Turning on the Light in the Caribbean

Teleica Kirkland

From 2012 -2015 I was lucky enough to travel throughout several islands in the Caribbean speaking to people instrumental in the areas of design and culture and researching dress history and development. Having visited a number of different countries I’ve seen some amazing creations and spoken to some fantastic people.

One of the remits of my research is to discover how and if natural fibrous materials, which grow in abundance in the region and are often seen as waste from the production and harvesting of fruit, could be used in the production of eco fashions and cultural dress.

The whole arena of eco fashion is still very much in its infancy worldwide and the Caribbean like many other places is slow to catch on. Yet from what I’ve seen the Caribbean could be one of the leading regions in the development of renewable organic materials for the eco fashion industry.

From dolls dresses made from banana leaves in Dominica, the use of lagetto lace bark in historic dress in Jamaica, straw hats from palm fronds in Turks and Caicos to bags and shoes from coconut coir, sisal fibres, and straw in the Bahamas, the ideas and ability for development is there so why hasn’t it caught on more?

From what I can gather it’s a case of education. As I stated earlier sustainability is still a fairly new concept across the world and sustainability and renewability in fashion is still a foetus. A sustainability executive once told me that fashion was one of the most wasteful industries in the world. Now I don’t know how true that is but I think it’s fair to say that to educate people into a different way of thinking about the production of materials for fashion items is going to take a long and concerted effort from those of us who care and or have influence.

Emily Brennan and Lori-Ann Harris writing for the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens blog, Economic Botany wrote that an attempted resurgence in the production of Lagetto lace bark was made back in the 80’s in Jamaica but production ceased due to hurricane damage and political upheaval.

Despite this various islands have tried to keep the production of their natural resources alive within the cultural dress arena. At the 2009 Miss Carnival pageant, the Miss Dominica (an island which prides itself on its uncultivated naturalness) contestant walked on stage for the national dress competition in an outfit almost entirely made of dried banana palm leaves. She didn’t win, and from a designer’s point of view I can see why, but the efforts and commitment to the use of natural materials by the designer are to be applauded.

However, I think one of the reasons eco fashion and styling hasn’t caught on more in the region is because it hasn’t been seen in great numbers across the world stage. This speaks to the “collective low self-esteem” amongst Diasporan Africans or the “I can’t do it if others aren’t doing it” syndrome.

For a region with so much, it seems as if they have so little because the powers that be and the people to a greater or lesser extent don’t seem to recognise the value of what is growing under foot. As many others do designers in the Caribbean look towards what is popular in America or Europe and let these trends set the bar for design styles and standards to adhere to. However, the Caribbean has a wealth of resources and the creative gravitas to be able to set their own bar on style and standards of design development.

The commitment to using renewable resources in fashion and cultural attire is certainly not something to be dismissed and I think will eventually lead to big business. The idea of this is catching on slowly but steadily in the Bahamas. The Bahamas has a long history of palm straw development and weaving which they call “plaiting”.

After the production of cotton had eroded the soil in the 1800’s they turned to the production of straw goods and sisal fibre rope to boost the Bahamian economy.  Apparently, there are some 200 different weave patterns developed by enslaved African women in this archipelago and the importance of the straw industry can be seen today with the expansive straw market in the heart of Nassau, New Providence.

Yet there is room beyond the tourist market for the development of cultural dress and fashion items suitable for the world stage. One company which has understood this is Harl Taylor Bag. Harl Taylor Bag produces designer luxury bags from palm straw and sisal fibres embellished with mother of pearl beads, shells, and jewels. Each bag is exquisitely designed and made and has adorned the arms of celebrities and royalty from Oprah to Queen Elizabeth II. But there needs to be more Harl Taylors.

The education and understanding of how these renewable resources could be used and what could be produced from them, as well as the export of the raw fibres to other places in the world would boost the economy of the whole region and give the Caribbean a strong foot hold in the world of eco fashion, styling and design.

People the world over need a re-education when it comes to eco fashion and styling but the market is there and the world is waiting, I just hope designers and producers in the Caribbean hear the call before others come to exploit the region and its people of their resources. By Teleica|Categories: Eco Fashion