A taste of brown sugar: Judith Rawlins

Designer Judith Rawlins is putting St Kitts on the fashion map. Laura Dowrich-Phillips looks through her racks of Caribbean casuals

Kathy Davis models one of Judith Rawlin’s creations at the old sugar factory in St Kitts. Photograph courtesy Judith Rawlins, taken by GSquared Arts, St Kitts

Of the overseas designers who participated in the 2009 Fashion Week Trinidad & Tobago, Brown Sugar stood out, with its clean, simple, yet elegant Caribbean casuals in whites and earth tones. The line was well received, with lusty applause for the designer, Judith Rawlins, when she appeared on the catwalk at the end of her showing.

Rawlins is a Kittitian designer, who, though she’s well known in the Eastern Caribbean, made her Trinidad & Tobago debut at that fashion event. She was very excited at the opportunity to expose her work, since she was on the brink of expanding her business throughout the Caribbean, and looked forward to capitalising on the networks she was able to build during the week.

Rawlins founded Brown Sugar in 1994, a couple of years after returning to St Kitts, where she was born and raised, with a degree in architecture from the University of Technology (UTECH) in Jamaica.

“I was always drawing and I did a lot of technical drawing courses in school, so I guess I was being framed for that,” she recalled of her decision to study architecture instead of fashion.

Rawlins’ mother was a seamstress, so she learnt to sew from early, and helped her mother’s clients select styles for various occasions. She even designed and sewed her own clothes; but it wasn’t until she completed her studies that she realised she could make a living with those skills.

Even though she’s turned her back on architecture her training has influenced her work in fashion design.

“I seem to have a thing for the fluid movement of skirts, bias cuts and so on. I like clean lines, I like geometry; I guess that’s an influence from architecture,” she said, describing her clothing as feminine, classic and timeless.

Brown Sugar specialises in skirts, dresses and blouses made predominantly in linen, and in 2004 she introduced a long-awaited men’s line of linen trousers and shirts.

Like most designers, Rawlins draws inspiration from other designers whose aesthetic appeals to her sensibilities. In the Caribbean, those designers are Robert Young of The Cloth and Meiling – both from Trinidad – and internationally, US designer Donna Karan.

Initially, Rawlins supplied clothing for a boutique, but eventually she bought the store and began operating under her own brand, Brown Sugar. The name plays on the Caribbean’s and St Kitts’ sugar heritage. In its heyday as a sugar producer, the island boasted 68 sugar plantations, but the industry was officially shut down in 2005.

Brown Sugar also plays on the beauty of Caribbean women, their exotic features, and sweet nature.

When Rawlins came on the scene, she entered a market dominated by expatriates, and she was the first local to design and produce a clothing line. She quickly set about carving a niche for herself, and was recognised with awards in 2002 and 2003 for Outstanding Product Line at the Caribbean Gift and Craft Show.

Her clothes have graced catwalks at Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica – the region’s leading fashion event – Barbados, Antigua, Tortola, St Maarten, Grenada, New York and London. Each year, Rawlins also produces her own fashion show in St Kitts to showcase her new lines. Her latest, in December, was called Sweet Legacy.

Reflecting on the changes that have taken place in fashion since she first started designing, Rawlins said the Caribbean has long been known more for manufacture than design.
“It’s good we can disprove that. It’s a long road – but I am hoping we can break through.”