Bailey regaled us with African splendour and Minshall his theatrics, but up-and-coming mas designer Natalie Fonrose wants her brand to be synonymous with strength, empowerment, and freedom.
"When they think about Fonrose I want them to think of mimicking who I am...people don’t simply buy your product, they buy you," the Carnival costume designer and influencer said in a recent interview with Sunday Guardian.
Fonrose showed her mettle in 2017, trading in her overalls and hard hat at a construction company for the drawing pencil, gems and feathers of a mas camp. Since then, her hard-and-fast formula of heavy research, branding and networking have won her a meteoric rise on the local and international mas designing scene.
The Chaguanas native has been contracted to megaband Tribe, for the past two years. This year she
produced the section "Kitana" in Rogue, one of six bands under Tribe. With its bejewelled royal blue, lime green, gold and yellow barely-there bodywear, face mask, warrior hoodie and feathered wings, "Kitana" was inspired by the Japanese Mortal Kombat character from Fonrose’s childhood days of playing video games. It sold out in no time.
Her costumes have been also sought after in countries including St Lucia, St Kitts, Grenada, Bahamas, Antigua, Canada, and almost every US location. She plans to extend her reach to the European market via her next venture—London Carnival.
At 29, it’s almost hard to believe that the petite, youthful-looking Fonrose was previously a civil engineering technician and petroleum engineer. Back in 2010, the former St Augustine Girls' High School student landed art scholarships from four premier international Art universities. Due to a lack of full funding, however, she ended up pursuing an engineering degree at UWI, St Augustine.
Though grateful for the sound secondary education and discipline she had received in earlier days, the free-spirited Fonrose had always yearned for a creative outlet.
"While school contributed to me being pristine and well-rounded, our school systems are so harsh they sway us from being the slightest bit out of line with the conventional career path. It makes you feel like an outcast. I went to school with girls who just became doctors, lawyers, and engineers. I was an outcast and I was forced to follow in line," Fonrose lamented.
This emptiness carried over to her engineering tenure, despite the big bucks. She took up doing custom costume designs for friends part-time. Through a friend she was offered an opportunity to design for her first Carnival band, Fantasy and juggled both jobs for a while. After having an issue with her boss she initially took a month off, then decided to quit engineering altogether. Her parents backed her up.
With clients ranging in age from 18 to late 40s and even 50s, it is this sense of empowerment that Fonrose sees and hopes to continue to inspire in today’s female masquerader.
"Women have now found their inner strength, their independence...the more that we as women understand that we can stand on our own while we still give love and respect to our companions, once we express to our companions that we too can be respected and enjoy ourselves, it allows a woman to be freer."
She encourages others to be courageous enough to follow their dreams while keeping a contingency plan.
"You’ll never be entirely ready to start a business. The best way you can start is to start now...take that leap, but have some savings just in case," she grinned.
BOX, It's the same person but a separate story
Q&A with Natalie Fonrose
How do civil and petroleum engineering translate into costume design?
"It’s definitely two different fields. I did Art for CSEC and Cape so I already had a foundation. Civil engineering deals with drawings of buildings, roadways, structures, but it’s mostly focused on science...Working as a civil engineer allowed me to become more strategic, a better planner. My approach to certain things, my business entirely would be different from somebody who had artistic skills only without proper structural training."
How creative do you have to be to end up designing for a mas band?
"You definitely need to be creative or it’s going to be limiting. It’s not all fun and glamour. It’s actually a lot of hard work."
Why do you think today’s woman gravitates towards the beads and feathers?
"A lot of women now feel liberated. Women have found their power. We are now in a period where women don’t heavily rely on men to be their providers, so by extension they are not seeking permission to be liberated."
Do you come across women who lack confidence in their bodies? What do you say to them?
"Yes, some would have their insecurities, but I feel like it’s also another woman’s duty to assist and make her feel beautiful. You can be just as gorgeous. We can make a few changes to your costume, but it shouldn’t limit you from wanting to participate…I feel like it’s also my duty to help them feel beautiful and comfortable in themselves. Carnival is not about you not being good enough...you are good enough."
There are detractors and critics of the type of costumes Tribe promotes. Do you ever feel judged?
"No, because T&T, beside us being predominantly known for that we are also the mecca of Carnival, sexy costumes have been integrated into our lives since childhood. The only people who might be affected by it are those with strong religious beliefs."
Fashion is synonymous with the daring, the notorious and some designers seek out unusual places to showcase. Referencing the incident at the Trinity Cathedral some months ago, would you as a designer seek out an unusual place?
"I would seek out unusual places, but I wouldn’t do it within a church. I feel like it’s sacred ground and that’s not an option for me. I feel time and place is worth everything."
Is there anything that struck you about the other islands in terms of their feelings towards Carnival...your designs?
"The smaller islands are now accepting Carnival to be what it is. Most of their women lacked the confidence to be in things that exposed, like their stomachs or even thongs. They would want high-waisted underwear, full monokinis, boy shorts. Whereas there are islands that accept it and encourage that whole freedom to be themselves. Grenada recently put out a broadcast to state no wire bras, no skimpy underwear, and this means that you are not permitting women to be themselves. (However, they subsequently reviewed the rules and regulations and made amendments which now say that there will be no full body paint and zero tolerance for nudity and indecent exposure). While I don’t agree with nudity, I still feel like you are blocking my freedom. In Trinidad, we have a lot of positives that I only realised from travelling and being a designer."
Why do you think that you have been able to succeed in your dream when others may have failed?
"I feel like some things are meant for you. So while you may be trying at something so hard and you can’t succeed, it may be an indication that it’s not for you. For me, it was a natural move being a creative. I had my foundation however, I came into this not knowing a lot...it’s a constant learning process. I remind myself that you are a constant work in progress; especially in designing. There’s always improving skills, improving techniques, materials…so I feel like I’m always keeping up with what’s trending. Keeping up with my physical appearance, my branding, have all contributed to me elevating myself."
Besides designing, anything else you enjoy...any hobbies you’d like to share?
"I love to travel, I love the movies, swimming, going down the islands, I feel like nature and I are just one."