Caribbean Business of Fashion: BOTTLETOP Case Study

Gus Franklyn-Bute Editor-in-Chief

There is consensus throughout the Caribbean that the region’s vault of creative and cultural wealth remains fully untapped and undervalued. Its utility is diminishing day by day and night after night as national economies falter on the ebb and flow of indeterminacy.  The regions industries stagnate for dearth of excellence at the highest level of executive leadership.

London Fashion Week: NO PASS, NO ENTRY

London Fashion Week (LFW) like that of New York, Milan and Paris is about setting pace and defining seasonal styles and trends. This foremost platform offers brazen access to an expectant audience of international buyers, press, consumers and imitators. In such an aggressively competitive industry, for a breakthrough designer chosen to showcase a collection, the opportunity is a firm nod to the potential of their talent. London Fashion Week is a window for business development and a shot at planting solid creative footprints in an arena that is a grand fashion extravaganza. At the epicentre of this finely-executed bazaar is one primary function – the international business of fashion.

Moschino SS15 (Dan Sims, BFC) 1

Moschino SS15 (Dan Sims, BFC)

LFW Spring/Summer 2015: ‘No Afro-Caribbean Vibe’

A few steps away from the bustling British Fashion Council (BFC) courtyard and main catwalk stage, the Designer Showrooms are flushed with fresh collections of clothing, shoes, accessories and jewellery. The atmosphere reverberates with ideas and inspiration and behind each exhibit is a personal story, a creative journey. These collective rites of passage induce the Designer Showrooms with a self-styled natural vibe.  The space pulses a different energy from the top heavy rhythm of the glitterati shuffle, celebrity smooching and the blogging-circus abuzz around the fashion carousel in the courtyard of Somerset House.

Yet, for the world city that is London, where is it possible to encounter at least one citizen from every country on earth, there is a notable absence of any major or emerging designers whose creative output is an ‘authentic’ reflection of African and Caribbean cultural plurality. Indeed, London Fashion Week does not mirror the ever increasing influence that African and Caribbean people and lifestyles contribute to global consumer industries. This is no slight on BFC, who in collaboration with the British Council, actively engage with design clusters across the globe. After all, Caribbean designers previously showed on the fringes of London Fashion Week.

Caribbean cultural influences on LFW


Edward Crutchley SS15 (Kensington Leverne, BFC)

Two traits of African and Caribbean culture, or rather, pseudo-anthropological influences characterise London Fashion Week. One is the consignment of so-called ‘ethnic’ faces and models that grace the catwalks and showrooms. The other, more prominently, is the melee of individuality and edgy, urban, street and ‘nationality’ influenced fashion styling that parade and orbit Somerset House’s public courtyard – to the delight of bloggers and snappers. Indeed, this makes London Fashion Week unique.

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“Bottletop” signals Caribbean creative, design future

That yet another fashion week had arrived without any major Afro-Caribbean designers in the main arena, was gnawing my heart as I meandered through the Designer Showrooms. A visit to Bottletop and conversation with its Co-Director, Cameron Saul reignited my excitement for fashion as a business. Our chat intensified my unwavering conviction of the international export potential of design and creativity with legacy, heritage, craftsmanship, ancestral skills and artisanship at the core from the wider Caribbean.

SS 14 collection referencing Brazil brilliant colours

BOTTLETOP muse and brand ambassdor Candice Swanepoel. SS14 ADRIANA Yellow/Black referencing Brazil’s brilliant colours

Bottletop’s genesis, ethos, growth and strategy is a dynamic success story to which Caribbean policymakers, business support services, financiers and investors must carefully study. The Bottletop model may inform ongoing national and regional creative and cultural export strategies. The company’s lifestory is an intriguing admixture of social enterprise; local community engagement in Africa and Brazil; connected entrepreneurs; upcycling of garbage; employment of local skills (mainly female breadwinners); and an ensemble of commercial partners converging to create a luxury brand with an ever growing international appeal.

Luxury brand with communities and youth as its life blood

At the heart of Bottletop is a charitable foundation which funnels back funds and resources directly to local communities – currently in 9 cities around the world, including Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Brazil and the UK. Projects targets disadvantaged youngsters through health education and vocational training.  And a decade after Bottletop launched its first wireframe handbag the sales of its products empowers over 35,000 individuals, granting families greater control over their own livelihoods, which further filters into their wider communities.

READCaribbean Fashion Need Style Makeover” – challenges of Caribbean fashion

Model Candice Swanepoel visits Bottletop factory in Salvador, Bahia

Model Candice Swanepoel visits Bottletop factory in Salvador, Bahia – with Cameron Saul

As the name suggests, Bottletop utilises discarded metal bottle tops and ring pulls from drinks cans in the design and creation of a line of handmade, highly desirable luxury handbags and accessories. The beautiful designs are retailed internationally and have attracted the likes of Anna Wintour, Jessica Alba, Kate Moss, Jesse J and Rachel Weisz. The original wireframe bottle tops and ring pull bags were first happened upon, respectively, by Co-Directors Cameron Saul in Uganda and Oliver Wayman (his mother made initial discovery) in Brazil. Today, each product is handmade at the company’s atelier in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.

The Bottletop journey is one which resonates with Caribbean designers pondering how to develop a realistic business model and strategy which provides access of key markets and is genuinely cognisant of international rules of engagement in the business of fashion.



What is the “Secret” to creating a sustainable luxury brand?

The Caribbean has a long tradition of skilled artisans and craftsmanship. Its people are industrious in working an extensive array of resources: natural fibrous materials, sugar and flour sacks, bamboo, breadfruit leaves, beer cans, plastic “Busta” bottles, ring pulls, bottle tops, wires, seashells, coconut shells and husks, and so on. They produce jewellery, clothing, ornaments, handbags, baskets and other accessories. In days of ore, for example, children fashioned a form of tambourine by flattening metal bottle tops, which were nailed in pairs to a small piece of wood. When shaken or tapped rhythmically against the palm of the hand, the homemade instrument registered a clinging timbre similar to a traditional tambourine.


Harl Taylor Bag (The Annator, 2010 Collection)

The notion of eco, sustainable, ethical fashion and eco-crafts as ‘new’ is utter nonsense. Caribbean and African communities have been plaiting, weaving, dyeing and twisting for centuries [See HARL TAYLOR BAGS and ANANSI woven raffia bags]. Indeed, communities from Asia to the Americas have ancient tradition of creative resourcefulness. However, at the luxury end of the market, the often missing or secret elixir to developing successful and sustainable craft-based businesses is understanding how to create products which consumers truly consider desirable, which also robustly echo their individual notion luxury. Too many businesses fail for relying principally on believing that consumers’ interests in ethical, eco, sustainable or artisan products is the linchpin of their business model. Singly, this approach is not a viable, long term strategy for creating a successful business in the luxury consumer sector.

Caribbean Creative and Cultural Wealth: What future?

There is consensus throughout the Caribbean, from grassroots and small businesses to politicians, investors and entrepreneurs, that the region’s vault of creative and cultural wealth remains fully untapped and undervalued. Indeed its utility is diminishing day by day and night after night as national economies sway and falter to the ebb and flow of indeterminacy.  The Caribbean region’s industries continue to stagnate and emit a stench for dearth of excellence at the highest level of executive leadership.

The enduring failure to deliver efficiency of the Caribbean’s creative and cultural capital and to significantly and productively elevate its art, fashion and design talents into international markets, and achieve a broad base, modicum of success begs one critical question:

Are appointed Caribbean executives and officers, at best, only good managers and seldom effective leaders with qualities, experience and competencies to fly at the highest international level?

aq_resizer-2_grandeOne may further wonder if Thomas Carlye’s (1849) ‘Occasional Discourse…’ may after all resonate some truth. Have independent Caribbean nation-states evolved into communities of ‘pumpkin eaters’ (symbolically of course)?

While national resources and European Union funding through Caribbean Export, the regional export development agency, continue to cluster on specific outputs like marketing, workshops, seminars, competitions, market studies and consultation, the greatest challenge –  the missing piece of creative and cultural puzzle is knowing:

How to establish an effective, achievable, holistic strategy that empowers businesses in the Caribbean to Access International Markets (C-AIM).

Strategies are well-established for other key sectors like tourism, for example.  Yet no methodology or structure has been developed which links the 3 essential components: Market Intelligence (international and sector specific), Connectivity (in key overseas markets) and Resources (people and funding) to support fashion and other potentially exportable creativity.

Indeed, Compete Caribbean, a programme jointly funded to the tune of US$40 milliion, along with Caribbean Export’s outreach initiative Caribbean Ideas Marketplace, designed to forge strong investment and trade linkages with Caribbean Diaspora in the US, UK and Europe fell off the cliff in 2012/13 precisely for these structural weaknesses: poor market intelligence and ineffective connections (wrong partners) in overseas markets.

Social Enterprise as thriving luxury brand


Narciso Rodriguez (heart) BOTTLETOP Collection x PEPSI ® U.S.

The absence of Caribbean designers at major fashion weeks like London is failure of Caribbean executives leadership.  It is the by-product of an inability to implement effectual programmes that are commensurate to the complexities of international markets. Who must take responsibility for correcting this structural failure and how to fix such a critical issue is a subject for a follow up discussion.

The Bottletop case study is as a relatable example of social enterprise thriving as a high value, high fashion design brand. It is the outcome of successful social enterprise linkages with UK entrepreneurs and partner artisans and crafts people from Africa and Bahia, Brazil. These are local communities with whom the Caribbean share similarities in both development and cultural. The suggestion is not to replicate or mimic the Bottletop model. It is to earnestly comprehend the value chain, potential of local crafts and skills, partnerships linkages, brand values, leadership and importantly access to market. It is to evaluate what lessons may be learnt and weaknesses identified to begin to seek support and advice on formulating more efficient business models that best incorporate Caribbean Access International Markets (C-AIM) and its essential components: Market Intelligence, Connectivity (in key overseas markets) and Resources (people and funding) to support fashion and other potentially exportable creativity.


Gus Franklyn-Bute, FOUNDER, Editor-in-Chief may be contacted for further advice, discussion and support at email: editor at acubien dot com. Follow and reach on Twitter @GusFranklynBute