Toni Fifi Talks Family, Fashion and the Future.

Some people are just effortlessly fashionable – and Antonia Fifi is certainly one of them. With the incredible looks of a model, and her understanding of how clothes fit, drape and are meant to be paired, she’s a walking runway, and today was no different.

I walked into the packed coffee house in the middle of the work day to find Antonia – Toni, as she’s called – caught up in conversation. Her look is simple: beautiful, messy curls in a bun on her head, a denim shirt over crisp white shorts, and the most colourful of sandals to top off the entire look. She has a natural essence of style – and her everyday wardrobe shows it.

But it’s understandable – because the entrepreneur has a history in fashion. Besides getting a second degree in fashion design from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Canada (this came after her initial business degree of Commerce from the University of Toronto), and her experience as both a fit model and a fashion buyer for international brands, Antonia has always loved clothes. In fact, she used to spend her allowance entirely on clothes when she was just a teenager.

It wasn’t until she moved home in December 2006 did Antonia really think about combining her two worlds – and after working for her family for a couple years, she took the plunge and opened her first store, Maison Fifi, in August 2009.

Originally in Santa Maria Plaza on Mucurapo Road, Antonia opened Maison after an Italian boutique-owner was leaving Trinidad and selling her store. It was the perfect way to test the market, but also retain her already-existing clientele. And Maison was born.

A year later, she moved the boutique to the more-accessible Long Circular Mall, and two years after that, she opened her second location in West Mall.

“I had the two stores for about two years,” Antonia explained. “Until I realized that my son needed a little more attention. I thought originally that I could close the West Mall branch and just run [LCM] and have more time with him.”

But staffing issues led her to spend more time there than she had hoped, and soon she was spending the same amount of time committing to the store, and couldn’t commit the time that he needed to her son – and in September 2016, she closed the storefront altogether

At that point, she’d thought she’d closed the door on this chapter of her life for good – but a friend who’d helped with the store suggested the idea of regular “pop up shops”, and a new era of Maison was born.

“At the time, I thought it sounded like so much work, and I was just nervous about doing something new,” Antonia added. “But I already had the lines, I already had the racks. I had all the hardware and all the connections, so really all I had to do was find a spot to host it.”

In November 2016, just two months after closing her storefront, the Maison Fifi pop-up shops began at Akasha Studio on Long Circular Road. It provided clients all of the Maison regular brands and styles, but available for two days only. You could see sneak peeks of what was coming before-hand on social media, or just show up and shop – but the idea was simple: there were only a certain number of pieces available for a certain amount of time, and customers flocked.

“It’s worked out beautifully,” Antonia said. “Business-wise, it’s been a great decision – because you lower overheads and increase turnover, and it’s more sought-after because it’s a one-time event. Time-wise, I get more time for my family and my kids.”

The family aspect is incredibly important to Antonia. Her and her husband have two children – a 9-year-old daughter, and a 7-year-old son. But it hasn’t come without its challenges.

“My son has some developmental issues, we’ve known about them for a long time,” she said, by explanation of why she wanted to commit more time to her kids – and her son in particular.

“It’s tough because it’s twice, three, four times the effort of raising a typically developing child. Effort – in your time, financially, emotionally, all around.”

And while Antonia has known about her son’s issues for years, it doesn’t get any easier, especially in the critique and advice she gets from family and friends.

“Every mother of a special needs child knows that it’s a lonely road – because you get a lot of advice from people that obviously have great intentions to just allow your kids to be, but you know that something is there,” Antonia explained. “As a mother, there’s that instinct that you need to do something, and there’s resistance – even sometimes from your partner.”

But as they say: a mother knows. And Antonia, and her husband, have embarked on that lonely road together as they commit to taking care of their children, and choosing to do what’s absolutely best for them.

“From the very beginning, the plan was always that I’d close the stores and we’d migrate to get him to a school that would allow him to reach his full potential,” Antonia justified. “He’s done really well here, really flourished – but he just has other needs now that, as his mother, I want to meet.”

And these needs take Antonia on her newest adventure: to Canada. At some point over the summer holidays, Antonia and her family will make the move to Toronto to start their new chapter – but it’s not the end of their chapters at home here in Trinidad, and it’s certainly not the end of Maison Fifi as we know it.

“The beautiful thing about the pop-up – as much as it wasn’t originally intended – it’s been a business model that I can now travel with,” she added. “The plan is for me to come back to Trinidad in the same time frame as the pop-ups, which are usually every two months or so, and host them. Outside of the two days that I’m on the floor, the entire business is already online and managed through social media. Now, the world is just that small.”

That’s the power of social media, though – and Antonia has realized and embraced this for her boutique, but she’s starting to learn how to use it for her own personal brand as well. In fact, just last week, she embarked on yet another venture: a blog. Starting an Instagram page dedicated entirely to talking openly about her love of fashion, her children, her decision to move to Canada, and all of the new experiences she will encounter, Antonia’s using social media in an entirely new way than before.

“Instagram is such a powerful tool that I don’t think we’ve really maximised in Trinidad as yet,” she added. “Up to recently, quite frankly, I don’t think I really recognized the potential either. And now that I do, I realize that moving to Canada with no connections, this is the cheapest, easiest and most effective way for me to spread my wings and get my brand recognized.”

Antonia isn’t talking about her brand Maison Fifi – in fact, she thinks Maison will remain a local brand, and she’s excited to build her newest brand in Canada and globally. But unlike what she did here in Trinidad, she won’t be opening up a brick-and-mortar store in Toronto, it’ll all be online.

“I’ve been talking so much about this global market and online and social media, and I know that now I’m just going to be one face in millions – and I want to set myself apart,” Antonia said. “I want to at least start from now so that I can build some sort of momentum – so when I get there, maybe somebody would have heard of me or seen a picture.”

And while she’s excited about the potentials of building an entirely new brand – namely getting to shop for different seasons, for different personas and almost a different aesthetic entirely – she wants to remain true to the Caribbean in a way. She definitely wants to incorporate Caribbean fashion into her new brand, and she’s already in talks with local designers to take Caribbean fashion globally.

That’s perhaps one of the biggest things she’ll miss about home – besides her friends and family, of course – the Caribbean fashion inspiration. Her sense of style, especially compared to most global fashion bloggers, is certainly more colourful – inspired by the Caribbean hues, the music, the vibe, the people.

“It’s concrete recognition that my inspirations are the trees, and the different patterns of the leaves and the flowers, and the cliché things that you think don’t really affect you,” she explained.

She’s going to miss taking inspiration from home. And like she did when she was a university student in Canada returning home for summers, she find the move making her appreciate home a lot more.

“Every day I feel like I’m noticing everything more,” Antonia added.  I’m going to miss all of it.”


All photos by Yaisa Tangwell Photography
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