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The secret to one town's financial success: lingerie

Frilly underwear is helping Juruaia coast through tough economic times.

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.