Not all gowns and glamour: Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago

Caribbean Beat went behind the scenes, where photographer Sean Drakes and Laura Dowrich-Phillips met the trailblazers of the local fashion industry

A design from Anya Ayoung-Chee’s label, Pilar. Photograph by Edison BoodoosinghA masked model from Simply Garnett, Garnett D’Andrade’s fashion label. Photograph Edison BoodoosinghDesigner Meiling (left) and Marcia Llanos fit Michelene Auguste. Photograph by Sean DrakesDianne Hunt. Photograph courtesy FWTTHairstylist Ashvin Bally (right) and his team. Photograph by Sean DrakesLa Toya Woods rehearses her walk in the lobby at the Hyatt Regency in a Peter Elias gown. Photograph by Sean DrakesPeter Elias’s 2009 collection at FWTT. Photograph by Edison BoodoosinghRosemary Stone. Photograph courtesy FWTT

It was the penultimate night of Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago, and Rosemary Stone was beside herself with excitement. “This has been a long time in the making,” she whispered to me from her seat next to the media pool, the pride evident on her face.

It was actually the second year of the event, but that it was on its way to becoming an annual event was the realisation of a dream Stone has had for many years.

A former journalist, Stone was the only fashion editor in the Caribbean when she was invited to cover London’s second fashion week in the 1980s. She returned home convinced that such an event should be held in Trinidad, and conveyed that sentiment to Owen Baptiste, then editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Express newspaper, where she worked. He agreed.

“Someone had told him that every big newspaper should have a fashion show, so in 1990, the Express held Colour Me Caribbean, the first fashion week in Trinidad, and we had it for three years,” she recalled.
Stone was also instrumental a decade ago in getting the government to send eight local designers to showcase their work at the first Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica. It was a time, she recalled, when Trinidad & Tobago had a thriving, viable fashion industry.

“We used to do a lot of men’s shirts and women’s blouses, people used to buy local. But then the trade liberalisation legislation came and they removed the protection – and everything went haywire, factories closed down,” she said.

But the dream didn’t die. When Dianne Hunt, owner of local clothing retail chain Radical Designs, went to Stone with the idea of inviting other designers to take part in a fashion show, which she was holding under a tent at the Queen’s Park Savannah, they decided to turn it into a national fashion week. The first event, held in May 2008, took place in a large tent, à la New York Fashion Week, at Adam Smith Square in Woodbrook, Port of Spain. The event attracted a large crowd, but was not without its challenges, among them huge financial difficulties.

“We tried to make something out of nothing,” said Hunt. “Sponsorship is something you cannot totally count on.”

To the team’s surprise, the public response was overwhelming, and every night was sold out. Though Hunt considered the square an ideal venue, she was not pleased with the infrastructure, and in 2009, Fashion Week moved to the spanking new Hyatt Regency Hotel. Again, crowd response surpassed expectations.

“In the square we were getting 300 people a night; at the Hyatt it went to 600. We couldn’t believe it was oversold,” said Hunt.

The Hyatt will again be the venue in 2010, and a larger space will hold 1,000 people nightly. To say the event is a hit with Trinidad & Tobago fashionistas, and has filled a void on the social calendar, is an understatement.

With the event into the final year of a three-year development plan, new initiatives will be included, such as daily seminars focusing on careers, the business of fashion, and the Caribbean aesthetic. But the core purpose of Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago is to rebuild the local fashion industry.

“I remember 20 years ago, or even before that,” explained Hunt, “there was such a strong sense of style in the way people dressed. I based my company on the Caribbean aesthetic, and I realised we are faced with a competitive monster in China. For me, this is a way to reignite people’s interest in fashion,”

An added benefit is the exposure the event has given to lesser-known and new designers. In 2009, soca star Machel Montano debuted his Boy Boy children’s clothes and former Miss T&T Anya Ayoung-Chee launched her Pilar line.

However, while Trinidad & Tobago has close to 60 fashion houses, a number of garment manufacturers, and fabric merchants, there are still many elements that need to come together for the industry to thrive.

“We need to get local people to buy local clothes,” said Stone. “We are trying to get you to understand that even your seamstress is a producer and can operate as such. We need to start opening shops. Meiling does a collection for Micles (a local chain of fashion retail stores) and we are trying to get designers to start going this way. We need to get designers to learn how to mass produce.”

The efforts of the FWTT team have coincided with other movements to develop the industry and provide a supporting framework for Fashion Week.

The Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design at the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) is one such pillar of support. Established in 2007, the CAFD offers a BA in fashion design, diplomas in fashion design and fashion management, and short courses in handbag design, textile arts, and jewellery and accessories design.

Carol Mongo, former director of the fashion department at Parsons School of Design in Paris, is the programme consultant for the academy. Mongo and her team, comprising teachers from Parsons, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Central St Martins College of Art and Design, have been able to enhance the design skill of the students to create a new generation of designers. But teaching the business aspect of the industry has proven to be more challenging. One problem, she said, is challenging cultural norms to improve areas such as visual merchandising. Local stores tend to be too crowded and not well laid out, but she acknowledged the difficulty of getting merchants to do things differently when they have been making money doing it their way.

“Another problem is attracting the right students, who know what fashion management is. Students come in expecting something glamorous, not the nuts and bolts of business management,” she said.

Mongo said she had hoped by now the industry would be more recognised by organisations such as the Chamber of Commerce. Stakeholders in the fashion industry are aiming to make that happen and make fashion the eighth sector to assist in the diversification of the economy away from oil and gas. (The government has targeted seven other sectors for development: yachting, food and beverage, fish and fish processing, merchant marine, film, music and entertainment, printing and packaging.)

The Fashion Association of Trinidad & Tobago (FATT), formed in 2007, is spearheading that agenda. Designer Claudia Pegus chairs the organisation, which includes a representative from the CAFD as well as other top local designers, among others. Among FATT’s aims is to seize opportunities for brand building and awareness as well as strengthening the viability of the fashion industry in Trinidad & Tobago in a competitive global environment.

For information: www.fwtt.org or e-mail: fashionweektt@gmail.com

T&T Fashion Week 3

Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago 3 (FWTT3) takes place in Port of Spain, Trinidad, for four fashion-filled evenings, and in Tobago for three days filled with eclectic designer collections, from May 24 to 30.

The FWTT team is led by Dianne Hunt of Radical Designs. Among the other directors are veteran fashion writer Rosemary Stone and Richard Young, founder of the Mannequins model agency.

Continuing what the organisers hope will become a tradition, this year’s fashion festival will once again showcase all aspects of the industry, by fostering the talents of emerging designers, hairstylists, make-up artists, models, accessory manufacturers, cosmeticians, photographers and musicians. Meanwhile, established “Haute Caribbean” designers, as they’ve been christened, will do their best to retain their high profile by unveiling their new collections during the week.

Since this is the third year of the fashion week, three is one of its themes. The organisers want the Caribbean fashion fraternity to observe the three phases of life – past, present and future – and acknowledge the three dynamic components of each individual: body, mind and spirit.

Fashion’s must-haves

In an industry profile paper, FATT identified the support needed to strengthen the industry. Among the needs they listed:
•    private-sector support for investment in a high-technology manufacturing plant
•    a strategic alliance with Guyana or the Dominican Republic, where the plants already exist
•    affordable labour
•    retail spaces
•    new product development

Government support is needed for:
•    marketing apparel made in Trinidad & Tobago
•    a buy-local consumer education drive
•    duty-free concessions on imported equipment and raw materials
•    tax concessions
•    assistance to create a physical and virtual fashion district in Port of Spain