Carnival is serious business in T&T, generating more than $30 million in revenue annually.
For creative entrepreneurs in fields ranging from music to fashion and art, this means opportunities to build brands and launch empires.
Carnival also has an important export element outside of the local season, as mas bands, soca musicians and sundry support service providers work overseas at carnivals in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
For decades, there has been a quietly flourishing fashion and design industry in T&T, inspired by the colour, vibrancy, and climate of the Caribbean, and catering to both the mass market and an elite, discerning clientele. Locals have come to know and embrace local fashion designers like Meiling, Yoko Fung, Heather Jones, Claudia Pegus and Robert Anthony Young (The Cloth), as well as local brands like Radical Designs.
That stalwart group has grown to include another generation of designers—CLD, Ecliff Elie, Adrian Foster, House of Jaipur, K2K Alliance & Partners, the Lush Kingdom, Millhouse, Anya Ayoung-Chee’s Pilar, and the Wadada Movement.
For Janelle Forde, style is instinctive to Carnival.
The self-taught designer and owner of clothing line JAngelique, whose boutique located at St James, has spread her wings to other Caribbean countries while continuing to fly the T&T flag high in the world of fashion.
This is especially depicted in her Festival Fashion collection.
“Carnival is almost number one in our business. We do a lot of things regarding festival fashion. We basically reconstruct and I basically recreate a new business. Festival fashion is definitely not a part of a lot of other people’s businesses so for last and year we invested a lot into making that happen,” Forde said.
Pieces can not only be worn at fetes and other Carnival events but year-round, enabling clients to obtain value for money, especially in tough economic times.
“It’s incorporating the Carnival festival into daily operations of our ready-to-wear line. It’s a 3-D element, very festive. Imagine incorporating a costume in a very tasteful way in regular clothing.
“It’s my take, my inspiration. I have a collection called Wild Flower and it’s very 3-D as it almost looks like something you would wear on the road but then it’s a dress which can also be worn after,” she said.
Her materials are a mixture of local and foreign fabric.
Forde’s Festival Fashion line started in 2014 and since then has gained tremendous momentum because her pieces are one of a kind.
“Carnival is so much a part of what I do but it’s much more than just adding a gem. It’s about different cuts, different silhouettes, things you’ve never seen before and wouldn’t think of wearing but with my expertise, I try to incorporate that into something I would wear and want my clients to wear also,” she explained.
Prices start at $850 while custom pieces are from $2,500.
“People want to pay for what they want and sometimes it’s nice to experiment and people are willing to experiment with you,” she said.
Forde’s business is also multidimensional as designing Carnival costumes is integral to her work. Her sections are showcased at the Barbadian and Jamaica Carnival and this year she’s expanding to two other Caribbean countries.
“That’s the number one export area in JAngelique,” Forde said.
Japan has a huge Caribbean following, so Carnival and its by-products fit right in.
Curious about the Japanese market, Forde recently visited that country to get a first-hand feel of its fashion industry and scope.
“I decided to go there because they have a big Carnival and a big soca following. There’s definitely a big love for the Caribbean,” she said.
“We had a little pop-up shop there and they just ran for our pieces. This also gave me an appreciation for Caribbean culture and how much people actually respect that,” Forde said.
Her company also has an athletic line and some pieces are expected to be exported to Japan soon. While Forde didn’t get financial assistance for her trip, she encourages other designers to explore new markets, especially outside of the Caribbean.
Fashion value chain
Forde, whose mother is Trinidadian and father Barbadian, was one of several designers who took part in the Ministry of Trade’s Value Chain Investment Programme (VCIP) which provides capacity building opportunities to local fashion entrepreneurs with the continuation of the VCIP by the T&T Fashion Company Ltd (FashionTT).
“The programme has not only helped to grow my business but basically put it into perspective. Things that were on the back burner turned into brilliant ideas and designs, for instance, increased the number of my Carnival sections,” she said.
“It is important to have a structure, to have all your procedures in place and to have an actual business that can flourish years after.”
As her business takes new root, Forde plans to have several collaborations this year, although not necessarily with people in the fashion industry.
“My business is also modelled off things that work, to bring elements of successful businesses and apply it to the fashion industry,” she said.
One of her popular pieces is a Grecian dress which retails for $1,500 and is custom made at a cost that is “a drop in the bucket,” she said.
FashionTT, established in 2013, has a mandate to stimulate and facilitate business development and export activity in the local fashion industry to generate wealth. In 2016, several designers were accepted into the programme.
They got support to improve various elements of their businesses from FashionTT, the National Entrepreneurship Development Company (Nedco) and Fashion Institute of Technology professor and consultant Vincent Quan.
Last year, FashionTT launched the second cohort of the VCIP with four tiers of the programme: three for the global value chain, 10 for the non-global value chain, 40 for the business advisory and financing and 50 for the future support training.
In all, 103 designers will be getting mentoring and training support through the programme in this year.
The fashion sector has been the main focus area for diversification and FashionTT and the VCIP is taking the local industry to new heights.
“We are very proud of the accomplishments these remarkable designers have been able to achieve in such a short time and look forward to what the future has in store,” said FashionTT general manager, Lisa-Marie Danie.
Since its inception, the VCIP has produced beneficial results quantitatively and qualitatively for the participating designers and the industry, Chairman Jason Lindsay added.
He said designers have expanded their businesses significantly with continued sales increases, expansions in retail distribution and export generation regionally and internationally. Two designers from the first cohort of the non-global value chain were elevated to global value chain (GVC), the highest tier and now have the opportunity to work with a global fashion expert who will support them in penetrating foreign markets in line with their products and the respective market’s buying power.
Designers involved in the VCIP have expanded into markets that include but are not limited to South Korea, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, US, UK, Samoa, and the Philipines.
More reach for men’s wear
When it comes to men’s brands, Ecliff Elie easily stands out among local designers.
Designing since the age of 14, he has worked his way up without any formal training to become an easily recognisable brand and the go-to designer for suits and casual wear.
Before the VCIP, Elie operated out of a boutique at Rosalino Street, Woodbrook, with a staff of 11. Today he has 28 employees and opened a factory in El Socorro.
“We don’t even throw away scraps now. We put it on a shelf and probably make ties with them later. We have moved from having employees to actually having a business. I am able to run my business from anywhere in the world now,” Elie said.
As a result of the programme, sales have doubled even in his outlets in Barbados, St Lucia and St Vincent and Elie has now set his sights on e-commerce.