ROBERT YOUNG, known for his simple but striking designs in cool cottons, often appliquéd in bright colours, will celebrate The Cloth’s 32nd anniversary with a special indigo collection in September.
The 53-year-old Young, who describes himself as a feminist, activist, artist, designer, historian and “Caribbeanist,” says after 32 years
: “I feel terrified, excited, bored. But last year I implemented things the business needed so it could last 30 more years.”
He also organises trips he calls Dotish Tours. This, he explained, is an outreach programme that offers a unique adventure and insight into Trinidad’s spiritual practices and Caribbean religious heritage.
“The tour is designed to leave one really feeling dotish over how little we know and how little we are taught. You will gain perspective, build community with other people and witness hidden parts of our history and religious life,” said Young.
Meanwhile, The Cloth is now revitalising its classic collections, and the new management and directors of the company, including Mark Eastman and Young himself, are pooling human resources to regenerate the work, pulling in the best technicians and support people to get the job done.
“We work with over 12 contractors, but we have one person that has been with The Cloth since 1992.” The Cloth started as a collective, but the other members have moved into different, but mostly still creative fields. Young has brought in other designers, some 20-25 years younger than him, who said yes to the opportunity for investment.
“I was able to look at the business and decide how to divide it into four new categories, to start This Project Blue, paying attention to the company’s theme of restoration, and trying to figure out where the fabric comes from.”
In addition, the company gathered the production technology in one place, to digitise the classic appliqués and the classic collections, to remake and to rethink old patterns, and bringing The Cloth out of the country into Port of Spain, in order to make the original Maracas Valley workshop into a design studio again, so there’s a separation between production and creating ideas.
But some things haven’t changed and won’t change. Unlike a lot of fashions that appear on runways all over the world, he said: “The Cloth makes clothes for people to wear.”
Over the years The Cloth has dressed entertainers such as David Rudder, Ataklan, 3canal, Etienne Charles, Chantal Esdelle & Moyenne, the Lydians, leading steelbands and international artistes Roberta Flack, David Hinds of Steel Pulse and Roy Hargrove, US trumpeter.
The new collection, This Project Blue, is designed from fabrics that were hand-woven, hand-spun and hand-dyed in indigo. The Cloth has built a relationship with a supplier who deals ethically with weavers, growers and dyers of cotton.
“The supplier of the raw materials is Jainist. In the silk that he sells, the worms live. So we trust him. He sells non-violent silk. He works with weavers that pay workers better. The Indian government has seen weavers of cotton as true craftspeople, and their wages have gone up considerably in the last year and a half.”
For this new collection The Cloth imported its own raw material, high-quality cotton and linen, directly from the mill.
“We are working with some new naturally-dyed colours of khadi fabric (hand-spun, hand-woven natural-fibre cloth from India), and the craft we are using for this collection is simpler and influenced by the paintings of Raza.”
Sayed Haider “SH” Raza, an Indian painter, lived and worked in France from 1950,
while maintaining strong ties with India. His works are mainly abstracts in oil or acrylic, with a rich use of colour, and icons from Indian cosmology and philosophy. He died in 2016.
Young was in India that same year, and since then he has been working on the This Project Blue collection, which will have its independent showing in September. But before that, The Cloth will exhibit and show a small collection on Sunday, at 02 Park in Chaguaramas. Twenty other local and regional designers will be included.
Young’s collections have been featured in fashion events in TT, the region and internationally since 1986, but the last time he showed a collection individually was 2000, at TT Fashion Week. He got an award for African designs from the ESC that year, as well as a Male Caribbean Fashion Designer Award from Caribbean Fashion Week in Jamaica.
Young, who lives in Maracas Valley, was born in St Joseph, schooled at Curepe EC Primary School, Curepe Junior Secondary, St Augustine Senior Comprehensive and Toco Composite.
Asked where he trained in design, Young said: “By life, by doing, by making, by action, self-trained, ‘under meh mudder house bottom,’ according to a Guyanese woman. The Cloth is a business grown in Maracas Valley.”
The Cloth designs are sold at its studio at 24 Erthig Road, Belmont, Hello Beautiful in West Mall and Akimbo in Arima; in Tobago at Things Natural, Crown Point, and The Shoppe at Mount Irvine; in Antigua, St Vincent, Martinique, and online at Kameri Shop. Soon they will be sold at more outlets around the region and in Washington DC.
“Before the end of the year we hope to be in the other French Caribbean spaces, Mustique, NYC, New Orleans, Toronto, Montreal. We are working on developing our own e-commerce space at www.thecloth.com.”
Nowadays, he explained: “For us to own www.thecloth.com, and thereby develop our thinking about e-commerce in a different way, there must be collaboration with other regional people involved in the business of fashion, inclusive of the French West Indies.”
Asked who and what are the influences on his work, Young said: “Caribbean people who have decided not to settle, so for example Orishas and Spiritual Baptists, CLR James, Jean Coggins, Peter Minshall and Cyprian Thomas.”
His other influences are his mother Grace Young and father Joe Young, a founder of the Transport and Industrial Workers’ Union and retired member of the Industrial Court. Among the local designers Young admires are Dawn Victor, Meiling and Mark Eastman.
On the fashion industry here, Young said: “We have to determine what we describe as an industry. If it’s a big industrial, highly-staffed, highly-mechanised production, we don’t have one. If industry is a group of collective action, of people building relationships with each other to get the work of it, and the business of it to happen, if industry is to be seen as a place for people to invest their time in, and their money in, that is now budding. We are now in the teething stages of it.”
Young also designs mas bands. Last year, together with Sophie Bufton, he produced the second part of a trilogy exploring costumes of concentric circles that emerged from his fashion designs.
Young explained: “Vulgar Fraction, The Cloth’s Carnival mas band, is the creative container for the costume design and performance art work of the The Cloth. Vulgar Fraction is a restatement of principles of Carnival that were once commonplace, but are now perhaps considered crude – ‘make your own mas’ – harkening back to less affluent, more self-reliant times. At its core is a commitment to combining traditional elements of the masquerade, reinterpreted as a contemporary Caribbean performance art practice.”
Asked if he had any regrets in his 32 years of designing, Young said: “One. I was asked to design a tail for British Airways in the late 90s. I didn’t think it was a true request at the time and dismissed it.
“But I hardly have regrets. My struggles are a part of me, but I’m trying not to put my struggles and make it my brand, which I did for a period of time.”
As for his ultimate goal, he said: “I want to start a men’s organisation that will set up support systems for members to learn to articulate and deal with their own emotions.”
“Still doing this.”