How does one begin to construct a space for nurturing creative design and industry within a culture that devalues localized output in the face of imported everything? Perhaps, by first examining why such preferences are the norm, and then, by attempting to redress the devaluation in a collaborative and direct way? With regards to jump-starting the seemingly aimless fashion industry in Trinidad & Tobago, longstanding designer and cultural activist Robert Young of The Cloth Caribbean certainly thinks it's worth a try. Hence the need for Common Ground, tomorrow evening's open meeting in Young's atelier-cum-discussion hall, The Propaganda Space, in the hamlet of Belmont in Port-of-Spain.
Trinbagonians of a certain age and beyond - myself included - would recall a time when the main thoroughfares of the country were lined with countless boutiques outfitted with locally produced, accessible, and above all, desirable garments. From batik wear, to hand painted silken sheaths, to the rows of leather-craft stalls that populated the original Drag and ran down the path of what would become the Brian Lara Promenade, most clothing was made and bought locally, by default. "Well, a lot of that was because of necessity, more than desire," Young reminded me in conversation earlier today on the topic of fashioning a local design industry. Indeed, with a ban on imported clothing set in place to stimulate local growth, the island's glitteratti of yesteryear had no choice but to rely on local creatives for their fineries.
And thus sprang forth the majority of designers now regarded within the Caribbean space as icons. There was Meiling, Claudia Pegus, and Young's The Cloth label amongst many others, all eking out a living and moreso, daring to craft their own Caribbean aesthetic in the face of a public still clamouring for foreign goods. The resources were slim; most designers of that period relied on their own technical skill, gleaned at the side of talented relatives or more rarely, on a stint of study abroad. But the impetus was the same: to populate an empty design space and to address their own sartorial needs in an immediate, practical manner.
"The hope is for us to realize we are all working towards the same objective.."
"The thing is," Young continued, "the ideas were there, the interest was there, the focus was there, but we lacked a framework that could see us beyond that initial period of creativity." In time, original Trinbagonian design would be relegated to the closets of those who kept close friendships with the handful of designers who survived the subsequent onslaught of the carpet-bagging, merchant-led fashion stores. Occasionally, a cultural giant like the Calypso great, David Rudder, would be spotted wearing The Cloth's collaged, classic shirts, seen above in the brand's archival imagery. Or the iconoclastic artist Peter Minshall would enlist Meiling to make covetable cotton wear for his Carnival masqueraders. But the halcyon days of local fashion being a first-choice mainstay were gone.
In the decades since, local design has yet to return to, or to surpass, that initial period of promise.
"With tomorrow's Common Ground meeting, the hope is to address our need for community. Not so much insisting that we all pool our resources - although the co-operative model has worked in other regards locally and can work for us designers, too - but the hope is for us to realize we are all working towards the same objective. For us designers to understand that cohesion is lacking, and that selfishly serving our individual goals at the expense of actual industry growth is not sustainable," Young explained, understandably with a hint of exasperation in his voice.
Since those early days, a surge of younger designers trying their hand at individual brands have surfaced, namely a few local design graduates, makers of Carnival streetwear, costume creators, and some accessory designers amongst them. Each one attempting to directly adapt what they've seen in the wider global design industry to the local space, with varying degrees of success.
"Those of us who are in this for more than the prestige or sexiness of fashion design, we need to take the reins and direct our own path, instead of waiting for one of the many local fashion associations to pay us some attention," Young explained, vocalizing the need for implementing set plans for production, manufacturing, industry training beyond design, and distribution. Armed with over thirty years of continued experience as a local designer, Young hopes to galvanize a core group around these issues; interdiscliplinary artist and academic Amilcar Sanatan brings a post-colonial perspective to the panel alongside co-operative chocolatier Gillian Goddard on her experiences with leading worker-owned initiatives, and local business leadership expert, Maxine Attong.
Common Ground - A Co-Operative Fashion Designer's Meeting - has its first instalment tomorrow at 6:00pm in Trinidad & Tobago.
See here for details.
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