Meet the Woman Behind the Caribbean’s ONLY Fashion School

With an array of notable alumni like Lisa See Tai, Adrian Foster and James Hackett, the Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design (CAFD) at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) has shown their hand at how prepared they are to craft the next generation of Caribbean fashion designers. But there has been no shortage of trials and errors for the program, even as it enters its 10th year, but the woman behind it all is more positive than ever for the fashion industry in Trinidad and beyond.

While the program didn’t start until 2008 after UTT took over the John Donaldson Technical Institute, the work began in 2007 when Carol Mongo, who was the chair of the Parsons School of Design (in New York)’s Paris branch. With a powerful force like Carol with a history in both the fashion and education industries, the CAFD started with a bang – but with considerably less instructors than they boast now. One instructor (who taught just about every class in the early days) was Sandra Carr – the woman behind it all today.

After completing her degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in the 80s, Sandra spent more than 20 years working in the New York fashion industry – doing everything from quality control to being a sample hand to designing coats for Valentino and Calvin Klein. So when she unexpectedly returned home in 2007 and extended her stay beyond just a trip, she applied to teach at UTT, and the rest, they say, is history.

“I’m a stickler for quality,” she explained. “I demand the best of my students.”

So when Carol Mongo left her role as Program Leader in 2012, she passed on the reins to Sandra. With so many years of experience both in the industry, and after producing the first graduating class in its entirety in 2012, the CAFD would be in good hands with Sandra – and so it has been.

The CAFD offers three programs – a four-year Bachelor’s in Fine Arts in Fashion Design, a two-year, part-time Diploma in Fashion Design and a Diploma in Fashion Management, and while the idea of studying fashion seems glamorous, it’s an intense program – filled with blood, sweat, tears and a lot of hard work.

With over 100 graduates of the BFA program, the CAFD have produced incredible designers. Some have gone on to create their own clothing brands, some have continued on to work in larger cities with fashion brands, and some have continued their education (like one graduate who received a full scholarship to Yale for her Master’s in Costume Design) – but not all have had as much success as others.

“We have had a lot of success stories, but there have been a lot of challenges, mainly in that we don’t have a developed industry,” Sandra said. “Now the industry is well-saturated with graduates of this program. It’s saturated with people who have the technical skills and the knowledge, but there’s no place in the industry for them.”

And this is not a UTT problem. It’s a Trinidad problem. With lack of major support from the government, and initiatives like Trinidad and Tobago Fashion Week being completely halted (although at the CAFD’s 2010 showing at TTFW, they received a standing ovation for their creations), the industry has remained stagnant, if not almost dead. All of the local designers that have found success in T&T have done it almost entirely on their own – and not everyone can do that.

“We know that we have a sound program, we just need more investment in our industry,” Sandra added.

“We need people to take this seriously. Fashion is a business. It’s a global US$1.7 trillion industry, and by 2025, it’ll be worth US$2.3 trillion. So we are just trying to carve a little piece of that pie in the growth of this industry.”

There have been baby steps though. CreativeTT has committed a segment to FashionTT, and the government in tandem with UTT are refurbishing a building on the UTT “John D” campus into a manufacturing facility, which will be open to the industry. This will be fully funded by the government for the first three years, and hopefully give young designers an opportunity not only to produce their work, but also to export.

“Our students that leave here suffer financially, in terms of there being no loans or grants to get them to the next stage. If there were things that were available that they could tap into so that they could establish and grow their businesses, you’d see more fruits of their labour,” Sandra offered. “But after ten years, we still don’t have an industry that is developed enough.”

And for that reason, many graduates go abroad. The fashion academy provides the students with all of the tools and skills to prepare them to be successful in the industry, but with no industry here, they often look elsewhere: namely bigger cities like New York and London.

“We cannot keep training people to go abroad,” she sighed, telling me about a graduate that moved to New York to work with designer Zac Posen.

“They will find places and fit into those industries abroad, but we need to create an industry here. We don’t want to continue this brain drain scenario where they keep going abroad because they can’t find opportunities here.”

And while the UTT program prepares graduates to enter the fashion industry, their learning isn’t anywhere near done. They keep growing and perfecting their craft and learning real skills in real time. But without an industry ourselves, we’re stunting the growth of these designers, and making it harder for them to find success.

“Fashion school just gives you a foundation,” Sandra explained. “Once you get out into the real world, it’s a whole other ballgame. There are so many things – practical things – that I learnt in the real industry that wasn’t even touched in fashion school.”

And with the CAFD at UTT being the only fully-fledged fashion program in the Caribbean, it’s more important than ever to build our industry in order to further the academy’s reputation. While they’ve produced a number of successful designers, the program is often overlooked (by both Trinidadians, Caribbean neighbours and those abroad) because it’s just not well-known enough. And it will continue to remain somewhat of a dirty little secret until Trinidad prioritizes fashion and the creative sector. In fact, Sandra recounted a story where a student from Barbados only discovered the CAFD while researching fashion schools in the US and UK – and was shocked that she didn’t know we had a fashion school right here in the Caribbean.

“Little by little, things have been done, but there have been gaps,” Sandra added. “It should have been more and it should have been faster.”

And while there has been so much growth within the program itself in the last ten years, she knows there’s so much more to go. Armed with the skillset, the expertise and knowledge, and the passion for fashion and design, graduates of UTT’s CAFD are leaving ready to take on the world (or at least the fashion world!), and if Sandra has anything to do with it, that will never change.

“That’s why I have been pushing UTT to be the vanguard of the industry,” she said. “Take the bull by the horns and do what needs to be done, because if we have to sit down and wait for the government to do everything, there’ll be another ten years that we’re still sitting down waiting.”

Ten years in, countless notable graduates and an industry that’s itching to boom – the Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design is ready to take the fashion world by storm, and with Sandra Carr behind it all, it’s all very possible.

You can see all of the work of the Caribbean Academy of Fashion Design students on display at their Art Design Exhibition every day this week, from Monday June 18th to Saturday June 23rd at the UTT John S. Donaldson campus on Wrightson Road. Admission is free.

You can also see and meet the thesis designers present a themed showcase in the Designer Spaces event at the campus on Thursday June 21st. Admission is free.

You can see the CAFD Designer Critic and Senior Thesis Fashion Show, titled Parallax on Sunday June 24th at 7pm at the campus. Tickets are $200.00 and are available at the CAFD Office on the John S. Donaldson campus.

(Photos show some of the designs on display at the Exhibition by students)
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