In the past two week, two news stories have stirred the interest of Coco Velvet’s creative director Christopher Nathan.
On March 1, Paula Gopee-Scoon made a call for local Carnival bands to consider the use of the local fashion industry to mass produce their costumes after it was revealed that several Carnival bands experienced issues completing and supplying costumes to their masqueraders.
And, a few days later on March 5, the Housing Development Corporation evicted several tenants in East Port-of-Spain as it began the demolition of buildings in the area as part of a plan to revitalise the area.
The two issues struck a chord with Nathan as 18 years ago he submitted a proposal that would have addressed both issues.
In 2005, Nathan submitted a proposal to establish a fashion district in East Port of Spain.
The proposal was not taken up then. Neither was it favoured on two other occasions he raised it thereafter at the Ministry of Trade and while he served on the board of CreativeTT.
“It stayed on the shelf at the Ministry of Trade and Industry and then three years later I was appointed to the board of CreativeTT and again I brought up the proposal and, because there was a lot of fragmentation and politics in the fashion industry at the time, I was ignored once more. So I spent another year trying to push the fashion district initiative forward and after 12 months I decided to focus on taking my work internationally,” Nathan told Guardian Media.
Since being shunned, Nathan said he has moved to Tobago, where he continued to push Coco Velvet’s exploits.
However, the recent events spurred Nathan to push his initiative again.
In the original 39-page document, Nathan suggested the creation of not only a district in East Port-of-Spain that would encourage and develop the local fashion industry, but also a strip along Dock Road where cruise ship residents would have the opportunity to shop at boutiques selling the work of local designers.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to have them marry that initiative with our initial initiative to have a designated fashion strip with the designers, top designers, who would start boutiques there and foreigners, particularly those who come on cruise ships and those who come for leisure strolling down Ariapita Avenue, would be able to buy designer items to carry back home just like it is done in Fifth Avenue and Hollis Avenue in Miami Beach,” said Nathan.
“The second reason for the proposal getting some light is because of the drama in East Port-of-Spain and that’s happening with the eviction of the people in the Plannings and the plan for rehabilitating East Port-of-Spain. As far as I understand, the Government really doesn’t have a plan for there.”
The creation of the district there, he argued would not only create an area for the local fashion industry to thrive but would also create a space for workers to live, hence increasing the efficiency in the industry.
He was adamant that this space, once it is developed alongside the fashion production facility at the University of T&T’s John Donaldson Campus, has the capacity to produce costumes for the large bands of Carnival.
“The Sustainable Garment Manufacturing Free Zone District that we at Coco Velvet International have proposed to the Ministries of Planning and Development, Tourism Culture & the Arts is intended to provide garment-manufacturing scale for the production of costumes—swimsuits and accessories for mas every year. It is my belief that bandleaders that host Trinidad-style carnivals around the region will take advantage of the manufacturing facilities here in Port-of-Spain when the district is established.”
“We are suggesting Carnival costumes should be made in T&T because we are the mecca of Carnival,” said Nathan, “The fashion production facility, which is called Made868, they have tremendous this capacity.”
He however admitted that to achieve the level of production required for the Carnival season, there was a need for the industry to be developed further.
‘There needs to be more training, for more people to learn the art of Carnival costume making,” he said.
The creative director of Made868 Anna White agreed that there was potential capacity for Carnival costume production but similarly felt greater development of the industry was needed.
“There’s a lot of skilled and talented persons out there that already produce mas for mas band designers in their little sewing shops or in their studios. So I think that we have the capacity to do it what we need to do is to be able to, you know, put a platform in place where we can reach out to this person to see if they’re willing, you know, and if it makes sense for them,” said White.
However, she said the very issues which affected mas bands this year, also has proven a challenge to local designers in the past.
“A lot of raw materials have to be imported. And if it doesn’t get here on time, then that’s the major issue. So that is, to me, it’s one of the downfalls of producing in Trinidad and Tobago is that raw materials are scarce,’ she said, “I would like to see an outlet where the designers themselves can actually source raw materials locally and not have to depend on imports. So years ago, we had an industry where we created cotton already, we did our own fabrics, and I would like to see that revisited. I don’t know how that is going to be possible. But I would like to see us again, creating our own fabrics.”
She also felt that the industry also required significant investment so that more designers would be encouraged to come into the industry and see it as a viable field.
“The designers would need financing, to be able to produce the lines. For instance, at Made868, that facility is ongoing, it’s building in that we are bringing in new workers. So we’d be able to meet the capacity, a lot of designers that want to come into that facility, but they don’t have the funding to be able to create their lines. If there was something in place for funding, that would be fantastic,” said White.
Nathan did have a suggestion, he felt could help with the concerns raised about limited raw materials; recycling.
He said, “At the end of Trinidad Carnival in February and March, the swimsuits are collected and sorted as a brand in the garment district. They are re-designed and re-engineered for Tobago in October so that we don’t have a whole set of new supply of raw materials needed for Carnival in Tobago, so we get to recycle the costumes from Trinidad and use them for Carnival in Tobago.”
The Coco Velvet brand under Nathan’s stewardship has developed an international reputation for its sustainable solutions, with Coco Velvet International being named the winner of Ethical Finance 2023 Award for our Sustainable Garment Manufacturing Free Zone Proposal for East Port-of-Spain.
White felt the recycling of material was a feasible option, as she noted that a lot of material for Carnival is generally wasted.
“There’s a lot of stuff that remains, for instance, we did Monday wear. And we had a lot of fabric that remain that we could recycle into brand-new costumes. So I do agree with that as well,” she said.