Kaishah Peters: knitty knitty hits the catwalk

St Maarten designer Kaishah Peters knits and crochets her way up the fashion ladder. Judy Fitzpatrick gets caught up in her intricate designs

Bianca Habischlobinger relaxes in a knitted skirt and white top. Photograph by Bevil ByamKaishah Peters, the designer and craftswoman behind the style. Photograph by Bevil ByamModels Kimberly Meyers (left), Nicola (centre) and Charity Dunker are ready to conquer the waves in these crochet swimwear piece. Photograph by Bevil ByamNicola Kretzschmar models a two-piece crochet ensemble. Photograph by Bevil ByamSpinning yarn into gold? Davina (left) and Bianca in a poncho and multi-coloured sleeveless top. Photograph by Bevil ByamThis summer dress, worn by Davina Brooks, incorporates a crocheted bra top. Photograph by Bevil Byam

In the Dutch Caribbean territory of St Maarten, young designer Kaishah Peters is set on taking over the reins of the fashion industry—or at least turning them into wool and string.

The 29-year-old Peters creates couture ensembles using the age-old crafts of knitting and crocheting. She’s transformed a homely craft she learned from her great-grandmother into a skill she’s perfected over the years, and is ready to outfit the region in her sexy handcrafted pieces. Since earning her arts degree in Miami and winning an award for her final college collection in 1998, Peters has been knitting and crocheting her way up the regional fashion ladder. Some of her handcrafted ensembles have gone from production on her living-room couch to the catwalks of local and regional fashion shows, among them the Winnielle Model Management’s (WMM) Show Me Your Body swimsuit extravaganza and Show Me Your Soul fashion show in St Kitts; Barbados Fashion Week; Caliente Fashion Show in Antigua; and Carifesta VII in St Kitts in 2000.

Although she learnt the arts of knitting and crocheting when she was practically just out of diapers, it was Peters’ petite size at the age of 10 that led her to discover her designing talent.

“I had to go to confirmation,” she recalls, “but…I didn’t like anything I tried on because nothing fitted. So my mom told me I could design a dress, and her friend sewed it for me.” Thus her first outfit was designed and produced. Her seamstress was so impressed with the product—an ankle-length, long-sleeved white princess gown—that she encouraged Peters to follow the designing path. And she did, designing outfits for just about every significant outing she had from then on.

 

With her talent growing into a passion, Peters went to study at what is now the Miami International University of Arts and Design. At the end of her studies she won the coveted college award for producing the best knits, and accepted an offer to work with a wedding designer. But a few months later she returned to St Maarten, her 37-square-mile Dutch/French homeland, to apply her talent. Peters has been on an upward swing ever since, marketing her handmade designs at home and abroad. She’s even outfitted other designers, such as Fabiana Liburd of Why Not Wear from Anguilla, who ordered her ensembles off the models on the runway; Michelle Cole from Facts & Roses in Guyana, and Sandra Illidge of Sandra I of St Maarten and the Netherlands, who had pieces personally designed for her.

She’s also outfitted local beauty queens and pageant contestants, and her ensembles have been modelled on the catwalks of Anguilla, Antigua, St Kitts, and Barbados. She teamed up with WMM CEO Winnielle Guilbert to host a “boot camp” to polish the skills of aspiring St Maarten models in 2006.

Peters is the only professional knitwear and crochet designer on St Maarten. She shares the local scene with a handful of home-grown designers like Sheila Sorton and Glennis Thomas, both of whom focus on evening wear, and Illidge, who now practises her craft in the Netherlands, but has some of her casually elegant designs available locally.

Peters has previously marketed her handcrafted garments under the label Kai Design and Production—the name drawn from the first letters of her name and her son’s. But she’s recently created a new label, Knitty Knitty, which will adorn her future ensembles.

“I came up with the name a few months ago because it was interesting and reflected the sexy designs I create,” explains Peters, who recently crocheted the 2007 signature swimsuit line for telecommunications giant bmobile in St Kitts. “I said to myself: ‘I knit, and cats like to play with yarn,’ and I thought it would look hot if I had someone design a cat playing with yarn to reflect my sexy pieces…. and Knitty Knitty was born.” The sensual bmobile collection was featured in WMM’s Show Me Your Body swimsuit extravaganza in St Kitts in March. Bmobile has been her biggest contract to date, but with plans in the pipeline to establish her first retail outlet in St Maarten, Peters is ready to conquer the region.

She still juggles a full-time job as events co-ordinator at the island’s sole cultural centre by day and works solo as a designer at nights, producing primarily for special orders. But she plans to give up her day job and get into mass production once her dream of opening her own store materialises.

So far her labour of love has paid off and she’s got some rave reviews. The September/October 2006 issue of She Caribbean magazine referred to her beachwear collection as “flirty”, “ultra-feminine” and “a must for beach lovers everywhere”. Miss Universe contestant from the US Virgin Islands Je T’aime Cerge, who had pieces personally designed for her, calls Peters’ work “amazing”, saying the clothes “fit like a dream”. Unleashing a burst of her infectious laughter, Kai, as she is affectionately called, says, “It was torture when my grandmother had me knitting when I wanted to be out playing, but in retrospect it was all worth it.”

 

Peters focuses mainly on informal and beachwear, weaving dresses, tops, pants and skirts. She particularly enjoys designing beachwear, which she says is solid enough to swim in: “I’ve even given a few of them a test run myself.”

No two of her pieces are the same, and she applies innovative techniques to her weaves. She’s not pinned down to using any specific kind of yarn, and the type she uses depends on the customer’s taste, the occasion and the outfit. Garments with combinations of Rasta colours—red, gold and green—in mini-dresses or tops are her best sellers.

“My designs are for women not afraid to show off their bodies,” she says. “I know what women want to wear and I know what fits well, so I tailor my designs to that. “Other times I start with a roll of yarn… and end up with an outfit.” Whether she crochets or knits depends on what a client demands or how the fancy takes her: “I do both equally well, but I can crochet faster.”

As for her personal taste Peters, who likes any shade of blue, prefers “laid-back” clothing that’s comfortable and not too fussy.

She caters to both locals and visitors but for now only markets her items via her website, at fashion shows and through special orders. She describes her work as sensual, ethnic, unique, classic, sexy, and young at heart. She aims to offer fresh, alluring designs with a sexy Caribbean flavour.

As Peters weaves her magic, she’s showing knits are no longer a granny thing. She’s says she’s inspired by people, places and things and influenced by different cultures. So, living on an island shared by 102 different nationalities (according to 2007 Census Office figures), there’s not much chance she’ll ever run out of ideas.

 

Kaishah Peters’ designs can be ordered via her website: www.kaidesignsxm.com