Design in a time of COVID
Thirty-five years of style ascendency is a herculean effort of excellence for any fashion designer. It requires consistency, collaboration and congruence to tell and sell a story of Caribbean beauty beyond borders — to reach the eyes, minds and hearts of a global audience ready to consume the next eclectic brand on the fashion radar. Yet, for Robert Anthony George Young, fashion is more than in his blood: it’s in the bone marrow of every collection that he instructs, designs, envisions and produces as the Founder and Creative Director of The Cloth. A staple brand that boasts multiple generations of devout customers, The Cloth weaves complex tales of Caribbean history with an unapologetic advocacy for the environment, by using natural fibres, appliqué embellishments and minimalist designs that are safe, sustainable and timeless wardrobe options. To describe The Cloth as the total antithesis to the fleeting nature of “fast-fashion” that has swept through the global sector particularly in the last five years is, in sum, an understatement. This Trinbagonian designer has been a constant presence and a voice of reason that has long guided conversations on how our layered historical dynamism has coloured our worldview not just as consumers, but as reverent thought leaders from a region often overlooked and understated for our influence in the international fashion scene.
In this Style Observer ( SO) exclusive, Tenille Clarke speaks with Robert Young about working on a “CLEAN SLATE” by ushering in a new era for the long-standing brand, the harsh industry realities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and persevering through adversity, the community it serves and how The Cloth plans to measure its purpose and longevity with its current and future trajectory.
Tenille Clarke (TC): You’ve been such a constant presence and a voice of reason for the voiceless on the Caribbean fashion scene for over 30 years. What three words would you use to describe that journey, and why those choices?
Robert Young (RY): Persistence, stubborn, and committed. Persistence because I just lead in that direction to show that this work is possible. We can do trade with each other; we should be able to make beautiful things for people — even in a period like now where you question why people would want beautiful things in a time like this. A long time ago, people used to have seven pieces of clothing to last them a lifetime.
So it’s about creating meaningful things. “Stubborn”, well, a lot of people would have given up due to the difficulties. I see this as more than a career — I see it as a commitment to seeing that this kind of enterprise and operation being a lifelong connection to clients and customers who become friends. There is a resistance and opposing to the anticolonial and un-colonising by wearing these kinds of cotton clothes in certain classes and spaces that were not designed to accommodate this type of expression. And I choose “committed” because there is comfort here.
TC: What is the current point of view of The Cloth as an anchored brand?
RY: Our main purpose now is to create clothing that is grown and made in the Caribbean. That is our singular function for the next 20 years.
TC: And if we’re talking chronology, within the last five years I think you’ve been able to really reach newer heights of your style expression. What was the motivation behind The Cloth’s brand overhaul in 2017? Has it been worth it?
RY: I built a relationship with a family who felt what I was doing was important work. So, with that the revamp began: We developed a new company, re-hired the permanent staff — built a whole team which includes pattern makers, handling the website and other things. Creating a method-oriented, system-thinking approach to doing something that was so impulsive for me was hard but necessary for this to exist in a new space. Finding key people who commit to the source and the resource like Mark Eastman, our assistant designer who has been working with me since 2012; anthropologist Sophie Bufton who thought it was important to tell the stories; Mervyn Gonzales; Betty-Ann Khan, Sean Williams and Reuben Gonzales. I would still like to add a female designer to the project, trained or untrained.
TC: Those must feel like sweeping changes in what you’ve probably considered a “one-man show” for a very long time. How have you been able to qualify the worth of that brand overhaul?
RY: You can see it. The shop in Belmont feels different now. For example, when I moved, I kept collecting pieces for décor for my new space — like 20 ft x 10 ft x 3 ft fishing nets that you’d use to catch crayfish, to use as partitions. We eventually moved away from that idea and used other items I had been collecting. Concept by me, collection by me, objects by me and it was designed and executed by Lori Antoinette and her team. It’s hard to conceptualise a beautiful thing like that to get it from idea to completion, but part of my growth now has been to allow people into the space to think and work in the shop. And that’s a good place for me to be now.
TC: That’s a telling sign of growth for any designer. Tell us about the “CLEAN SLATE” collection that made its debut in 2019, because that debut seemed to be the culmination of all that work.
RY: CLEAN SLATE is a collection of classic pieces that would have been created before with a short eco-footprint. The name actually came out of Trinidad Carnival: we wanted to create a collection and reinvent a space for women to create their magic. I consider it to be “spirit clothes” — things that could cocoon you and provide a home space in your body to do what you have to do. We designed about 70 pieces, did the photoshoot that was styled by Keziah Lendor and then created the lookbook. People were so surprised that the offerings were so blank, but it also informed me as a designer and us as a team on what people were looking for.
TC: Let’s talk about COVID-19. Have any major plans been disrupted for The Cloth?
RY: Yes. We were looking at participating in an event Festival in St Lucia, the Essence Festival, returning for a pop-up in New Orleans, and we may have had a shop presence in Barbados by now. So those things were affected. Before we would have been producing all over the place — that no longer happens. The choice of fabric has been informing our collections, so for example, the “Project Blue” collection is hand-painted fabric. It’s almost like obeah, the way people have been drawn to that collection — and until recently, most of the photos that we have are of customers in their pieces. We’ve had to be resourceful during these times.
TC: And the word of the moment in the industry seems to be “pivot”. How have you been able to pivot during the course of the pandemic?
RY: I’m still spinning from the pandemic! All of us are still spinning; we’re reacting to something that we cannot understand. I don’t think we have understood this yet… this is not only life-shifting, but it can also be life-ending. Anyone of us can go. It demands a collective approach to the reality that we are a community connected to each other. And when I say “we”, [award-winning author] Dionne Brand refers to “we” as black and brown people. Last month, she gave a lecture at York University called “What We Saw, What We Made, When We Emerge”. And what we saw was the racism, the injustices, the division, the inequities. We saw how people who are not treated well at their jobs are considered essential, while trying to make them feel important so that our lives can continue in some kind of regular comfort. I tell people that, right now I’m pretending that I have a business. People have gotten tired and are seeking comfort in the face of precautions. Comfort, comfort, comfort, comfort, comfort.
TC: Outside of comfort, are there any particular shopping or consumer patterns that you are noticing among your customers, whether female or male?
RY: It has to be functional; it has to have pockets. Outside of that, it has to be beautiful, and people have to feel good seeing that while feeling good wearing it. The “good” can’t be sexy or status anymore; the good can’t be that.
TC: About your intentional use of sustainable materials in your designs, it seems that this long-standing ethos of The Cloth as a brand has found new life in the ways that it now fit into people’s overall daily living. How has incorporating natural, sustainable fibres into your collection helped with that style expression?
RY: We always used cotton, and we always had the word “restoration” in our mantra and mandate since about 1996 — referencing the restoring of our relationship with the environment, better living things and people. So that was always something that we wanted to do. And I got reminded by visiting India a few years ago and seeing completely organic, handmade materials — where garments take three months to make because it goes to various towns, villages and cities for different stages of production. The current times aligned with that.
TC: Well, I’ve always considered you to be not just a fashion designer: I’ve always classified you as an environmentalist. I’ll always remember your runway presentation at 2009 Trinidad and Tobago Fashion Week, and the way the audience reacted to that very impactful presentation… the models walked to the sound of flowing water, a pure moment of stillness. Fast-forward to now, and we’re having regional conversations about the impact on the ecosystem — because of the current pandemic — and what that means for our natural resources. What have those global environmental considerations of the last year taught you about yourself and your design approach to your work ethic?
RY: Well, it all goes back to the question of who needs clothes, and why. I have actually said that the idea of brands like mine existing may not actually happen. Look at Rihanna’s Fenty Label gone in two years — and many other labels are dying. So how do you sustain something and convince people that this is valuable to them, while something as significant as your health is constantly in your face? Caricom needs to do something in terms of bail-outs for the creative economies, and it cannot be along a whitened definition of what is sustainable and valuable.
TC: So in recognising that our cultural context is important, what should communities and people be paying attention to as it relates to the way that we consume fashion right now?
RY: Fashion is living, so we should be paying attention to our relationships, our friendships and how we figure out what is important. We are beginning to understand reparations, racism and representation but we still do not understand sexism, or do not recognise sexism, feminist thinking and ownership of bodies. How do we navigate this period of restoration using our relations with bodies — black ones, female ones, trans ones, gay ones, religious ones. That is what is begging to be answered in some way and any new answer that what informs us in that space has to be uncomfortable. Force and noise don’t make us see each other; we have to find a better way of navigating and bridging that space.
TC: So how do we recover from this — how does The Cloth plan to use these current stories and realities to weave a global tale of consciousness in its next collection?
RY: That work has to be body work. Because when someone asks you to pay attention to somebody else who would normally not pay attention to, it means you have to go into that space in your body that causes discomfort for you to recognise their existence.
TC: What’s next for The Cloth? Is there a new collection that we can expect?
RY: Well, in addition to our website coming soon, we did a short movie in July 2020 called Self Help, which revolves around my father’s [the late trade union leader Joe Young] burnt house in the bush and The Mother finding parts of herself as she performs an ancestral ritual for my father at his burnt house. We also have a new collection launching before the end of the year, new work being made — not named yet, but it’s going to be short… about 15 pieces. I remember recently delivering something to someone I know and I asked her if she wanted a hug and she responded “Yes, I just didn’t know how to ask.” And she held on and squeezed… that was probably the first hug she had in a very long time. So the idea behind this new collection is to offer clothes where people can feel held, because this [lack of physical contact] is a big part of what is happening now — and an even larger part of who we are. In a selfless way, Home is not where, but who… and the “who” might be you.
— Tenille Clarke
Tenille Clarke is an avid storyteller, seasoned publicist and cultural enthusiast who often writes about her ongoing love affair with travel, entertainment and culture through a Caribbean lens. Follow her digital journey @tenilleclarke1 on Instagram and Twitter.