Caribbean Designers Receive Expert Business Advice

Emerging and established Caribbean fashion designers benefited from expert advice and industry tips while participating in the recently concluded Fashion is Big Business Workshop, held during the International Fashion Festival – Barbados Fashion Week between 26-28 October 2018.

The workshop, which was facilitated by the Caribbean Market Centre, featured a frank and open discussion with international fashion designers, buyers and industry experts.  Caribbean Export supported the participation of regional designers at this workshop with funding from the European Union via the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme.

Ouigi Theodore, founder of the Brooklyn Circus, a retro-urban fashion boutique and label was part of the discussion and he encouraged the designers to take advantage of the Caribbean’s unique style and to market their designs to this region’s diaspora.

Mr. Theodore, a Haitian who moved to Brooklyn, New York when he was eight, urged the designers to understand their culture and to recognize the strength of the Caribbean identity in the diaspora.

Insisting that they needed to go after that market, he pointed to the success of reggae and hip hop in the black community as examples.

“You have to know what you do best and continue to do it best with the little you do have.  I am a huge advocate of reggae music and hip hop. They are about digging into their culture and representing… Many of those guys didn’t go to the best school, some can’t even read music but hip hop is dominating the world, reggae is on the radio outside of Jamaica…

“There is a Haitian middle class who is not living in Haiti and it’s the diaspora. I am a representative of that middle class. What Haitian rapper, Wyclef Jean and guys of that generation did, was make it okay and cool to wave the Haitian flag.  It is the same for you guys as Bajans. Rihanna has made it okay for you guys to wave the Bajan flag and say I am from Barbados and I am proud to be Barbadian. But that is not enough, you need to be on the ground, go back and forth, bridge the gap and push your designs” Ouigi Theodore said.

Also speaking at the workshop was Sharifa Murdock, co-founder and owner of Liberty Fairs and founder of Envsn Festival.  She agreed with Mr. Theodore and urged the designers to be the first to represent their brand.

“If you have a clothing line, you have to be your first buyer and lead by example. Believe in your dream and your product,” she said, adding it was critical for designers to also create simple products that could maintain cash flow.

“What a lot of designers put on runway is not what they put in the stores because you have to find something people can wear.  If you have a couture line do something simple like t-shirts that is an easy sell. All you have to do is produce things that can give people a memorable moment of your brand,” Sharifa suggested, while advising Caribbean designers to go after the tourist market by placing their work in local stores.

“There needs to be authenticity into your designs. You guys are from the islands and no one takes the opportunity to really produce products for here. Everyone wants to go to the States but you have a big community here… and there is so much tourism,” she said.

The workshop’s moderator Ronny Oppong, a Global Retail Relations Director at Liberty Fashion and Lifestyle Fairs, agreed with the need for authenticity and gave some insight into customization, which he noted was becoming more desirable among customers.

“We’ve done trade shows and noticed that buyers just love a unique piece of something that is specially for them, like something with their name on it. So if your style is couture, you can drape or cut a bunch of t-shirts in your signature style. That’s a piece of your craft, something customized,” he explained, noting that the investment for such a product was smaller so the end price would be more attractive to buyers.

Another fashion expert at the workshop was Hillary Joseph, Director of Cabaña Swim, a consultant on Fashion for Brazil and a swimwear buyer for Nads Swim.

Ms. Joseph addressed product placement and distribution.  Asking the designers, “who do you sit next to?” She said: “the worse answer you can get is that I am different and I don’t sit next to anybody.”

Stressing that research was required to effectively answer the question, the fashion consultant outlined, “It’s knowing who your brand sits next to based on your set up and your price point and then understanding what store that is. Everyone wants to be in a Barneys or Saks Fifth Avenue but that might not necessarily be where your brand needs to be. So it’s really being realistic and knowing what is right for your brand,” she said.

However, she did acknowledge it could be challenging to get into established stores and urged the designers to consider doing “pop up shops” – which is a short term store or sales space.

Also imparting words of wisdom was Luam Keflezghi, an international buyer of ready to wear fashion.  Ms. Keflezghi cautioned the designers against waiting on “existing systems” to build their success, especially if they hoped to get people in Caribbean to support their brands.

“Do not wait on existing systems to include you. Create your own system, a pipeline to your audience. So for example, the tourists will come. You have to figure out marketing so they find out about you before they visit so when they get here, they come directly to you. To do that, you need to use Instagram and the internet to get people to plug into a system that you already created,” she said.

Emphasizing that these platforms needed to be professional, she told the designers their brands needed to be easy to find and constantly refreshed.

Channing Hargrove, a Fashion writer for Refinery 29 and owner of the blog Channing In the City, advised the designers to get strong marketing platforms, not only for promotion purposes but to generate sales.

“You need to have relationships with editors, writers and public relations experts. Your photos should be strong on both social media and your website. You must also have a direct commerce link so people can click and buy immediately.  If your website is not great and you don’t have a link to buy, you can’t get eyes on you and you cut out so many sales,” Ms. Hargrove pointed out.

The fashion writer also proposed that the designers used video and photos done by professionals as opposed to solely relying on their phone cameras.

Also sharing her perspective on the industry was Danielle Cooper, a fashion influencer and owner of the blog and podcast

She stressed that authenticity was really critical for designers. “Research, know your target audience and what is your niche.  More and more people are attempting to follow trends or follow others, that will come out and people will notice. So pay attention to your self-expression and stay true to yourself and your niche.  Be authentic because it’s going to shine and more people will be able to relate to you,” Ms. Cooper said.

The last bit of advice came from International model and runway coach, Stacey McKenzie, who is famously known for her coaching and judging appearances on America’s next top model.

She stressed that it was imperative that both models and designers treated their craft like a business.

“What they fail to understand is that it’s a business and [they] need to treat it as such. People see all fluff in the forefront and make you think this is some fabulous life. No its work and its hard work.  Research the industry and know your craft. You always have to be evolving, switch up, be fresh and new,” the Jamaican born model said.

Caribbean Export is committed to the development of the region’s Creative Industry, in which fashion is key sector. The Agency supports businesses in the industry to develop their export potential, build capacity, access finance through grant schemes and benefit from training and technical assistance. (SP/Caribbean Export)