Trinidad and Tobago’s fashion industry has grown tremendously since Independence. Local designers worked hard to have the pursuit of fashion taken seriously, and the fruit of their efforts can be seen in the establishment of the Academy of Fashion and Design at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) in 2009. The 1980s saw a flowering of the fashion industry locally, due in large part to restrictions on the importation of garments and the global “liberation period” which had begun in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement in the US. This revolutionary period encouraged diversity, bringing about change in education, politics, music and even fashion. Local designers began moving away from the influence of Europe and became more focused on creating a Caribbean aesthetic, reflecting local culture and drawing on this country’s unique ethnic mix.
The era welcomed young designers like Dawn Victor, and Robert Young of The Cloth. They joined more established designers like Petralin Allen, Andre Burke, Christopher Cooper, Junior Bristol and Andre Belix (the latter two specialised in evening gown designs), Lawrence Fredericks, Christopher Lynch who designed a T&T version of the popular shirtjac, Geoffrey Stanford and Claude Allum, designers of “D Village” wear, and Junior Assevero—all of whom, sadly, are deceased. Other designers of that day who are still alive and well include Meiling, whose classic designs range from glamorous to casual, Claudia Pegus who is renowned for her signature work in silks and hand-done embroidery, and textile artist Christopher Pinheiro, who has since migrated to Canada. These designers were all known for their unique style, with the only similarity being their abilities to reflect “Caribbeanism.” They created signature pieces using tie-dye, batik and hand-colouring techniques, with the material of the day being mainly cotton and rayon.
Stylist, lecturer, model trainer and creative director of Fashion Week T&T (FWTT) Richard Young said it was also the era for artists and colourists to get in on the action. He recalled that artist and theatre designer Geoffrey Stanford’s hand-painted garments were frequently worn by popular performers like Christopher “Tambu” Herbert and David Rudder. Other local fashion pioneers he mentioned included designers Bobby and Sally Ackbarali, who specialised in evening wear and were the designers of choice for many beauty queens throughout the region for over 35 years. Batik artists Valerie Belgrave and Althea Bastien were also highly sought after. Textile designers also became hugely popular, he said, including Glen Montes De Oca and the avant-garde fashion and costume designer, Moroccan-born Sonia Mack, who still designs for Carnival bands now. “Those who grew up in that era can also remember the Drag Brothers. This was a stretch on Independence Square where a group of craftsmen and vendors established makeshift businesses after 1970,” explained Young. He said it was at that very strip he first met designer Heather Jones. “I remember seeing Heather literally washing fabric by the standpipe that was located there,” laughed Young as he reminisced. Designers began carrying lines that were available in stores that supported total-local wear, Young said. He recalls fashion designer Trevor Craigwell’s menswear store Cragie’s.
“This spilled over into the ’90s with the First Chapter Adam collection brand created by two designers, Gregory Singh and Junior Assevero. And of course Meiling would have been one of the forerunners when she opened her very first studio and retail outlet in a renovated garage in the ’70s, later opening a store on Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain,” said Young. He said the era was really a time for celebration because it truly marked the genesis of local fashion. “Trinidadians really got the chance to see pure talent from local designers and artists. Today strides are being made to enhance the fashion industry. “There is the Fashion Development Committee, an arm of Government which includes all the fashion associations, as well as the fashion academy at UTT where budding designers can now study the management and practical aspects of the skill. But back then most-upcoming designers would have had to get their formal training outside of Trinidad,” explained Young.
Asked what he thought caused the decline of the fashion sector in the ’80s, Young said it was mostly due to the death of the majority of the designers who emerged in that era. A few migrated. He said even as new designers are being celebrated, the pioneers must always be held in high esteem, as it is because of them that a market for fashion and design even exists in T&T. Designer Meiling agreed with Young. “Fifty years ago, the fashion industry in T&T was almost a reversal of what it is today.There were no local designers with their own fashion labels such as Heather Jones, Claudia Pegus and The Cloth. “However, there was a vibrant garment-manufacturing industry where companies such as Glamour Girl and Dubuteen produced high-quality garments,” she explained. She said it was in such a factory she paid her dues as a young designer, returning to T&T in the late 60s. “In the ’80s, Peter Minshall’s Carnival band The River created a stir, not only for its innovative concept but the costumes themselves were made with locally-manufactured, milled white cotton.
“They were very wearable and gave a vision to a Caribbean aesthetic we had never seen before. I believe it was the impetus behind the then-upcoming creative labels of The Cloth and Dianne Hunt’s Radical Designs,” said Meiling. She said since the ’90s, ironically, although the country has seen the emergence of many local, designers, there has been a decline in manufacturing. “I think this is partly due to cable television and a movement away from wearing local labels to global designer labels. “Hopefully this will now return with the establishment of the Fashion Academy at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, which saw the graduation of their first BA students this year.”
Heather Jones is known for designs that reveal the romantic nature and sensuality of today’s women. She emerged three decades ago and is noted as one of this country’s more respected designers. She recently returned from Milan, Italy, where she showcased her latest bridal collection at the Unconventional Wedding District fashion show. When asked to describe the state of fashion and the fashion industry, Jones said she was not happy. “I am not very pleased. There are so many different things on the table from the Government and agencies that are yet to be in motion. Everything is like a ‘wait and see,’” she said. She feels governments past and present have not done much for the fashion industry in T&T. “There has been a lot of talk, but very little action. I am just hoping all the promises on the table come to pass.”
Claudia Pegus has a wealth of knowledge in couture designs. She started out in the 70s and has made a name for herself in both the local and international markets. She owns Claudia Pegus Designs Limited which is an exclusive niche market design/production company. With regard to the state of the fashion industry locally, Pegus said there is need for more togetherness in the industry among existing and new designers. She said if that were to happen, the powers that be would have no other choice but to recognise the seriousness of designers in T&T and the need for more facilities to really make the industry a viable one.
Young’s designs are indigenous to T&T. He uses locally-available fabrics in colours that “pop” in sunlight while allowing its wearer comfort into the evenings. “My lines are usually informed by my political thinking of the time, whether it be the economic crisis, apartheid, war or the environment,” said Young. On the present state of the fashion industry in T&T, he says there is still a long way to go.