Having lived in Brazil for 12 years I am used to seeing foreigners come here and completely misunderstand what’s going on. Brazil is seductive and Brazilians are charming and they are always keen to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. It is easy for outsiders to be blinded by that charm.

When I saw Suzy Menkes walk on stage to give a press conference on the eve of the International Herald Tribune’s Hot Luxury Conference 2011 I feared the worst.

Menkes confessed to not knowing Brazil very well and it was clear that in her role as Europe’s fashion’s expert extraordinaire, she would know much more about Italy, France and Britain – and even the US and China – than Brazil.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Menkes was as sharp as a tack. She’d done her homework and she wasn’t one to soft soap her hosts.

(Here’s my piece in the Financial Times featuring her.)

Menkes was quick to note the crazy prices here, although she did get it slightly wrong in loading all the blame on import taxes.

Tariffs here are brutal, and Brazilians pay first world taxes for third world services. But because there are so many people with money to spend, greedy retailers feel able to slap huge mark up on their goods, too.

As Vera Lopes, head of the Brazilian chapter of the Luxury Marketing Council, told me: “A bag that costs $1000 in NY costs $3000 here. That might be understandable if it was made in the US. But it’s the same bags that are made in Brazil. They are three times the price here what they are elsewhere. It doesn’t make sense.”

More from Lopes in my Herald Tribune piece from yesterday.

Menkes, though, was keen to learn and she asked about one particularly Brazilian aspect of retailing, that of paying in installments. The simple reason is that it makes big ticket items affordable to the less well off.

But I also explained to her that Brazilian companies don’t provide any incentive to pay in cash by reducing prices for those buying outright. It is just as easy to pay 100 reais a month for a whole year to buy a washing machine than pay 1200 reais once.

What I forgot to tell her is that Brazilians don’t want to pay upfront because the world’s highest interest rates makes it more advantageous to keep their money in the bank.

Perhaps most surprisingly to me, Menkes had none of the airs and graces common in the fashion world. When she didn’t know an answer she threw it back to the journalists and told them, You know more than me, you live here, you tell me what you think. It was a delightfully refreshing attitude.

I didn’t see all of the Hot Luxury conference but Menkes’ questions were key to what I did see. She was polite but probing and without them the conference would have been dominated by Brazil’s boosters like Nizan Guanaes – who gave a fantastic presentation the first morning – and first timers like Sarah Burton, who said she was inspired and awed at Brazil’s energy.

As I said in rounding off one of my stories from the conference:

      They are betting Brazil will continue to exert more and more influence and add more and more to the bottom line. The Herald Tribune’s conference attracted several hundred delegates from around the world, each paying £2495 for the pleasure of hearing specialists talk for a day and a half about Brazil’s prospects. The sense of euphoria wasn’t down to the gorgeous sunshine, or even an excess of caipirinhas. It was all about money – and the potential to make even more of it. “The emerging markets are not only sources of revenue but sources of new ideas,” said Nizan Guanaes, a Brazilian ad executive. “We were a source of problems. (Now) we are players, we are big guys, we are opportunities. So bet on us.”