In two short weeks, the UTT will present the thesis works of its first batch of degree graduands of the Caribbean Academy for Fashion and Design. I'm particularly excited about this event because I've been writing on the CAFD since before it began, and have previously argued in these pages that we need to foster our own fashion industry. This graduating class represents an exciting development for us, and not just for the fashionistas of T&T.
The four-year degree in fashion and design taught fashion basics like colour and design, drawing, textiles, and garment construction, as well as computer-assisted design, marketing, law, and product development. It is the only school of its kind in the region and sought to be on par with international institutes like FIT and Parsons in New York. "Who wants to wear cheap Chinese clothes which soon fall apart, when we could all be wearing pretty, well-designed clothes made in T&T?" This question was asked by fashion authority Rosemary Stone at an NGC Bocas Lit Fest discussion in April, as reported by the T&T Guardian. Stone, author of A Spirited Butterfly: A History of Fashion of Trinidad and Tobago, said, "We need to reinvent the fashion wheel." She noted that in the past T&T "had a vibrant industry" and added, "The shirt-manufacturing companies such as New Yorker, Kay and Elite produced around 600 dozen shirts per day at peak periods, mainly for the export market. We need to rebuild that market, especially in women's clothing, to assist in the country's diversification programme. We need to put all the talented seamstresses, tailors, designers, cutters and sales people to work. It could be rebuilt into a huge industry."
As I've argued before, fashion isn't merely the province of the elite; it has an impact on everyone, as we all have to wear clothes. The absence of a well-developed fashion industry has implications not only for the labour market and Treasury, but on the way we see ourselves. I'm no isolationist but it seems to me that charity begins at home; we ought to develop our own notions of what is cool rather than merely buy into other people's ideas of it.
This CAFD graduating class of nearly 40 students can make a difference to the local fashion industry, but they can't do it alone. They will need the institutional support of government–in the form of tax breaks and other incentives–and banks that would be willing to lend them funds to get their fashion businesses off the ground.
They will also need a customer base, and that will mean influencing John and Jane Public to forego cheap imported clothes for locally produced garments which, let's face it, might cost more. While the outright protectionism of a Negative List is unlikely to return, there must be some means of nurturing the industry so that it will have a chance to rise again. My friend and former colleague James Hackett is in this group of CAFD graduands. He said in response to a question I asked him via e-mail yesterday, "A lot of people seem to have problems thinking of what to do, but the programme has really armed us with a lot of skills, and practical ones at that: we can do jewelry, handbags, and also yes, we can make clothes. "I think some people can do well providing some fresh new clothing insights and may do really well to set up boutiques. I am more going to apply fashion to a lot of practical and creative options right here, like Carnival, for instance." James, a gifted graphic artist, has been in Carnival design before and it would be thrilling to see what he comes up with for Carnival with the CAFD tools. Ultimately, one cannot teach talent, so each individual graduand will have to prove his or her own strength as a fashion professional. Let us give them our support.
UTT will host a talk on "Mobilisation towards a Sustainable Fashion Industry" at Theatre 2, NAPA, Keate Street, Port-of-Spain, on June 21 at 7 pm. Seats are limited; contact theacade[email protected] for an invitation.
The UTT CAFD Senior Thesis Fashion Show & Designer Critic Award Show takes place on June 23 at 7 pm at NAPA. Tickets cost $100 and $150 and are available at the UTT John S Donaldson Technical Institute Campus, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. For more info, phone: 642-8888 ext 26434 or check the UTT: Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design page on Facebook.