Following up on last’s week column, fashion careers, this week I wanted to share with you my general response to the commonly asked question, can the Caribbean actually have a thriving fashion industry? It’s one of the most annoying questions I have been asked and I’m hugely uncomfortable with giving an answer. This is simply because people just expect you to go on about how tired and unappealing the designs are, failing to ever realize the real magnitude of effort and the diversity of skill that needs to be present before an industry manifests itself.
It’s not only about the designer but the attitudes and the negative general ideology towards working in fashion in the Caribbean that really overpower the industry’s development. No one ever seems to want to look beneath the surface and at the bigger picture.
While the idea of the Caribbean actually becoming a hub for fashion isn’t impossible, it’s not something I would ever hold my breath for. There are a few general setbacks that plague us as a region that we must first consider if we want to move forward.
For the most part, a career in any art related field is not considered a career. I find that many Caribbean parents tend to be very displeased if their child heads down the artsy path. Parents are generally more supportive if their child pursues a career in medicine, law or politics. From a very young age, many Caribbean children are taught how to suppress their creativity and how to never imagine it as a career.
There is a degree of career shaming, which in turn suppresses the talent that exists in the Caribbean. In addition, the shameful reluctance to value the work of artists, sees economic instability playing a huge part pushing the unattractiveness of the industry. Lack of respect for and legislation to protect intellectual property point to Guyana, in particular, not being too interested. This is a sector that needs more support from the government, which would help in reducing the stigma. The recently formed theatre and music schools are a start, but there needs to be more cushioning as regards education surrounding the arts in schools.
Our mediocre traditions
As things stand, the sector is guarded by a host of gatekeepers and those who seek to question the way things are done are often shot down. We are generally accustomed to seeing things one way all the time. Change is not a word that we accept and swallow very easily. I think there is a degree of security and moderating built into our culture when it comes to defending the arts. People are always too afraid to say something because they may offend the, often, older person. It would seem that opportunity and respect come based on how long you have been around, rather than your innate talent. So you don’t necessarily have to put out good work, but there are certain character traits you must possess. The reality is that for any industry to be built the people working in it have to be honest.
Carifesta in Haiti has come and gone and it seems no one thinks it necessary to review the strategic benefits, if any, the designers showcasing at Carifesta gained. Did they network with buyers? What about access to factories and raw materials? These are pertinent issues that make an industry thrive. If we don’t figure these out, how can we ever know where to cut back and where to develop? There needs to be more diversity in how we approach developing the industry. Very often we throw money around and there is no direct return on investment. While we may not have design talent, it doesn’t mean an industry can’t blossom. We must understand the context in which we are hoping to develop the industry. While we may not be able to invest in a school perhaps factories are more suitable to us. Perhaps we should try to develop luxury fashion retail for tourists. Perhaps we can market the region as a destination for major fashion events. Chanel in Cuba and Louis Vuitton in Rio de Janeiro are two magnificent examples of fashion tourism and how it is evolving.
In order to get fresh ideas the industry needs to be flipped and the practicality of our development choices must always be scrutinized. Finally, I always find it amusing that a career in fashion is frowned upon by people who wear clothes every day. Unlike the rest of the arts, fashion has a strong utilitarian value which will naturally allow it to be a safer creative type industry. We must first understand its true potential.