The April 11 issue of the WomanWise lay folded atop a tray on Carol Mongo's desk in her office at the former John Donaldson Technical Institute. Coordinator of the University of T&T Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design, Mongo had obviously read the concerns designer Claudia Pegus had about the local fashion industry and CAFD's role in developing it. "There is a certain fear of the unknown here," she said. "People want things and they want people to address their needs, and they see themselves focused in terms of where fashion is on the world stage. So they want all the good things but at the same time they are scared of the good things they want because it's change, and we know that change is perfectly normal except when it happens to you."
Mongo laughed. This is d�j� vu. As one of the people who helped set up New York's famed Parsons School of Design in Paris, she is familiar with the anticipation that has been expressed, not just by Pegus, but others in the local fashion industry. "The challenges were the same because even though it was a very famous school, we were on French territory. The fears were the same, there were the same problems...many of the same questions that are being asked now were asked then. The good thing is that I've been through this before so I am able to let the water roll off my back," she said.
She defended the CAFD's programmes. "The two year diploma is by definition technical. It's the idea we are giving them, the technical and a little bit more, so yes they learn to sew, yes they learn to dress patterns, drape patterns but they also learn to sketch patterns. Why? Because the designer has an idea and needs to visualise it so they'll be there to help with that.
"We also give them some conceptual design classes. Why do we do this? We can't control what they would do with their education but the idea is that the designer is working, putting a collection together, this person would be on the same wavelength and give her some input." The four-year degree programme, she explained, has a more complete curriculum and opens the students up to endless possibilities. "It does train designers but put this in context. You have a city like New York with students from Parsons, FIT, Pratt Institute. They have the same education, very well rounded but we don't know what's going to happen with some of the students. Some end up as professional pattern designers, some end up as designers, and some end up doing something totally unrelated. "You are giving this big general education. I look at my own background–I have BFA in Fashion Design–and how far that took me. The basic education I received is exactly what these students are doing and I worked from one part of the industry to the other," said Mongo, whose resum� includes jobs such as fashion illustration and working as a journalist for the Associated Press.
Agreeing with Pegus' assertion that many people just want to be models, Mongo said it's for that reason applicants to the programmes are asked to submit portfolios and there is a careful selection process to discard those with modelling aspirations. One of the biggest challenges, she said, has been to change the cultural perceptions of fashion in T&T. "Fashion is entertainment here and the parents see it so when we are sending out for students, the better secondary schools are shutting us out because they do not see it as serious and we have students here whose parents say this is okay, but we want you to get a real education. But nobody is walking around naked; this is a multi-trillion dollar business worldwide."
The CAFD programme is an intense one with students studying very little fashion in the first year. In fact, the curriculum includes courses on art history, critical thinking and English literature and composition, to name a few. Foreign experts in areas such as knitting, French embroidery, draping and other design techniques are brought in to hold workshops to enhance local skills.
While students are taught about international designers, the aim, Mongo explained, is to educate them about what is going on internationally while encouraging them to use local materials to create their own aesthetic. "Fashion today is not local anywhere, it's global and everybody looks at everybody else," she said, turning the spotlight to FWTT. "I don't see Trinidad fashion on the runway, I see wanna-be Hollywood red carpet." She said at CAFD, they are teaching students to use their cultural roots and exploit them. During a tour of the workrooms, she showed garments the students made– many of which were embellished with local beads and other found objects. She said there are plans next year to work with local designers on a Designer Critic Project, where students would design a collection with critiques from the designers from concept to finish. Top students would be given awards named after Pegus, Meiling and Heather Jones, among others.
"In the third year we will be doing internships," she said, stressing that the first batch of students are yet to graduate and there is still much for them to do. Mongo is proud of her students, labelling the quality of their work as superior to her students in Paris. Discipline has been a big challenge though and students have to adhere to a strict code of conduct and face sanctions for late submission of work. "We are instilling a professional work ethic. You have to submit work on time even if you are ill. You have to know how to follow instructions, follow the client's brief and know that what you do is done to the best of your ability."