Shawn Dhanraj's All the Wild Things on the Caroni River

All the Wild Things swimsuit collection by Shawn Dhanraj.  The Caroni River made for an idyllic and fitting setting.  - Photo courtesy Ikenna Douglas
All the Wild Things swimsuit collection by Shawn Dhanraj. The Caroni River made for an idyllic and fitting setting. - Photo courtesy Ikenna Douglas

Fashion shows, in the time of social distancing, may now feel like another feature of a strange and far-off past. Designer Shawn Dhanraj has satisfied fashionistas' longing for striking new designs with his latest work and an unusual setting for a photoshoot.

His swimsuit collection, All the Wild Things, grabbed the attention of many. Within hours, the images were reshared by social media influencers and bloggers based locally and across the region.

The designer from Curepe, who spent four years designing for Tribe, after one year at Yuma and two years at Fantasy has also designed for bands across the globe for carnivals in Jamaica, Toronto, Barbados, London, Miami, St Thomas and New York, to name a few.

Apart from producing Carnival costumes, for which thousands of a single design would be replicated, most of his work is custom garments. He also has pieces available for rental.

"I make them available to celebrities and photographers for photoshoots."

Now he's decided to explore animal-print swimsuits, adding swimwear to his repertoire of creations, which include bridal gowns, resort wear, maternity and menswear.

All the Wild Things swimsuit collection by Shawn Dhanraj. - Photo courtesy Ikenna Douglas

Following the plan he set at the end of 2020, he did bridal pieces in January. Then in February he collaborated with The Lost Tribe for its digital cultural showcase Lavway and for March he completed the swimwear collection.

It was born, he said, out of the "silence" of 2020 and a hunger to create.

"I always do projects to create something I've never done before.

"I wanted to create something on a large scale that would still be timeless, something everyone could wear. Because of covid and the cancellation of Carnival, as a businessman, it is also important to have something of this kind because fashion is my bread and butter."

Though not happy about Carnival being missing from the calendar this year, he is grateful for the time to slowly nurture his craftsmanship.

He drew inspiration for the swimwear from flora and fauna from across the planet – animals such as the boa, pheasant and giraffe, originating from Central America, East Asia and the continent of Africa, respectively – adding design elements such long sleeves, massive animal-print sun hats to the mix of high-waisted and high-cut bikinis and monokinis joined by strings.

Shawn Dhanraj
- Photo courtesy Shawn Dhanraj

Floral arrangements done by Dhanraj which included orchids, roses, metallic artificial plants and brightly coloured feathers were incorporated in a three-hour photoshoot of the collection by Ikenna Douglas, which shows the designs merging and at play with the natural environment.

Dhanraj's enchantment with the natural beauty of TT saw him using what some would consider unlikely spaces for capturing fashion.

"I had never seen the Caroni River presented in this way before and wondered why it was never done. It's so beautiful."

Asked if the use of flowers on a boat for the photoshoot was influenced by East Indian culture, Dhanraj said yes.

"I told my mother the concept, telling her I want to do flowers on a boat. All she said was that I should ensure it does not look like a funeral."

The responses generated indicate no one likening the presentation to mourning, but rather a celebration of creation and creativity.

The photoshoot was no walk in the park for Dhanraj and the team. Because of logistics issues, the shoot, which should have started at 6.30 am, was delayed until eight. Unlike a photoshoot in an air-conditioned studio, on the Caroni River, they were exposed to all the elements of the great outdoors.

By then the sun was up and the humidity was something with which they had to contend. Apart from the challenge of humidity and the merciless morning sun, mosquitoes were unwelcome visitors. But the conditions did not get in the way of the team achieving seemingly effortless, graceful and glamorous shots.

Dhanraj said he is grateful to the management team at the Caroni Swamp and Bird Sanctuary for facilitating the process.

All the Wild Things swimsuit collection by Shawn Dhanraj. - Photo courtesy Ikenna Douglas

On creating the swimsuits, he said a finished product came together a bit mysteriously.

"Prints have never been part of my design aesthetic, I feel like I have failed at it so many times, even when trying to incorporate them into my Carnival designs."

But animal-print swimsuits, Dhanraj said, have been on trend for a long time, and so he saw it as a challenge to present the concept in a novel way.

Months of work have resulted in a product with which he's happy. But Dhanraj said while he thinks his vision was beautifully executed, and though he's received positive feedback throughout his career, he never falls in love with his designs.

Asked why not, Dhanraj said he holds on to a thought shared with him when he was 17: "My friend Elwin Johnson told me to never fall in love with my designs."

This instruction may seem paradoxical, but eight years later, he said he understands the concept to mean not getting attached to his work. Not viewing it as his baby, he said, allows him to be more objective, leaves more room for constructive criticism, allows him not to be bothered by negative feedback and lets him evolve.

All the Wild Things swimsuit collection by Shawn Dhanraj. Dhanraj said the floral arrangement, which he did himself took about four hours to complete.
- Photo courtesy Ikenna Douglas

Considering himself not-so-good at technical design sketching, he said when ideas come to him, instead of sketching in a pad, he grabs his phone and sketches digitally using a stylus and adds colour and texture while making notes on fabric and embellishment.

"When I find myself with extra time I will just sketch and sketch until I see something I'm satisfied with."

Dhanraj is grateful to the friends who influence his work and help him refine his ideas aesthetically and technically.

Was he one of those children who started sketching before he could write his name? Dhanraj said no.

"But I always had dreams of being a designer, especially gowns."

It was not until his late teens that his creativity evolved. The unearthing of hidden talent happened at a period of deep sadness, and sketching became a source of comfort and an outlet for his emotions.

"After I completed CXCs I got the opportunity to work at KDK Productions. That's where I learned a lot about sets and production. And that's where I got the opportunity to work with Yuma, because that company was responsible for production in Carnival bands Fantasy and Yuma."

He fulfilled his childhood dream of creating gowns in 2019 – designs he was honoured to have modelled by internationally recognised beauties including Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam.

He is currently completing work on a men's line, which will be launched soon.

Next on his vision board: fashion shows in London.

To see more of his work, search shawndhanraj on all social media platforms.

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"Shawn Dhanraj’s All the Wild Things on the Caroni River"

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