Lesley Ann Noel: keeping it chic

Trinidadian Lesley Ann Noel creates ethnic lifestyle chic with sustainable designs from around the world

Beach mat made of woven straw with bark cloth trim. Photograph courtesy Lesley Ann NoelHandmade paper journals covered with embroidered bark cloth, handmade paper, and raffia. Photograph courtesy Lesley Ann NoelLamp made of woven straw around a metal frame. Photograph courtesy Lesley Ann NoelLarge handbag made from dyed straw mat; made in Tanzania. Photograph courtesy Lesley Ann NoelLesley Ann Noel. Photograph by Shirley BahadurSatin evening bag with metal handles and an embroidered detail; made in Tanzania. Photograph courtesy Lesley Ann Noel

If design is vision, then Lesley Ann Noel is emerging as one of Trinidad’s top young visionaries.

After seven years in Brazil, Noel returned to Trinidad in 1999 with a degree in industrial design and a diploma in furniture design. She started off making furniture, using traditional local craft materials, like vetiver grass and calabashes. She shaped lamps and chairs, as well as purely ornamental objects, and her work was shown at the Kiskidee Gallery in 1999 (alongside work by artist Susan Wiltshire), and in a solo show at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts centre in 2001.

Her own house always ended up empty, thanks to friends and family members loving her home furnishings. She began to think it was time to open a shop. Noel was on her way home one day when she saw an old hardware store on the corner of Jerningham Avenue in Belmont with a “for sale” sign.

“People thought I was crazy, but from a design perspective I saw lots of possibilities for the space. It was a conscious decision too, to stay in Belmont. I think Belmont, along with the whole of east Port of Spain, is due for what the Brazilians call revitalisation.”

She shies away from the word “gentrification”, because it sounds too impersonal; as a Belmont resident, she knows first-hand the cultural value of the city neighbourhood that stretches from the Queen’s Park Savannah to the foot of the Laventille Hills.

Being part of a community is important. Noel is on friendly terms with everyone, from other businesses on the street to residents to the homeless. And since opening its doors, her shop, Chic Shak, has been joined by Nadella Benjamin and her Caribbean Media Arts Company upstairs, and local menswear designer Gregory Mills has opened his Millhouse right next door. Within shouting distance is the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and if you listen carefully you might hear singer Mavis John scatting in her garden.

From her desk at Chic Shak, Noel manages a hefty portfolio. She lectures in design at the University of the West Indies St Augustine campus, and works with the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago in their communications committee. She’s also currently working with Dean Arlen and eight other artists doing site-specific sculptures for the UWI campus.

“I still do some design work, but I consider the store is the work that I’m doing, the store is my big design project. I get to apply what I think I know about design and business on one project. Everything about it is part of the design, from the colours to the feel and the service. It’s all part of the Chic Shak lifestyle that we’re offering to our clients.”

One of her most successful lines to date came from a stock of Tanzanian fabric that sat in the shop for three years. “I was sure that I could sell these kangas. They’re traditional Tanzanian wear for women. But no one was interested in them as just plain cloth.” She spent a long time trying to figure out what she could do with the kangas, feeling all along that there must be something interesting in the design that could transform it into a saleable item. Eventually Noel worked with another local designer to come up with a line of “baby doll” tops and dresses. She also gave clients a translation of the Swahili sayings printed at the bottoms of the panels. The personal touch and the reasonable prices made the kanga line a big hit for Emancipation 2006.

“I like to think of it as an ethnic department store, and Trinidad is the perfect place for it. It’s sustainable design from Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. People always ask why I’m doing it, and I guess I’m passionate about two things: design and development, and here I have a chance to marry the two.”

Chic Shak has shifted Noel’s focus from furniture design to creating a lifestyle that is at once international, local, and exotic, but in an everyday sort of way.

“Our next big design project is a line of wholesale items for souvenir shops around the Caribbean, and a line of memorabilia for the 2007 Cricket World Cup.”

Noel admits she’s not the kind of designer who produces an exclusive line of one-off objects or clothes. “On one hand, Chic Shak has a definite niche market, but on the other it’s an attempt to give well-designed ethnic wear a mass appeal.”

Part of the appeal of the shop is where it’s all coming from. Noel likes having a working relationship with the artisans, whether it’s the Ugandan woman who makes batik in her backyard or the Belmont woman who creates a dress from that fabric. But she also admits that she loves the back and forth: the travel keeps her excited about creating positive trade links between the Caribbean and other parts of the developing world.