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Revolutionising T&T’s fashion industry
The Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design (CAFD), part of the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT), is getting ready to unleash its first batch of graduates, each armed with a bachelor of fine arts degree in fashion design (BAFA). Thirty-six graduates spent the last four years learning all about fashion design and manufacturing and are ready to revolutionise what many consider to be a dormant industry.
One of the programme’s three male students, graphic designer and visual artist James Hackett, turned to the programme four years ago for a new challenge. “I’ve already been in publishing in the newspapers, doing graphic design, so to do a degree in those fields would have been kind of redundant.” Hackett saw the advertisement in the paper for the programme and took the plunge.
“It was something that would be a little bit different from what I know and an opportunity to learn a new skill.” A visual artist for many years, Hackett thought he would walk into the class and ace every element of the programme. “That didn’t happen. It really made me sit down and learn new things. I learned to sew. I learned to design in a different way. Design for clothing and for people. I really felt that I learned something.”
Now that Hackett has completed the programme, he is excited about the future. “For me it opens up a lot of new avenues. The easiest option would be to open a boutique for clothing, or I could actually just do accessories, as people always want something like a nice bag or a nice piece of jewelry.” He explains that fashion design is so much more than that.
“There are certain skills that you learn that are also marketable. To be able to construct clothing or just to be able to understand styling, how people wear clothes. “Yes, you have the luxury or very high-end part of the industry, involving catwalks and collections, but, very simply, it can just mean making new options for people to wear with a different choice of fabrics and so on. There are many different things in fashion that can open doors,” Hackett said.
Asked about the viability of being a fashion designer, Hackett said, “A lot of students now are going to have to think beyond Trinidad, which is not a bad thing. “The very real fact about the industry is that technically we don’t have an industry. That’s quite scary when you think about it. But when you start to think that, you have a world just opened up to you.
“So for me, as one designer coming out of the Caribbean, there is great potential. It’s very obvious when you look at Anya. It is something that the world is hungry for. They want a Caribbean kind of vision. It’s there and ripe for people to take advantage of where fashion is concerned.”
Sandra Carr, co-programme leader and fashion design co-ordinator at CAFD, returned to T&T from New York after following her own dream to become a fashion designer. Her short trip soon turned into her accepting the position at UTT to lead the institution’s first fashion-design programme.
“When I first came on board there were no other teachers in the fashion-design field. As the only teacher, I was running these halls day and night and teaching all the classes. We’ve grown a lot since then.” Carr explained that local designers, including Meiling, were enlisted for the Designer Critic Award. “We’ve used the designers in the industry to open the students to the design world and allow them to work with the local designers.”
In a two-semester process, the designers gave the students a theme and they were required to build two looks from that theme. “They started with the research process to come up with their inspiration, and then they did their initial sketches, of which 50 were narrowed down to about 12.” A tweaking process then ensued and soon the sketches began to take life.
“There was a lot of tweaking, because paper and fabric are two different things. So you have these wonderful sketches on paper and then when construction began, some realised some designs just weren’t possible.” Students competed for an award for the best two looks based on the designer’s initial theme and creative briefs.
All in all, Carr describes the experience with her first batch of students as inspiring. “It feels wonderful because when I left here 20 years ago, I had the same love and zeal I see in my students. I was able to go forth and really live my dream and I’ve come back and I’m telling these kids, don’t stop dreaming. Pursue your dreams and yes, you can do it. I have done it and you too can do it.” She describes her students as fun and full of creativity.
“I wish the rest of the world could see what is here. We have these well-kept secrets. There’s so much home-grown talent here and when foreigners come here, they’re amazed at the talent and creativity.” She laments the fact that the country can’t seem to appreciate what it has here, and hopes that with the graduates, the fashion industry can really grow with the right support.
“We have something that we need to invest in, and it’s our young designers. They will be the ones to take our fashion industry to the next level. “Trinidad and Tobago needs to be on the world stage, and we are not there yet. We’re still doing the Caribbean thing. We need to go global.”
The programme left no stone unturned in the modules that were taught. As well as design courses, the students all completed managerial courses, including entrepreneurship, visual merchandising, marketing, workshops on presentation and more.
Carr said, “They are fully equipped in terms of the creative and commercial sides. It’s part and parcel of the university’s vision to develop entrepreneurs. We have been nurturing them throughout the programme and we do want them to go out and establish their own businesses.
“In Trinidad, we don’t have a vibrant fashion industry. It’s not like New York, where you go out the door and you have a job waiting for you. They have to create those opportunities.” Lisa Sinanan, co-programme leader and fashion management co-ordinator, describes the fashion industry as having the movers and shakers in the designers, as well as the management, behind it.
“I always say, if you can’t sell something, then you don’t have a business. You have to know your marketing, you have to know to market yourself, how to market your concept, how to market your brand. Because if you don’t know how to do that, then there will be no money to be made.”
Citing Anya Ayoung-Chee as an example, Sinanan explained that she may have been weak in construction but was able to use her sense of style and her fabric patterns and that is what won her the Project Runway title. “She maximised the Caribbean aesthetic.” Sinanan is committed to providing support for her students after their graduation.
“There has to be a network and I think Sandra and myself know that the alumni are going to be the driving force behind that. It’s going to be the ones who have graduated, because they are going to come back and offer their support and let students know what to expect and how to manage, because it is not easy out there, and the fashion industry is not one to be trifled with.
“It’s a billion-dollar industry and it can be dog-eat-dog as well. You have to be able to know how to ensure that your designs are not stolen, how to protect yourself. That is why we have taught the students about business law, intellectual property rights and copyrights.” Carr and Sinanan are both counting on the Government as well as the private sector to provide funding.
Carr said, “We hope that somebody will invest in these students and see the talent, and that they are worth investing in, because right now they are really going to revolutionise this industry. We need to take it to the next level, and these are the people that are going to do it. They’re trained now.”
Sinanan added, “It is only in the beginning, and it will take time for any of this to show any fruit, and that is part of the big issue. We’re still a young institution out of UTT and we’re now graduating our first batch of BAFA students, so it will take some time to go through all these teething issues, and there are gestures being made by the Government. But they are still intangible at this time.”
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