Fashion Features & Interviews

All Writing, Styling & Creative Direction by Esther Lee

Natalie Suliman Feature for SHE Caribbean Magazine



Top Ten Caribbean Designers

The Caribbean region has a multifaceted and intriguing history and is constantly growing and producing new talent. The designers of the Caribbean create clothing that reflect their multicultural and multi ethnic heritage, awe inspiring backdrops and the minutiae of life in the islands. ESTHER LEE takes a look at ten of the best.
1. Pilar

In the Caribbean Fashion Industry, Anya Ayoung-Chee is the truly the new kid on the block, debuting her clothing line, PILAR, at Trinidad & Tobago Fashion Week in 2009. With her first collection, the designer has shown a clear aesthetic, drawing on the ethnical and cultural history of her homeland, Trinidad and her Chinese, Indian and Caucasian heritage. PILAR has gained attention around the region for its cohesive and direct style message. She joins a market (Trinidad) that has developed a very long list of talented designers that are the best in the Caribbean.

The designer was propelled into creating her first line for PILAR after a tragic accident. In 2007, her younger brother, Pilar Charles Ayoung-Chee, died in a car accident at eighteen years old. According to Anya, his death encouraged her to finally start her clothing line. “His life and early death inspired me to pursue a dream of my own, in an effort to recognize the value of life and of fulfilling dreams. For me becoming a fashion designer is the ultimate achievement, and by reaching this goal, I carry on Pilar's legacy and have found a way to live his life and mine.”

2. Claudia Pegus

Designer Claudia Pegus walks into a room and all heads turn her way. The Grande Dame of Caribbean Fashion has managed to stay current and continuously contemporary after being in the industry for decades. Born in the Caribbean republic of Trinidad & Tobago, in an area south of the country called Palo Seco, Pegus entered the fashion market over thirty years ago and has now become one of the leading innovators in the Caribbean. Pegus is now known as a dedicated member of the Caribbean’s fashion industry not only showing by example but also mentoring the upcoming generation.
In 2009, Pulse Investments Ltd released their list of the region’s Master designers who are expected to ‘be at the forefront of the regional fashion industry development’. The first lady of fashion, Pegus was of course on top of that list. Rising from humble beginnings, she opened her first store in the 1970s in Trinidad & Tobago, a country with a mixed population of descendants of African slaves, European plantation owners and Chinese and Indian indentured workers.  Her clothing is distinctively European inspired, with many references to Trinidad’s Indian and Chinese populations.

3. The Vessel by lois

Lois Samuel-Ingledew’s rise from Jamaican school girl to Vogue cover girl is a true Caribbean Cinderella story, regardless of how cliché it may sound. In 2009, she launched her first collection of clothing, The Vessel by lois to critical acclaim at Caribbean and New York fashion weeks. The designer had seamlessly blended her Jamaican culture with European tailoring. Samuel-Ingledew’s foray into the fashion world began when she was discovered on her way home from Hampton High School. Caribbean Fashion Week creator and Pulse Models CEO, Kinsley Cooper quickly took her under his wings and Lois was part of the first group of Jamaican models to be presented to international modelling agencies. That trip led to a successful modelling career with a standout role in the CK One campaign alongside Kate Moss. The designer joined the ranks of the successful edgy models of the late nineties and worked for designers such as Christian Lacroix, Ralph Lauren, Jean Paul Gautier and Givenchy. Appearances in Harpers Bazaar, Glamour, Essence and Vogue followed with Lois working with photography greats like Steven Meisel, Ellen Von Unworth and Nick Night. She famously made the cover of Vogue, being the first Caribbean model to achieve that success.

Her line attracted international attention with buyers and press in New York giving it praise. Women’s Wear Daily reported that ‘Jamaican-born former model Lois Samuel put an English accent on her menswear and uniform inspirations, creating a prim, tailored collection with an emphasis on the jumpsuit.’

4. Gavin Douglas

When an examination of the Caribbean Fashion industry is done, the population of the Caribbean Diaspora also needs to be examined and the second generation designers of Caribbean parents need to be discussed. Gavin Douglas is one of these designers with Jamaican heritage but born in the united Kingdom. While showing at Caribbean Fashion Week in 2009, Douglas showed that he had smoothly merged his British upbringing with his Caribbean roots. His family was part of the mass migration that occurred in the 1950s with many Caribbean families relocating to the United Kingdom. They brought with them their island traditions, culture and style.

With Sarah Mower of Vogue and Style.com saying that ‘As ignorance of UK black history is almost complete, Gavin’s determination to bring a new voice to the business is commendable’, it is important to find out how the Caribbean aesthetic develops when combined with modern European style.

Born in Birmingham, Douglas enrolled at Sutton Coalfield College and then Northampton University to study fashion design. After graduating, the designer received fashion business training through the Princes Trust and then launched his label to ‘create a unique brand of urban couture for women who wish to express their individuality through clothing.’ In that same year, Douglas was also awarded the Young Avant Garde Designer of the Year and went on to show at Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica in 2005 as part of his prize.
5. Millhouse

Menswear sometimes takes a back seat in the Caribbean Fashion industry but a design duo is quickly changing that. The husband and wife team, Gregory Mills and Coline Baptiste-Mills, have created Millhouse Clothing which has now become one of the leading menswear lines in the islands.

Both born in the south of Trinidad & Tobago, the couple of African descent began the label as a small tailoring shop on
Independence Square
in Port of Spain, the capital of the country in 1997. By 2007, Millhouse had revamped its operations and divided its designs into a customized apparel division, a sportswear label and a resort line. Gregory, the company’s head designer, looks towards Saville Row and a traditional English style for his design direction while ‘continuing to redefine the traditional concepts of Caribbean design.’

Millhouse focuses on clean lines, a tapered fit and bespoke tailoring that recall the style grandeur of the British settlers in Trinidad & Tobago. The designers admit that the European history of their country is the biggest influence on their creations. The designers also draw on their country’s other ethnicities for inspiration. Their Spring/Summer 2009 collection, called Shaan, was Indian inspired, using Trinidad’s descendants of indentured workers as their reference point. Shaan won the couple a Caribbean Fashion Award that year for menswear. 

6. Kuumba

The smaller islands of the Caribbean commonly referred to as the Lesser Antilles, such as St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Martinique, Dominica and Guadeloupe share a common style aesthetic due to their ethnic history. These islands mainly have a mixed population of descendants of European settlers and African slaves with the French culture being very dominant. Out of this mix, a Creole style developed that is evident in designers’ collections in these countries. One of these designers is Esther Joseph of Kuumba Designs in Saint Lucia, who seamlessly blends her island’s historical style with contemporary creations.

Born in the capital of St. Lucia, Castries, the designer developed an early love for design after being given a doll at age five. After continuous attempts at making miniature clothing, Esther started to assist a neighbour in her sewing business so that she could learn the techniques of garment construction. By age 10, professional sewing work beckoned and the Kuumba designer started making cushions for a five star hotel on the island. While assisting a seamstress, Esther exchanged her services for a new sewing machine and this was the star of a new era for her. By 15, she had made her own wedding gown, made the decision to be a designer full time.

7. Meiling

One of the founding members of the contemporary Caribbean fashion industry is Meiling. With her last name, Esau, now unnecessary, Meiling has become a household name in Trinidad & Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean region. She is another designer who proudly displays the ethnic and cultural diversity of Trinidad & Tobago.

Meiling was interested in fashion design at a very early age so her mother taught her to sew. This fuelled the interest of a young Meiling and she continued crafting garments throughout her childhood. Wanting to receive formal training in Fashion Design, Meiling left Trinidad in the 1960s and moved to London. There she enrolled at the Lucia Clayton School of Design. After completing her studies, the designer returned to Trinidad & Tobago where she created her first design studio and shop in a converted garage. She mixed English technique with her Caribbean drama and soon Meiling’s fashion shows were legendary. According to Meiling, the woman who wears her designs should have wit, humour and the ability to laugh at herself. The designer is well known for her great work with natural fabrics and linens. Most pieces are designed with intricate hand embroidery and beading. Meiling release two main collections a year and these have become known for their dramatic presentations and creative designs. Her work mixes the culture and styles of her Chinese heritage and African culture.

8. Uzuri

Mark McDermoth and Karl Williams came together in the 1980s, to create Uzuri, after gaining some training in clothing construction. They quickly developed the reputation of being the go to designers for glamorous red carpet dresses and are now known as the pageant kings. Mark recalls how they combined their skills to develop the brand, ‘In the beginning, we each brought totally different skills to the organization. Karl had no technical training in clothing construction, but he was a model and entertainer.  He has a great design-eye; he sketches and brings showmanship to the table. I brought garment construction, marketing and management skills. Now, Karl has learnt it all on the job and we both interchange our responsibilities.

Uzuri is a true multicultural brand but admit that it is hard for them to choose what ethnicity and culture influences them the most. ‘Our name is coined from an African inspired beauty concept; a beauty which is rustic, non traditional, non conformist, yet we experiment daily with the concept of marrying this with the contrast which the other cultures bring to arrive at what we call world couture, sophisticated, yet un pretentious, edgy, but wearable; colourful, not loud.  Overall, magical and amazing clothing with hints of East meets West,’ explains Williams.

9. The Cloth

Designer Robert Young came up with the label’s name because he once considered joining the priesthood or becoming a man of the cloth. He has now become not only a fashion designer but a social commentator using his multi coloured men’s and women’s creations to send a message. The Cloth signature style or trademark is appliqué and using the various ethnic and cultural groups in Trinidad as a point of reference. ‘I am naturalistic but always influenced by the wider region which provides the perfect backdrop for my practical, colourful and playful designs,’ explained Young.

The Cloth’s collections always follow a similar aesthetic. ‘Each of my collections represents a variation on a similar theme yet I am always aware of the global trends without losing sight of the context of my environment. I try to make my work embody elements of traditional folk, the spirit of revolution and an interest in restoration and integration,’ said Young.

10. Earl Biggie Turner

In the island of Jamaica, a culture has emerged from the dance traditions of the population’s African descendants. Dancehall is a rich, lively culture infused with dancing, music and fashion. The style developed in the late seventies fusing ingredients from reggae, African beats and modern digital effects. A fashion style developed, usually used to show off the new dance moves being constantly developed. Like Dancehall music, the fashion is all about explicit sexuality with bottom bearing outfits. The main designer who has emerged from that culture is Earl Turner aka Biggy, who has brought the outfits usually worn by Dancehall queens in the clubs of Kingston, Jamaica to the catwalks.

In the Caribbean fashion industry, Biggy is well known as the ‘nice guy’ in the business. His collections, usually shown at Caribbean Fashion Week, are a display of Jamaican urban wear with touches of structured details. He mixes the raw sexuality of the dancehall scene with softer feminine pieces. Denim features a lot in Biggy’s collections with his pieces being fun, whimsical, young and always sexy. He is the master of ‘pom pom’ shorts (hot pants) that expose half of the derriere, extra low rise skinny jeans, micro skirts and cleavage enhancing denim corsets.