King of the Carnival: The death of a legend

Rio's festival of hedonism will never be the same again. Clovis Bornay, the fashion designer who personified its spirit, has died at the age of 89. By Elizabeth Davies
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The Independent US

It is the party to end all parties: an ecstatic eruption of flesh, fantasy and flamboyance that hits the dusty streets of Rio de Janeiro every year for four long, hot days and nights of outlandish dancing, sumptuous costumes and non-stop samba beats.

The irresistible occasion for tens of thousands of revellers from all over the world to descend upon the city and parade in extravagant style through its streets, favelas and beach fronts, Carnaval, as it is known in Portuguese, is almost synonymous with Rio de Janeiro. And, for many, the city is well-nigh unimaginable without it.

But, in one, crucial respect, the heady celebrations will never be quite the same again. On Monday, the hearts and minds of the carnival community were in an unusually sombre mood for the burial of Clovis Bornay, the man who perhaps more than any other personified the bold, brash and, its fans would say, beautiful spirit of the Rio carnival.

Next year's Carnaval will go ahead; the city will be consumed as usual by the frenzy of hedonism. But the festivities will be marked by the striking absence of one of its founding fathers, who, after almost 60 years of bringing inspirational charisma to the Rio party scene, died last weekend.

Bornay, one of the world's most famous carnival costume designers, suffered a heart attack at Rio's Souza Aguiar Hospital on Sunday. He was 89 years old. Friends, family and admirers gathered on Monday to pay tribute to his artistic genius, and he was buried at the Sao Joao Batista cemetery in Rio.

A community known for its colour and noisy celebration was, for once, deep in sorrow. The Brazilian art world united in paying tribute to a man whose creativity, originality and overall enthusiasm for life helped make the carnival what it is today.

It was largely down to Bornay, an irrepressible eccentric with a genius eye for fashion and a unquenchable taste for the exotic, to transform the rather demure festivities of the traditional carnival into an extravaganza, a lavish celebration in which anything and everything is possible.

A precocious 21-year-old costume designer when he first made his mark on the Brazilian fashion world, Bornay spent his life trying to bring a touch of glamour and luxury to the sedate Rio social circuit, which in those days bore little relation to the explosive partying it is known for today. His later decision to bring the glamour of his costumes into the open air and introduce over-the-top luxury to the streets, was a master stroke. The Rio carnival - indeed, Rio itself - would never be the same again.

Bornay, born in 1916 in a town near Rio, adopted the city as his home just as soon as he was old enough to appreciate the potential it held for him, an up-and-coming designer with an eye for plumes, frills and the odd sequin or two. Fascinated by the masked carnival balls of Venice, he spent the 1930s working as a museum curator and living for the four days of each year when he was able to take part in individual costume parades from which, invariably, he would emerge the victor. Right from the beginning, when his 1928 designs for the Fluminese football club silenced his critics, his larger-than-life outfits rarely failed to impress the judges and earned him the deserved reputation as one of the most original designers in Brazil. After several years, his successes in the parades had become so predictable that he was awarded the privilege of strutting his stuff "hors concours"- as a contestant whose costumes were above being judged.

"He somehow represented the happiness of Rio de Janeiro Carnival, an artist with bags of creativity and at the same time a serious researcher for producing, year in, year out, astounding and exquisite costumes," wrote the newspaper Jornal do Brasil yesterday.

Over the years, Bornay became an immovable fixture in the Rio social whirl. Just as his career was on the up, however, the luxury parades in venues such as the famed Municipal Theatre upon which he had made an indelible impression became less and less popular.

It was not an option for Bornay, by now a much-loved icon of camp Copacabana, to waste his talent on outmoded shows that attracted barely any spectators. Looking around for a way to revolutionise Rio's fashion world, he set his sights on the annual carnival parades that, led by horse-drawn carts and military bands, took place every year around the city, and which, he decided, were lacking in sparkle.

Bornay's colourful designs, first seen in the parades in the 1960s, brought the street festivities to life and gave them a badly-needed injection of kitsch and glitz. The fashionista turned his attention to the escuelas de samba (samba schools) which had provided the vibrant rhythms of the carnival since 1917, when the music, an energetic mixture of Angolan semba, European polka and African batuques, developed in Brazil as a result of the arrival of black Brazilians in Rio's slums.

In 1969, Bornay was made a "carnavalesco" - the master costume designer for a school of samba - and, in 1970, he led the traditional Portela parade group around the city for a head-turning, eyebrow-raising tour themed "Legends and mysteries of the Amazon". Fans of the Portela group - one of the most traditional Rio had to offer at the time - had never seen anything like it. Bornay, indulging the vanity he had become known for, paraded the troupe from district to district wearing a costume dripping with sparkling blue diamonds and covered in feathers, sequins, brocade and glitter.

It was performances such as this which gave the Rio carnival the camp and colourful character for which it has since become famous. Bornay's outfits may, on the one hand, have been products of his age and its fashions. But, on the other, it is clear, in the elaborate plumed head-dresses worn by dancers in today's parades, in the gold lamé bikinis, sequinned gowns and flowing, multi-coloured robes, that he had captured the brash spirit which would go on to define Carnaval.

Towards the end of his life, Bornay had become known as the single most important icon of the carnival. His role in revolutionising the festivities was recognised as having played such an important part in Carioca (Rio) culture that, in 1996, he was honoured with the Tirandentes medal, the most prestigious award for cultural contribution in the state of Rio de Janeiro. His bearded face, usually swathed in dazzlingly jewelled fabrics, stared out from posters all over the city, and several films, such as Independence or Death, 1972, were made using his real-life story as their inspiration. The Brazilian artistic world still pays regular homage to a man who helped to revolutionise Rio's festivities.

The modern-day carnival is, after all, the spectacular testament of his, more than anyone else's, success. And, while enthusiasts across the world will have been saddened by his death, his life cannot fail to still bring a joyful exuberance to those who make the most of his legacy. The world's greatest party will, unquestionably, go on. And no one would have agreed with that more wholeheartedly than Bornay himself.