Francis Hendy: the quiet man with the big name

Helen Shair-Singh finds out how Francis Hendy, a modest tailor from Trinidad, became a celebrity designer in New York

Hendy designs on the catwalk. Photograph courtesy Francis Hendy Inc.

Francis Hendy is a Trinidadian by birth and a New Yorker by choice. If you want to make a name for yourself in the fashion industry, New York – the fashion capital of the US – is a good place to start. And although many have failed in the attempt, that’s exactly what Hendy has done: he’s created a respected name, with a loyal following.

Yet on meeting Hendy for the first time, at his office, I said to him, “Hello, I’m here to meet with Mr Hendy.” It didn’t occur to me that this quiet, soft-spoken man – who answered the door himself and asked me to please come in and have a seat – was the man himself. I’d had to beg a favour from a New York friend to get the interview, as he hates interviews. Nevertheless, much has been written about this unassuming man with the big reputation.

Hendy “came into his craft”, as he puts it, as a young boy. He was born on Besson Street, East Dry River, Port of Spain, to a seamstress mother who worked for a well-known haberdashery store, Habib’s. Little Francis found himself naturally drawn to it, and was soon cutting pants lengths from patterns he made himself and sewing them into garments for his mother’s clients.

He developed into a gifted fashion designer, but began his career by designing costumes for Carnival.

He started out in New York in the 1970s with the quirky name FCQ (it stood for “Francis Changes Quickly”). His sister Charmain explains that the name actually came from his clients, who found he worked so quickly to produce these amazing garments, and was so far ahead of current trends, that they nicknamed him “Quickly”. Hendy recounts how June Ambrose, a stylist with celebrity connections, saw someone wearing one of his original designs – a pair of trousers, of course – and was intrigued enough to ask where he got them. The connection was made, a spark was lit, and it continues to burn today.

His company, now called Francis Hendy Inc, and based in New York’s Fashion District, in Manhattan, consists of a costume design and custom fashion division called Hendy, a designer sportswear label, FCQ Sport, and the high-end line, Francis Hendy NY.

Hendy is the company’s head designer and CEO and Charmain is the president and chief operating officer. The company’s official profile describes her as the problem solver, who “buffers Francis from situations that might hinder the creative process”. Having met the man, you understand how it might be necessary: her job is probably to clear the clutter and clamour from this gentle being’s life and give him the space and freedom to create.

Today, Hendy is positioned as a trendsetter and a highly original menswear designer. He has custom-designed for many celebrities – names like Missy Elliot, Wyclef Jean, Samuel L Jackson, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Usher, Brian McKnight and Snoop Dogg drop casually from his lips.

But he still has Caribbean connections. He regularly collaborates with Trinidadian designer Claudia Pegus on many of her collections, and has participated in the last two Trinidad & Tobago Fashion Weeks. Together he and Pegus have also developed a line of clothing they’ve christened Sea Island Cotton, made from cotton grown in Barbados and Jamaica, in an effort to utilise more local resources and keep some of the business in the Caribbean.

If you’re lucky enough to attend Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica in June, keep a special eye out for the latest in Hendy’s designs gracing the catwalk.

For more information, visit: www.francishendy.com or, if you happen to be in New York, the showroom is at 244 West 39th Street