We are costume…that is the Caribbean aesthetic, but we are striving to be European or American. These new designers they don’t get it, we are born Trinidadian. You are what you are. We get our inspiration from Carnival, transfer it into clothing, and lo and behold the ‘critics’ call it costume. Ah, but you are what you are.
In the wake of fashion centered reality television shows, America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, the inner workings of the international fashion industry has been put on display. Endeavors as Trinidad Fashion Week and Synergy’s Supermodel Model, have in similar mode, taken up the mantle of digging the heels of Haute Couture fashion and style deeper into the Trinidadian psyche.
Designer Dexter Jennings reflects on the growth of fashion in Trinidad and its on-going metamorphosis since the 1980’s and Rosemary Stone’s ‘Color me Caribbean’. A show which then spurred a similar buzz matched in 2006 by Christopher Nathan and the show ‘Making Style’. These however wane in effect to the typhoon of fashion propaganda washing our shores today. ‘Making Style’ opened up the appetite of the local consumer for Trinidadian design. A perceptive Jennings seized this moment to move into the public face as a local designer offering a product unknown to international markets. He merged a legacy of costume making and craft with an eye for design; Transitioning from Dexter Jennings Design to Concept Studio to World Renowned Designer.
The robust figure, proud of his unique personal expression recalls his own development. He states that fashion design “was a God given gift, I didn’t go anywhere to learn to sew. My ideas came from looking at people in general. I don’t have to search books for ideas. For instance, my opening piece for Fashion Week was a pot scrub, an item so common in the Caribbean; it can hardly be labeled couture. However, it was one of the only items from Fashion Week to be featured in a French fashion magazine.” What Jennings epitomizes is the inherent element of haute couture fashion, and an ability to make the common and mundane, surreal and of course, fashionable. The last of a dying breed of crafts men, whose approach to fashion is not solely commercial; rather, each piece he designs captures the spirit of a people that are rapidly losing their essence. A premier designer for the Best Village Competition, Jennings works arduously to challenge misconceptions about the festival and the pieces that are created for various talents.
With an air of dignity, pride and passion he declares, “I am proud of my best village heritage, it is where I got my start as a designer. Some people associate best village with mediocrity, yet, some designers are working on lifting that veil.” Most people believe that the made in T&T label is primarily reserved for the designers among us who ascribe solely to international trends. Fewer and fewer designers it would seem are holding true to the origins of Caribbean fashion, namely, costume design. Jennings commented on the government’s consideration of the fashion industry in its 2010 budget presentation. Lauding its attempt to encourage the growth of the local industry and further ‘market its strengths abroad’. He remains fearful however that this resource may be frittered away on plane tickets for the fashion royalty of the island to attend different international fashion weeks.
Rather he remarked, “I hope they start to develop the industry as a whole so that we can have improved quality control; better seamstresses, tailors and draftsmen.” Jennings considers the worth of the Fashion degree programs that the University of Trinidad and Tobago offers, while he does consider the program a step forward for the local fashion industry. The quality and intentions of the students who are emerging disturbs the designer. He notes that graduates of the program aspire to mirror international trends. These cut and paste ‘fashionistas’ fail to recognize that a fashion diploma does not qualify them to displace the stalwarts of the local industry; neither does it truly empower them as designers, stylists or commentators. Their crafts are still cocooned and must be honed through practice, experimentation and mentorship. Budding fashion moguls need be wary that the prevailing ‘know it all attitude’ will drive the industry into ruin. | Shivana Mohammed