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Caribbean Fashion Needs Urgent Style Makeover

Gus Franklyn-Bute Editor-in-Chief

For a city obsessed with shopping, fashion and brands the streets and malls of Hong Kong, Asia’s World City are quite frankly, appallingly unstylish.

And too, throughout the Caribbean – a region replete in rich culture, vibrancy and colour – Caribbean people, with notable exceptions, are fashion-clones of brands non-Caribbean that pay little respect to the regions heritage, uniqueness, and character.  In the words of the old folks, Caribbean people are ‘too-follow-fashion.

Hong Kong Shopping in causeway bay.2

Causeway Bay, Hong Kong: One of the busiest shopping destinations in the world

Unstylish Caribbean: Lessons from Hong Kong Creative and Cultural Industries

Yes, I run the risk of being repeatedly Bruce-Lee’d by an avenging mob from Hong Kong’s 7.2 million shopping mad residents.  And the disdain of flag-waving jingoists from Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica and elsewhere is so audible one may need to run to the hills and take cover.  In Hong Kong’s robust defence, the city-state is undoubtedly as successful as it is famed for being a shopping destination that offers the double deserts of quality in retailing and quantity in wealthy consumers – some 54.3 million visitors arrived in 2013, pushing retail sales to a booming HK$494.5 billion (US$63.7 billion).  Hong Kong/Asia has also surpassed Europe with more high net-worth individuals (HNWI) per capita.

In spite of Hong Kong’s allusion to being Asia’s fashion capital akin to London, New York or Paris, Hong Kongers are neither flushed with stylish individuality, nor does the city radiate a fashion-forward Hong Kong state of mind.

hong-kong-city-sky-shopping

Hong Kong skyline: Looking from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon across Victoria Harbour

Doing it Hong Kong Style

I posed one simple question to friends, associates and strangers who share the city-state’s 24th chromosomes of Dining and Shopping in their DNA: What is Hong Kong style? The question at worst baffled, and at most conjured replies summarised as: Hong Kong style is Mix-and-Match.” Responses were often parenthesised by self-conscious giggles that revealed a deeper realisation that while country continues basks in economic success as a well-resourced powerhouse, having so few home-grown designers that truly resonates Hong Kong’s uniqueness – its East-meets-West, ancient and modern – is a national embarrassment. Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Mix-and-Match – we are free spirits with free minds, and sometimes the means to wear whatever we choose – this is the essence of individuality and personal style.

Authentic Caribbean Style | The ABC

I pose the same question to Caribbean people, and anyone who would take up the challenge: What is Caribbean style?  I dare anyone to provide a definitive answer which the region may gleefully embrace.

And what is the point, you mutter?  Simply ABC [AMBITION, BUSINESS, CREATIVITY].  It is too important a cultural and livelihood concern that the Caribbean region and Caribbean people must deliberate and find solutions, as we become further embedded in the complexities of global consumption-led economy, which is dominated by only a few predatory players.

The Caribbean and Hong Kong (an island with a hinterland) share the ABC characteristics.  Both have ambition to grow their economies and create new wealth through diversifying their knowledge based sectors.  Dynamic, democratic private sector environments are pivotal drivers to achieve these outcomes, supported by governments, organs of industry and private sector agencies.  Thirdly, for at least a decade, the need for effective development of respective national and regional creative and cultural industries (CCI) has been recognised and flagged as being critical to the diversification of both Hong Kong’s and many Caribbean’s economies.

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Corner Ambition Clothing: Grenada & USA

Caribbean Business of Fashion

In October 2009, while Caribbean governments, CARICOM and regional institutions were flouncing in a perfectly indecisive response to the financial epidemic that gripped the global economy, Hong Kong’s government boldly stepped up and announced a practical policy decision to spur the city-state’s recovery and simultaneously diversify its key productive sectors towards pursuing its economic ambitions.  Hong Kong, the last British colonial outpost to detrain from Westminster rule, set out an enterprising strategy to forge closer regional co-operation, better utilise its land resources, and to develop of new economic areas where Hong Kong enjoyed clear advantages.  The plan was to promote six new pillar industries: Education Services, Medical Services, Testing and Certification Services, Environmental Industries, Innovation and Technology, and significantly, in reference to the Caribbean, Cultural and Creative Industries.  By 2012, only three years later, the value added contribution of CCI moved from 3.9% to 4.9%; Employment in the sector from 4.9% to 5.5%; and contribution of exports from 5.2% to 7.2%.

Earlier in July 2009 in the Caribbean, CARICOM too convened yet another talking shop, a services symposium in Antigua & Barbuda, where the Caribbean’s creative economy was centre stage.

The wider Caribbean is about 6 times more populous than Hong Kong, with visitor numbers in excess of 40 million annually. Many countries have for over a decade been actively attempting to create impetus and traction to drive change in creative and cultural industries through numerous activities: funding schemes, capacity building, training sessions, conferences, presentations, exhibitions, expo, trade missions and competitions.  Scare resources have been parcelled out to support the Caribbean’s talented and not so talented wannabes in design, arts, craft, artisanship, music, fashion and ancillary services, with the objective to create wealth by increasing international trade, exports and access to markets, with little real success.

5th Element Caribbean Essence Showcase Berlin Jul 2013

The 5th Element: Barbados

Unmasking the Hype | Caribbean Failing Itself

For many years, the regional agency, Caribbean Export has been genuinely trying to support businesses with export potential.  Yet its hands are tied by multiple factors: not least, the restrictive terms for disbursement of grants from funders; poorly structured programmes that preclude too many excellent SMEs and entrepreneurs; a myopia vision and weak execution of programmes with potential to drive real revenue and create employment; and inadequate connectivity to real world business communities, leaders and movers and shakers beyond the Caribbean’s boundaries. Private sectors initiatives like Caribbean Fashion Week (Jamaica), Islands of the World Fashion Week (Bahamas), Fashion Week Trinidad and Tobago and an assortment of other fashion, creative and cultural programmes have been launched one by one into the stratosphere, only to return to terra-firma fragmented into more components than their original design.

For events like Caribbean Fashion Week which still have a pulse, while they capture media columns inches and create impressive digital footprints, which is essential to success, the glitz, glamour and commotion perhaps mask an epic failure to generate a sustainable economic footprint throughout the Caribbean region.  The track record is a limited revenue-earning-value-added contribution to the Caribbean’s business of fashion, creativity and culture. The influence of such extravaganzas has therefore been negligible in elevating the Caribbean’s immensely talented, ambitious, hard-working designers and design services onto the global arena, and into the minds and pockets of international lifestyle consumers.

Kaj Design

Kaj Designs: Trinidad & Tobago

Conversely, Hong Kong’s cultural and creative industries continue to flourish with specific focus and support for art, film, publishing and printing, design, digital media, gaming, and the development of a high tech, energy efficient, integrated US$2.7 billion infrastructure, The West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD).  The blueprint for this enormous investment is to promote arts and culture in schools, the wider community and attract more income generating visitors from Asia and beyond, and give impetus and opportunity to the wealth generating CCI sector.  WKCD is indeed a smaller price tag than the estimated US$3.5 billion cost of the Baha Mar resort nearing completion in New Providence, The Bahamas.

Creative Imperialism vs Caribbean Consumer Power

The lack of stylish individuality evident on the busy streets of Hong Kong is a national creative and cultural failure.  The city-state’s misstep in capitalising on its unique, creative and cultural heritage is a missed opportunity to influence the world of fashion – particularly in light of its bold cri de coeur as Asia’s World City.  Hong Kong is a passive recipient of the ideas of others, flaccidly following and holding aloft the best in class from Western centres of excellence, without pause to adapt or forge its own unique Hong Kong style.

Hong Kong girls by American Benjamin W Kilburn

Hong Kong girls, Photographed by Benjamin W. Kilburn

Asian families expend small fortunes in fees and maintenance, as they bankroll Europe’s design and fashion colleges and universities, who too often pay little regard for the ability of their annual intakes.  With minor exceptions, they too are schooled, cloned and churned as brilliant mimics from these centres.  They are infused with a creative knowledge, culture and ideology which holds aloft fashion’s commercial success stories like Westwood, McQueen, Saint Laurent, Versace, and Dior.  Graduates depart, ambitious to impersonate, emulate, craft and create like these Western fashion luminaries, having long-buried and abandoned the values of their own commodious heritage and culture, perhaps believing it in some way as fashion-inferior.

Hong Kong consumers too, make no demands and have little appetite for home-grown designers who struggle to make inroads as they wither in the shade of global fashion brands who jostle each other for prime real estate in Hong Kong.  The Mix-and-Match state of mind possess the streets and malls. Consumers look crisp, draped in the most expensive garments and accessories.  Yet, they are devoid of finesse in their mishmash of labels, that should never be assembled together. Their fashion statement is “look how much I am wearing“, a display of conspicuous consumption.  Worst, there is little or no genuine mechanism in place to develop an “Inspired by Hong Kong” fashion sector – an economic tragedy for a country, once a fishing village, now with unrivalled access to capital, excellent infrastructure, entrepreneurial spirit and blessed geographical location.  This failure is attributed to one central phenomenon: “Creative Imperialism”.

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MEILING: Trinidad & Tobago

Kudos to Caribbean Designers and Creatives

Caribbean people are not consuming high-end luxury brands with the same ravenous appetite as their former colonial cousins – but they are no less guilty.  We too hold international brands, often made cheaply in the sweat factories of the world, in highest regard – preferring Zara to Meiling; TopShop to Kaj Designs; TopMan to Corner Ambition; and Primark to (affectionately “Primarni” in the UK) to Harl Taylor BAG.  Frankly, who really want to travel from Milan or Los Angeles to shop at a poorly executed Gucci store on West Coast of Barbados?  Perhaps, a concept store carrying the best of Caribbean’s designs would not only entice luxury lifestyle visitors to depart with unique, quality designs from around the region, but may also demonstrate to reluctant Caribbean people the value in buying local and regional.

While Hong Kong would survive and indeed continue to prosper, the Caribbean region and Caribbean consumers must not continue along its current trajectory as a passive player of Western Creative Imperialism – blindly replicating design ideas, instead of redefining, localising, thinking and creating differently.  We must fight to ensure we become discerning consumers in the global arena.  Failure to change will undoubtedly result in a perpetual state of dependency, where our children and their children will never ever see, know or experience their own uniqueness as they step out adorned in garments and styles that has no connection to their culture and heritage – that is an Unstylish Caribbean.  After all, our clothes help to express our individually and identity, so What really is Caribbean Style?

POSTED ON:

6 May, 2014

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3 thoughts on “Caribbean Fashion Needs Urgent Style Makeover

  1. LYN (St Lucia )

    Country : St Lucia

    Thank you for such a timely article!! A lot, a lot a lot of food for thought. Although I have read it – I still have to read again to “digest” it properly. As a budding fashion designer, I find Caribbean fashion still has years to go to be recognised internationally (slowly but surely). The island I am from is “struggling” with its fashion industry – having to fight against Asians and Syrian communities importing cheap imitations of “brand” clothing and fabric retail stores who do NOT have a clue of fabric types; they too import cheap fabrics, mostly synthetics!! UGH!! The biggest hurdle is the governing bureaucracy who ALSO have no clue of the fashion “gold mine” we have at our feet!! A few of us are trying to open windows (again, slow, painful process), before the doors can even be formed. So, again thanks for your timely article, which I will use as my “Bible” – if you will permit me. [Comment corrected on submission by authour]

    Reply
    1. ACU|BIEN EDITOR

      Thank you LYN for you comment – very interesting point. Access to quality fabrics and material is indeed critical to the quality of designs, mechanisms need to be put in place to solves this and other problems. What solutions do you suggest? The fact that NOTJUSTALABEL.COM (the most influencial digital platform discovering and supporting contemporary fahion has re-published this articled today as an editorial tells that this questions is very important.

      LYN, please remember to share the article with your circles to encourage more and more people to speak up to help those in positions to make a difference to pay attention. Every voice, every comment matters! Thank You!

      Reply

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