates in one of the world’s most polluting industries but promises to do better.

    1,000 new materials including hides, leather, textiles and synthetics, soles, design accessories and components, design and industrial services, and the latest vegan alternatives for the footwear, apparel and furniture industries will be showcased over two days. However, comparisons with Lineapelle or other global leather fairs are not appropriate. “We’re not trying to compete with Italian trade fairs,” says Inspiramais Research and Design Coordinator Walter Rodrigues in his opening speech. “We’re trying to bring something new to the conversation.”

    Leather with an exotic look for summer 2024 at Inspiramais, Brazil. Image: Inspira Maize

    Located in Porto Alegre in the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande Do Sul, the fair, which is taking place for the 27th time, is the largest materials fair in Latin America and hosts around 150 exhibitors. Usually around 7,000 visitors come, but this year more international journalists and buyers were invited than usual thanks to funding from the Brazilian government.

    The shadow of Covid still hovers over the event as guests are required to show proof of vaccination before boarding a flight to Brazil. Masks are required at Brazilian airports but not at the fair. Confidence in global supply chains shattered by the pandemic provided the Brazilian leather industry with an opportunity to focus on its domestic strengths. According to Inspiramais statistics, the industry, which includes 2,400 companies and employs 100,000 people, earned around 421 million US dollars (392 million euros) in 2022 and exported to 77 countries at a record level.

    “Fashion is 50 percent inspiration and 50 percent business,” explains Rodrigues, but the first Inspiramais, held in Sao Paolo in 2004, was purely business-focused. On the downside, says Inspiramais designer Julia Webber: “Seventeen years ago there was no Brazilian fashion industry, the focus was on copying what others were doing.” But by working with Assintecal, an organization that brings together companies in the leather goods industry , the fair began to prioritize design, originality and innovation. The Inspiramais moved south to Porto Alegre three years ago to be close to the high concentration of artisan workshops and tanneries, as well as the leather-making know-how passed down through generations. This means that all components of apparel and accessories can be manufactured domestically.

    This edition of the fair features buyers from eleven different countries, including Portugal, Mexico, Spain, Italy and the United States. “At Inspiramais we want to be facilitators,” says Rodrigues. Many of the attendees only speak Portuguese, but there are English and Spanish translators for those who want to learn more about the tanneries and their processes. The leathers on display are distinguished by their colour, texture and shine, many of which are chrome free and vegetable tanned.

    Rodrigues prefers to go through the usual terminology of “spring/summer” or “autumn/winter 2024”, which he feels imposes an unnecessary and outdated expiration date on the materials first and second semester 2024 to replace. He also divides the materials into a percentage pyramid. Ten percent of the leathers at the show fall into the innovation category, best suited to the upmarket segment or to enhance a more commercial collection. 30 percent are categorized as strategy or process, emphasizing technique and texture suggestions. Another 60 percent represent know-how and are intended for the general public.

    Inspiramais celebrates sustainable leather and vegan alternatives

    The leather industry’s wasteful and polluting practices are well known, but Rodrigues emphasizes: “we breathe sustainability at Inspiramais.” Indeed, the word is at the forefront of every presentation and lecture over the two days. Brazil has one of the largest commercial cattle farms in the world, supplying the country’s meat industry. It is also one of the three largest leather producers in the world. The country has its own certification process, the CSCB (Brazilian Leather Certificate of Sustainability), supported by the Brazilian Leather Project, an initiative of the CICB (Centre for the Brazilian Tanning Industry) and the Brazilian Agency for Trade and Investment Promotion (apexBrasil), to encourage the uptake of Brazilian leather into foreign markets. Manufacturing companies must meet criteria related to water and energy use, prohibited substances, and worker health and safety. The CSBC is also signed by ICEC (the Italian Institute for Quality Certification in the Leather Sector).

    Another important certification is Origem Sustentável (Sustainable Origin), the only ESG and sustainability certification in the world aimed at companies in the shoe chain. But it’s less visible to visitors who are used to the more well-known, UK-founded LWG certification. When asked at Inspiramais, some leather producers expressed frustration with the LWG’s elitism and failure to recognize that the environment and climate, among other factors, make it impossible for the Brazilian leather industry to meet some of its criteria.

    Skin from the Amazonian pirarucu fish presented at Inspiramais
    Fishskin at Inspiramais Fair, Brazil for Fall 2024. Image: FashionUnited.com

    Fish skin is becoming increasingly popular for shoes and accessories, and with Brazil being one of the most prolific fishing nations in the world, skins that used to be discarded by the food industry are proudly displayed. Particularly popular is one of the country’s largest freshwater fish, the Pirarucu, presented by pioneering organic tannery Nova Kaeru, and Tilapia by Tilápia Leather.

    At the Creative Connection Hub, micro-enterprises, cooperatives and start-ups from across Brazil exhibit products that are often locally sourced and a mix of science and craftsmanship. The hub is the heart of the trade fair. The idea is to create relationships between the smaller, agile brands and large companies that could potentially integrate their products. “In the main exhibition space, the materials, products and techniques are mass market oriented and it’s difficult to create openness to smaller designers,” Marmei Carminatti, consultant at Assintecal, tells FashionUnited. “But the Creative Connection Hub is important because the small exhibitors show very creative and craft ideas that can potentially be scaled up on an industrial scale.”

    Jewelry made from repurposed wood on display at Inspiramais Brazil
    Marquetry techniques by the Brazilian brand Amazônia Ancestral, Inspiramais leather fair. Image: FashionUnited

    While developments in PET and mycelium may be old hat to international visitors, the eco-friendly offerings inherent to the people and place are of particular interest. The start-up Huna has developed the biomaterial G.Tex from the skin of the guarana fruit native to the Amazon basin – a vegan, biodegradable alternative to leather. Parcoa Eco champions red clay dyeing on banana leaves, an ancient skill that came to Brazil via African slaves. Ornaments and soft textiles meet in eye-catching jewelry made from wood waste by Amazônia Ancestral and Grupo JR Soluções takes Brazilian expertise in shoe component manufacturing to a sustainable level. The company has developed a shoe assembly kit made entirely from recycled materials that you can assemble yourself.

    The next edition of Inspiramais is scheduled for July 2023.

    FashionUnited was invited to attend Inspiramais in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

    This article was similarly published on FashionUnited.com. Translation and editing: Barbara Russ