As we celebrate Indian Arrival Day, we look at someone who came from India and made T&T their home. In a modern story of arrival, Shereen Ali speaks with fashion designer Charu Lochan Dass who came to Trinidad from India as a child.
Charu Lochan Dass has no regrets whatsoever that she left behind a conventional career in business administration to follow the fashion muse. In fact, for her, the two merged quite seamlessly. A clothes retailer and fashion designer, Dass launched her brand CLD in 2013 after years of working in the fashion business–she opened her first clothing store in Princes Town in 2002. Born in India, she left at the age of six to live in Trinidad. And today, for Indian Arrival Day, Dass readily shared some memories from India, and talked about her own sense of heritage, and how she got started along the path to a career that's both expressive and practical.
"I remember distinctly the warmth and love of being part of a close-knit, devoted family–my aunts, my uncles and cousins," said Dass, recalling her early childhood in India.
"My mother had five sisters (now four) and two brothers; a huge family, and often there were family festivities. At age six, what really stands out is always being surrounded by loved ones...."
That strong sense of kinship and belonging always remained with her, despite separations in time and geography. Dass was speaking in an interview from Tobago, where she was holidaying with family–including a few who came to visit T&T from India for the first time.
Among these family members is an inspirational Indian auntie who helped whet her appetite for designing clothes many years ago, and who made possible her first unexpected apprenticeship.
"As a teenager in Trinidad, I was obsessed with fashion, with a special passion for sketching and art," recalled Dass.
"My mother had this exquisite table runner from India: it was hand-woven with stunning embroidery and mirror details. It inspired my creative juices and before you knew it...it was incorporated into an outfit–a waistcoat, actually. That's really how it all started, my first design, at age 14."
As a young adult, Dass decided to study for a Bachelor of Business Administration, and went to India to do it–her first trip back in 13 years since leaving there as a child. After living in T&T for so long, she admitted that India came as a bit of a culture shock for her.
"I returned to Delhi, and did experience culture shock. Everything was very different. Delhi was now a fast growing, modernised city with advanced infrastructure and technology," she recalled.
"But some things remained the same, especially culturally; they were still very orthodox in their practices, whereas Trinidadian 'Indians' were more open-minded–I guess, more influenced by the Western world, especially with attire."
"In India, my maternal aunt had a boutique with custom designed pieces. It's there I had the opportunity to merge my two passions–art and fashion. I was able to put my artistic skills to the drawing board, and designed a few outfits. When those designs were transformed into the final product, the outfits were stunning and impressive," she said.
A cousin there encouraged her to pursue this passion, and she enrolled in her first fashion course. Her path became clear.
In 2011, this adopted T&T "island girl" then journeyed to the UK, to study Fashion Design and Marketing at the London College of Fashion. It was an experience that broadened her perspectives, she said, especially the intangible value of meeting fashion students from all over the world, and having the chance to learn about their different cultures.
That these encounters happened in London was a bonus: "British fashion, particularly in London, has always been very cutting edge, and typically set the trends for the world. What was showcased on the runways there, only became popular in Trinidad several seasons later," Dass said, commenting: "Even the street fashion was distinctive, and I was amazed at the way they synchronised various styles, pulling it all together."
The necklace of connections she found between island and continents � from T&T to India to Europe � melded, eventually, into her own unique clothing expressions, which in November 2013 emerged as her first CLD-branded collection: Ready to Wear 2014. It had a decidedly international, sexy, sophisticated aesthetic, rather than, say, Caribbean or Indian.
The Lalla Collection
Not afraid to celebrate the sensuality of women, the fashions designed by Charu Lochan Dass reflect her attention to detail as much as they explore contrasts in form and texture. One outfit may be a trim, almost minimalist affair with subtle but exquisite detailing, while another may suggest voluptuous luxury with billowing yards of fabric and risqu� yet classy peek-a-boo elements.
Her most recent resort line, The Lalla Collection, combines glamour with simplicity in comfortable ready-to-wear holiday clothing.
"When I go to my drawing board, essentially I'm inspired by emotion, whatever enthralls my soul, from a material, to a fashion icon or even a client," explained Dass about her design process. "But I find I'm always drawn to the 1960s. It was a revolutionary time for fashion that broke many typical traditions. Icons like Jacqueline Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn brought to life timeless statement pieces that showed off their sophistication and elegance. This was partly the inspiration for my first collection."
Two of her collections were showcased at New York Fashion Week (2013 and 2014). As for her next collection, which will be her seventh, it will be showcased at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Amsterdam.
Despite such exposure, Dass remains down to earth about running a business: "Taking time to develop genuine relationships with customers is the basis of any good business. I feel a connection to every customer," she said, noting this has helped build the business.
"A favourite quote of mine is, 'If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.'
My vision for CLD is to be a global name," said Dass, "...and just like I've seen women of T&T rock the CLD designs, my dream is to have women all over the world feeling confident, chic and sophisticated in a CLD piece! And that is being realised this year, this month in fact; pieces from the CLD 2014 Boho-Glam Collection are now available at BoutiKm5 in Ibiza, Spain. So it's just a matter of time!"
Home is family
With her mixed homelands, where does Dass truly feel at home? She said: "Home is where my parents, my family and friends are, which at present, is Trinidad." Her family relationships are her anchor. She then shared:
"Recently, I came across this fascinating book, Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad (published 2001), by Viranjini Munasinghe... and I'll borrow the interesting description from her book. She opted to use the metaphor of 'tossed salad'–an image which signified diversity, but unlike 'callaloo,' each diverse ingredient maintains its originally distinct and unique identity. This is how I view my ethnic heritage: very revered, and distinctly ingrained within me."