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UTT fashion graduands look to the world

Sunday, June 16, 2013
UTT CAFD 2013 graduands from left, Odette Jack, Jennifer Grant, Monica Joseph, Sarah Woodham, Ricky Bhowram, Raenella Allum, Darscell Douglas. Photo courtesy Rachael Collymore.

There were bare mannequins grouped in a corner of the cool third floor studio of UTT’s Creative Campus on Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. The unadorned white walls and clear tabletops of the studio were immaculate, flanked by several empty clothing racks and silent sewing machines. There were no patterns laid out, no swatches or fabric samples, not a pin out of place to give the slightest indication of what could be expected from the upcoming final thesis show from the Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design (CAFD). The show, Mode Repertoire, is scheduled to take place on June 30 at Hilton Trinidad. Juxtaposed with the unexpected austerity of the studio were seven fashion designers of the 2013 cohort, all of them dressed to the hilt in explosive personal style. The designers spoke passionately about their upcoming mini-collections and their thoughts on becoming representatives of the Caribbean fashion industry. 



Their enthusiasm was tempered by discourse on the serious challenges of the competitive global fashion landscape and also the benefits of entering that landscape equipped with a bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree in fashion design. Their artistic influences were varied, yet each philosophy fearlessly mixed and matched styles and motifs into what could be described as an emerging Caribbean fashion aesthetic drawn from looking both inward and at international fashion trends. “I feel like anything we want to create is the Caribbean aesthetic,” said Sarah Woodham, a designer with an interest in costuming, origami and the intriguing art of fabric manipulation called shadow folding. This view was passionately echoed by Jennifer Grant, a designer with 35 years’ experience in the local and international arena. A tailor by profession, she championed her preference for well-constructed garments rather than drapery or flowing fabrics. The Dandies will be the title of her mini-collection at Mode Repertoire.Motivated by her background in visual art, Raenella Allum has an eye for simplicity, changing the silhouette and making marketable, wearable works of art. Darscell Douglas shares Allum’s love of simplicity and values, clean, uncluttered lines in her designs, with a focus on the silhouette. 



Odette Jack, from Tobago, expressed a deep interest in sculpture and mixing it with aspects of visual and fabric art. Her upcoming mini-collection, inspired by equestrianism, will be called The Art of Horse Riding. Venezuela-born Monica Joseph expressed her preference for darker fabrics and concept fashion ideas, using fabric cutting as a weapon to produce designs that will, it is hoped, inspire deeper emotional reactions to her collection. The lone man among the designers was Ricky Bhowram, who prefers to create highly-stylised one-of-a-kind pieces and is a devotee of luxury and high fashion. Self-described as an intellectual designer, Bhowram’s vision for his mini-collection included eccentric designs for a futuristic race of people who are solely dependent on technology for survival. Like his classmates, he intends to look beyond the Caribbean for prospective clients. “We’re not catering to just the regional market; we want to compete with what is on the international market. We will do fall/winter collections, we will work with what the trends are on the outside but still add our own unique twist to it from the Caribbean.” Allum agreed. “I learned a lot about the opportunities in the fashion industry abroad. It’s really important to note international trends because we’re competing with designers who are coming out of fashion school just like us.”



Better opportunities in global market
Assessing the work of international designers was an important part of their career strategy. Listing Georgio Armani among her top favourite international designers, Grant spoke to the importance of meeting global fashion industry standards, such as a commitment to immaculately made clothing with high quality craftsmanship and design. This mantra of quality was repeated throughout each designer’s contribution to the discussion. There was some debate over designing for pret-a-porter fashion or doing more creative, custom-made fashion. Bhowram came to this conclusion: “At the end of the day it’s still a business. One of my lecturers said that if you’re just doing something for the love of it, you won’t be able to continue doing what you love, because you’re not making money. For me, it’s a matter of balancing how I create my income and giving people that ‘wow’ factor.”


Valuing one’s work against an established quality standard and investing in the business side of the fashion equation was another point of debate. Not everyone seemed ready to jump right into the nuts and bolts of owning a business. Allum and Jack, for example, felt it might be better to learn from additional experiences outside the classroom with an international mentor, where they could earn money and gain exposure simultaneously. Having worked with established local brands such as Meiling and Claudia Pegus, Woodham concurred. “You learn a lot from working with other designers, like methods of production, how to interact with people and especially the business side... how they market their brand and the pricing strategy for how they charge for their clothing. Now I know the value of my work and I know how to charge.” All the designers seemed to agree there were much better opportunities in the global marketplace than in the region, especially when it came to accessing labour and manufacturing services. Having worked abroad with internationally acclaimed Trinidad-born designer Francis Hendy, Grant said she found herself more marketable by being multi-skilled and valued for her expertise across specialised areas such as stitching, dying and cutting. 


Remarkably, the designers confessed that some of their classmates, as well as a few past graduates of the BFA degree, had never touched a sewing machine before registering with the CAFD, and four years later operated at the highest level of tailoring proficiency. After the success of CAFD’s first graduating group of BFA students and a slew of subsequent international appearances by its graduates, the school is fast gaining acclaim as the mecca of academic fashion institutions in the region. CAFD director Sandra Carr said the programme was launched in 2008 to a waiting list of applicants. Most of the first batch of students went on from the diploma in fashion to complete the BFA after two additional years of study; UTT also offers a diploma in fashion management, which is targeted to the movers and shakers behind the glitzy world of red-carpet gowns, accessories and fashion lines. Those who made it through the process last year became the first graduating class. 


Carr said an influx of students has come from Dominica, St Lucia, Jamaica and other regional islands, bolstered by scholarships received from their home countries to attend the young but prestigious fashion academy. Joseph sees a benefit in coming from this region of the world. “It’s an advantage. The fashion world is always looking for somebody new and something different. There’s an expectation of what you should design, look like and produce coming from the Caribbean and none of our aesthetics fall into that category.” These students have planned step by step for their future in fashion and evolved from the early sketches and patterns of their novicehood into trained entrepreneurs. These seven designers leading the class of 2013 could represent millions of dollars’ worth of revenue, branding and sustainable economic growth.


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