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Is Fashion Really Sustainable?

Published: 
Friday, March 25, 2016
Buying Local
Fashion from one of T&T’s leading designers, The Cloth. They have been in business for almost 30 years and are still able to attract clients from the younger generation.

Over the next two weeks the T&T Guardian will explore the creative sector, looking at fashion, music and food, and the extent of local support for these sectors. Today, our first installment is fashion.

From Geoffrey Stanford, Christopher Pinheiro, Junior Bristol and Andre Belix to Heather Jones and Meiling, fashion will always be a hot topic. How it might contribute to a country’s economy is an open question. Do we really have a thriving fashion industry? Can we supply a quick turnover of locally made garments? Will the buying public support local designs? 

After all the talk about fashion being an alternative in diversifying T&T’s economy, some today in the industry are saying there is a long way to go before there can actually be a thriving fashion industry and people can buy local fashion.

In 2010, then Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar had made the declaration at Fashion Week of T&T (FWTT), that the fashion industry should be viewed as an alternative revenue-earner rather than the country’s current mainstay—oil and gas. It was announced that by the time the first batch of graduates from the 2008-formed Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design (CAFD) at UTT came out, there would be a bustling industry. 

That was then. Six years later, there has been no such development. 

The idea was to forge a happening market for the creative arts which would essentially open the doors to other economic flows. These doors were supposed to create more jobs and encourage the patronage of local goods and services—buying local.

When the T&T Guardian spoke with Programme Leader for Fashion and Design at UTT, Sandra Carr, she was very passionate about the local fashion industry and buying local fashion. But she had little faith in the powers that be responsible for creating this economic avenue, saying there has been too much talk and not enough walk. She thinks there are just too many limitations on the industry itself, making it impossible to simply buy local.

“When we talk about buying local, it is really a facade. We are talking about putting the cart before the horse, because how local is it?” she asked.

Carr said it is like describing pure olive oil as pure, when it really isn’t.

“Most times, a lot of olive oil contains other oils. If you are going to say the words ‘pure’ or ‘100 per cent’, then it should be truly 100 per cent of that particular ingredient. This term ‘buy local’ has many connotations. I support it in terms of my designers coming out of UTT, (for the public to) patronise their business. But the term ‘buy local’ is really overrated, because sometimes 90 per cent of that ‘buy local’ product is not locally made or even bought. We have been talking about diversifying this economy for the longest while, but there is no real investment,” Carr said.

She said T&T must first invest in any sector it wants to diversify: “If we truly want to buy local, we have to invest in local.”

Before you buy local, invest local

She reiterated since the Academy began in 2008, the impression was given that there would be a vibrant industry by the time the first batch of graduates came out.

“So that was in 2012. And here we are now in 2016 and we have yet to see this. We at the Academy have had various consultations and talks with various ministries and ministers and to date…nothing!

“Fashion is a buzz word... Everybody gets up on a platform and talks fashion, fashion, fashion. I am a doer, so I expect people to put their money where their mouth is. If you are going to talk fashion, then let’s invest in fashion. People talk about (the) Singapore (example); ...but these people invested in what they believed in, and turned their economy around. We are not like that,” Carr argued.

Carr said UTT has done more for its fashion graduates than any other organisation. She said the university started a business incubator post-UTT, where support continues for graduates, helping them to develop their brand, their business, and marketing approaches: “...We recognise and push the business aspect of the industry, marrying the business with the creative side, to help young designers produce sound brands.”  

New production site in Santa Cruz

She said UTT has started a production facility in Bourg Mulatresse, lower Santa Cruz. They have partnered with ExporTT to create a training facility outfitted with machinery and equipment that the designers can now use to have their small/medium productions. 

“We are not on a large scale just yet, but there is quite enough machinery there. They can use that facility to design and make their clothing, or they can even hire people that would do the production for them. 

“So we have put those things in place to enable designers coming out of UTT to be truly entrepreneurs in terms of developing their business and brands. We also support designers when they travel overseas for fashion events,” Carr said.

Despite the limitations the local fashion industry generally faces, with a particular focus on the non-existence of a vibrant garment-manufacturing industry, Carr does not believe that there will be an overall collapse of the business.

Small scale entrepreneurs are working

“No, it’s a far cry from that. I see more and more designers successfully doing their business on a manageable scale. It might not turn up to be a big production, but they are going after it anyway.

“Some our designers did partner with, and got, buyers to come in from the French Caribbean, and they did get orders. So they were successful in that they were able to export their designs. So it may not be on a large scale, but there are designers here who are quite successful who have graduated from UTT.” 

She added: 

“Fashion is really a broad spectrum. (Remember), we also have CAFD graduates who specialise in jewelry and textile designs, among others.” She said UTT electives include jewelry, handbags and, more recently, tailoring.

“So they have a variety of professions within the fashion industry that they can now branch off into. And UTT has a mission; our goal is to expand also. We are looking at degree expansion in other areas. So it is a far cry from a collapse.

“This industry provides skills to be self-sufficient. UTT as an entrepreneurial university is training entrepreneurs. It is not just about us training people to come out looking for employment. They are coming out as entrepreneurs to create jobs,” Carr said.

 

Box:

Designers comment

Robert Young:  Robert Young has been around for over three decades doing what he does best—designing. The creator of The Cloth designs showcases pieces that are indigenous to T&T. He uses locally available fabrics in colours that “pop” in sunlight while allowing its wearer comfort into the evenings. His designs usually reflect a political period. When contacted, Young said there would have to be a serious psychological reconditioning of minds to fully support local and buy local fashion.

Naballah Chi: New designer Naballah Chi believes we can buy local, but it will take some work.

“Of course, you can’t just choose to buy local in a heartbeat. Local does not always mean a choice that is logical. There's also the matter of local/regional resilience. I think T&T is still a generation away from being a nation of producers. 

“The question is: what economic framework will help us reclaim those skills and that potential? Extensive work still needs to be done in order for fashion to achieve its full potential as a viable industry. 

“The fashion industry faces several challenges at the political, economic and technological levels which continue to plague the industry. 

“The main reason why fashion has not achieved its full potential lies with the misconception by governments and the private sector that limited economic benefits can be derived from the industry. Economically, potential designers are unwilling to take the risk in establishing businesses within the industry, because they generally experience difficulty in attaining funding in order to do so, so for most, lobbying seems like a futile thing to do. 

“At the social level, it is evident that the local market continues to perceive international labels as superior to those of local designers, leading to stores’ preference for imported products, and the unwillingness to carry local designs in their establishments. 

“Moreover, the infiltration of cheaper apparel from the Asian market has had a negative impact on the market for local designers, thus limiting the potential of T&T, and, by extension, the Caribbean fashion industry. 

“Constant research and development paves the way for the competitiveness of an industry. Innovation in technology plays a significant role in the maintenance of the competitive edge of any country. This limitation in technological advancement and development within the context of low levels of intellectual property protection has continuously handicapped the regional and T&T fashion industry.”

• TOMORROW WE EXPLORE THE LOCAL MUSIC INDUSTRY

 

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