JURUAIA, Brazil — The highway that meanders through coffee country into this 8,000-person hamlet is to some extent like any country road in southern Minas Gerais state: rolling hills, flowering trees, grazing cattle, toiling workers. It is, in a word, picturesque.
But the road to Juruaia is just a bit more picturesque than most, thanks to dozens of billboards featuring scantily-clad models posing in the town’s No. 1 product: lingerie.
Once a struggling agricultural town, Juruaia now bills itself as the intimate apparel capital of Brazil. And that title isn't far-fetched. There are now 141 lingerie manufacturers in Juruaia, according to Joao Batista da Silva, the town’s secretary of commerce, industry and tourism (and the owner of two of the companies, Perlui and Sensual Lingerie).
That comes out to one per 58 inhabitants, which is hard to believe until you actually drive through the town's cobblestone streets, where open-air shopping mall meets small-town charm meets Playboy Mansion. It’s unclear which non-human population is bigger — scantily-clad mannequins or roosters.
And as it turns out, the lingerie business is a good one to be in these days in Brazil.
The international financial crisis — which many thought Brazil might largely avoid — has hit. Industrial production dropped 17.3 percent in January, and government figures released this week showed the economy shrank precipitously in the fourth quarter of 2008 as well. Wednesday, the Central Bank slashed its benchmark interest rate 1.5 percent, to 11.25 percent, in hopes of spurring a comeback.
But you wouldn’t know it in Juruaia, where the frilly panties are still flying off the assembly lines and retail shelves.
Twelve new businesses opened here in September alone, said Maria Irene Lara Resende, who founded Del Laras lingerie in 1994 after spending nine years as a postal worker. Most of the space in a half-constructed commercial building just up the street from her combination store and factory are already spoken for. And the town’s first “big” hotel — the 38-room Hotel Central — will open in April.
Lara Resende notes her business grew 50 percent in 2007, and between 25 percent to 30 percent in 2008. Thus far in 2009, it shows no sign of a slowdown. In fact, during a late afternoon surprise visit from a reporter last week, as a dozen or so workers cleaned up around their sewing machines in the second floor factory above the retail store, several employees stayed past closing hours putting the finishing touches on a new line of lacy white camisoles that had to be shipped out soon. “A friend once told me that there will never be a crisis for people who work with women’s vanity and men’s vices," she said.
In fact, the only crisis in these parts is a labor shortage.
“We need workers,” said Julio Lara Resende, Maria Irene’s 20-year-old son. “If someone wants a job, and they know what they’re doing, there’s no lack of employment in Juruaia.” Many companies must recruit from neighboring towns like Guaxupe and Muzambinho. (Alas, it’s an unwieldy four-hour commute from Sao Jose dos Campos, where 4,200 workers were laid off by Brazilian airplane producer Embraer last month. Plus, it’s unclear how applicable aeronautic skills are to the intimate apparel industry.)
Though most businesses here distribute only domestically — with the heaviest sales in populous Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo states — some take advantage of the relatively low shipping costs (it’s a lightweight product, after all) and export around the world. Del Laras products have made it as far as Japan and Europe, Maria Irene said.
She considers her small town to have a better sense of modern style than many more cosmopolitan places, at least when it comes to underwear. She was surprised this year to see some of the featured dancers at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro — theoretically one of the world’s greatest stages for skimpy clothing — using outmoded styles. “They’re behind the times,” she said. “We stopped using silicone bras a while back."
The first lingerie business opened in Juruaia in 1991, when the then-mayor's attempt to attract industry and jobs pulled in a lingerie maker from Goias state. Over the next few years, about a dozen more sprung up, mostly run by locals. In 1997, the Commercial and Industrial Association of Juruaia was formed, and the first annual Lingerie Fair of Juruaia was held in 1998. But it wasn't until the last decade that things exploded.
The secret of the town's lingerie success, according to Lucia Lorio — whose Lindelucy company is one of Juruaia’s oldest and biggest — is small-town values. “From the beginning, since the pioneers,” she said, “we’ve had the habit of not speaking badly of the other businesses. That contributes greatly to the unity of the town.”
Lorio said she is not so innocent to think the crisis will not hit eventually. But she has recently expanded her offerings, hoping that the variety will help her coast through the downturn. Proof of her optimism: A 1,000-square-foot expansion of her store is budgeted for this year and she recently hired three more employees.
Meanwhile, she said, calling Juruaia a lingerie town is somewhat unfair, as manufacturers have gone beyond just panties and bras. “Juruaia is diversifying,” she said. “We’re expanding into pajamas, camisoles and men’s briefs.”
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