Days before their senior thesis fashion show, some of the top students of the 2016 UTT Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design (CAFD) degree programme discussed with the Sunday Arts Section their four-year degree experience.
Single mother and entrepreneur Fanny Murray was a tailor working in a small home business when she came across an advertisement in the papers about the CAFD.
"I'm a single mom and I work for myself, so I had a lot of challenges both financially and with making arrangements for my child when I had classes, plus transportation from Marabella in South.
"But when I start something, I don't quit. I prefer to see it through until the end. I feel great to be finishing in a few days. I am counting down the time," she said with a laugh.
The students agreed that it was an asset to have prior knowledge of sewing before entering the programme, even though CAFD does not make it a strict requirement.
Shahidah Carr had early memories of sewing and as a child, she knew how to operate industrial-grade sewing machines; her mother, Sandra, owned and operated a design school when she was very young. Sandra is a fashion design co-ordinator in the CAFD.
"Most of what I've learned came from looking on at my mother and watching as she taught her students," the younger Carr said in an email from the US. "As I got older, I started sewing my own Islamic clothes and for my friends as well, and that's when I started doing my own thing when it came to fashion."
Carr had the opportunity to hang out with the fashion students almost every day after school and be easily persuaded to join the programme when she was ready for tertiary-level education.
Marie Richardson had specific goals for her university life: leave Trinidad; go abroad; study art; succeed as a visual artist. She spent a year preparing her formal portfolio and sending out university applications.She was offered a scholarship to St Lawrence University, New York; it wasn't her only acceptance. Even with the scholarship, however, Richardson was not able to take up the offer because of financial challenges.
Encouraged by her parents, Richardson elected to enter the UTT fashion design programme.
"I always loved fashion. My joy in fashion was using old clothes, reworking it and turning it into a real 'best' party outfit to get somebody to take a picture of me and say, wow. I was always interested in finding new ways to make things into something else."
Having grown up at the St Mary's Children's Home in Tacarigua with six other siblings, Harvey Robertson fondly recalled sewing with repurposed clothing and donated fabric sent to the home.
"There was a vocational programme for the children of the home who were not necessarily academically inclined. I was going to Curepe Junior Secondary School at the time, but because my brother was in the sewing class, I ended up in the class too," he said, laughing.He continued sewing into his adult life, taking odd jobs but never really pursuing it as a profession–until he decided to enter the CAFD.
After graduating from Marabella Senior Comprehensive, Rakesh Ramoutar was swept into the tailoring trade through a visit to Persad Kistow's Kool Tailoring shop in Gasparillo.
"I went to the tailor for a pair of trousers for church and he wasn't quite finished with it. I was thinking, 'oh gosh, I wish I could sew my own clothes because then I wouldn't be sitting down here waiting so long!'" he recalled.
"So I challenged the tailor and said, 'I think I need to learn how to sew.' And he said, 'All right, I will train you.'"
Ramoutar apprenticed with the tailor for a year and discovered an aptitude for the trade, picking up the skills and techniques faster than any other trainee the tailor had encountered, he said.
After his time working hands-on in the tailoring trade, his mother directed him to the garment construction course at Servol, Chaguanas. From there, he earned a year's internship at local garment manufacturing giant Janouras. While working there, he saw the advertisement for the CAFD programme and shifted gears toward expanding his knowledge into fashion design.
"(CAFD) wasn't what I expected," said Ramoutar. "I didn't know there were a lot of academic courses and that was my main struggle. In an exam environment I panic and don't function well, but I survived," he said jovially.
"I must say the staff at CAFD were really supportive. They made some changes to facilitate me when sitting in the exam room, like asking me if I needed to take a break and so on."
Richardson experienced challenges of a different nature.
"Coming into CAFD in the beginning was great for me because we did a lot of foundation art courses, which is my forte. The core academic courses that Rakesh is talking about were a joy for me, it was so easy.
"However, they came in with sewing skills, and I came in with zilch," she confessed. "I struggled, cried, I couldn't sleep. Anything to do with construction was torture," she said.
"The amount of things that you learn (at CAFD), they don't have time to teach you how to sew. They will try to help, but you have to take the initiative to get it done. That's what I had to do, seek out people who were willing to help me."
Shahidah Carr wrote, "I can wholeheartedly say I love being in fashion, and this is where I see myself for the rest of my life." For her thesis collection, Carr is reimagining the acronym POW as Peace Over War.
"I'm delving into things that affect people every day and create a type of 'war' for them. There are people who are attacked because of their race or religion, teens who are bullied every day, domestic violence victims, cancer survivors, rape victims...with my collection, I want to say, don't give up, keep fighting until that happy ending, until you find that place of peace."
Murray had a lot of sleepless nights during the CAFD programme. While she came in with a solid background in tailoring, she quickly realised that there was a difference between the practical sewing techniques she knew and the more formal techniques she had to learn.
"You get accustomed sewing one way, and then when you come here, they want you to sew another way. So I had to relearn a lot of things; it was tough. There were challenges with some of the teachers...butting heads, you know," she said.
The Senior Thesis Runway will take place on June 5, at the Graduation Pavilion of the UTT O'Meara Campus, Arima. All graduating seniors are required to show a collection, which will be critiqued by professional designers.Murray's thesis collection is based on a Brazilian theme with the genres of jazz and samba combined, titled Bossa Nova en Azul.
"It means a new trend or tendency in blue. I was going for a romantic theme with denim, mesh and fabrication of reverse applique with some beading. I wanted to show people that denim is not only to be stuck in work or casual clothes, you can move it into couture.
"When I came into the programme it was a lot more than I expected," admitted Robertson. "It is not just a fashion course. It's fashion, academics and art as well. And, wow, art is not easy," he confessed to chuckles from his classmates.
Robertson enjoyed learning about art history, language studies in Spanish, critical thinking, and business and entrepreneurship courses. As a part-time student, he recounted sacrifices made, including giving up weekends for classes or to complete projects. He felt that crossing the hurdles spurred him to make it to his final year.
"My thesis collection is called I am Soca. It's about identifying oneself and comes from my understanding of identity. I am not an African, I am not an Indian, I am a Trinbagonian.
"Ras Shorty I took influences from both Indian and African rhythms and created this fusion of soca music. I wanted to take it further and play on the influence of modern music such as pop and EDM and how these genres have influenced what our soca has become."
He added, "(My collection) has leather, a lot of zippers, some versatility, and it is very mix and match. For example, I have a jumper that can separate into a short bodice and another detachment for the pants by itself. So I want to show off the versatility of the garments and within it, the influence of modern culture on our soca music."
Richardson went from zero sewing knowledge to discovering a natural inclination to sew very difficult materials and a penchant for designing complicated garments.
"If I'm not excited about what I'm doing, I'm not motivated to do it. So that's how I ended up making a collection out of leather and plastic," she said.
At the senior thesis show Richardson will present her mini collection titled #THEVOID. She strongly believes her clothes are not for the average person, and that her fashion pushes the boundaries of ready-to-wear to the extreme.
"(My fashion) is not comfortable. I don't think it will fit into regular society, but that is where my experience as a visual artist comes out in my fashion. I want to push the fashion boundaries in Trinidad."
The collection was inspired by social media and the negative effects that it can have on the psyche. Her collection explores visual themes associated with narcissism, insecurity and the relationship between social media, drug abuse and insanity. #THEVOID was inspired by the 2009 French film Enter the Void.
Titled Madam a la Mode, Ramoutar's collection is inspired by the classic Chanel look married with the iconic style of Marilyn Monroe. CAFD introduced Ramoutar to draping–a drastic departure from flat patterning, his comfort zone as a tailor. It is now featured exclusively in his thesis collection.
"I used a mixture of fabrics such as tweeds and lace. So tweed represents the Chanel side of the theme and the lace gives that softness, along with elements such as high slits and deep Vs to give that Marilyn Monroe finish," he said.