Kimoy Leon Sing, writing for the Trinidad Express, looks at the career of fashion Trinidadian designer Eileen Douglas.
WHEN designer Eileen Douglas attended the inauguration of the Fashion Institute of Trinidad and Tobago at the Carlton Savannah Hotel , Cascade, back in September, many were unaware of the huge chunk of local fashion history she represents.
Recently the Express interviewed this remarkable woman and discovered that, at 96, she still finds time to do the one thing she loves – sew clothes. And though things have slowed down considerably for her now that she is no longer on the front line in the fashion world, Douglas’s passion for design remains.
Creating beautiful, flowing garments with a distinctive Caribbean flair gave Douglas and her garments international recognition. Her eye for detail and unusual prints made her stand out even more in the fashion industry, establishing herself as the first local designer to export locally-made fashion goods aboard. Apart from making clothing, Douglas also made hats, bags, children’s wear and plaques. As Douglas’ career advanced she started new lines of T&T items, registered her company Brunetta Limited and moved to a factory shell on Production Avenue in Sea Lots where then Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams and members of his trade and industry staff visited in 1972.
And as the years passed Douglas got many awards for her ground-breaking work in fashion. In 1977 she received the Prime Minister’s Overall Performer Award. In 1975, she received the Prime Minister’s Small Business Exporters Award.
Born in 1914, Douglas’ career in fashion started at the tender age of 15 when she traded in her mother’s hand stitcher for an electric Singer sewing machine. And though her mother had chastised her about her decision, it was her mother’s words that still linger in her memory even today that became a pivotal force which pushed her to an exciting career in the world of Caribbean fashion.
Douglas knew she would have to find a way to pay off for the new electric sewing machine she had been brave enough to buy. Growing up in St Augustine, Douglas welcomed anyone in the area that came to her to have their dresses made.
During a recent interview with one her best friends Rosemary Stone who is currently doing a historical review of fashion in Trinidad and Tobago from 1838-2010, she recalled her very first customer.
She said, “My first customer was a very large Indian lady who lived not too far from us in St Augustine. She came with many yards of fine material, I think it was chiffon. My mother opened her eyes wide when she saw me measuring the lady and said that I was brave. No one in the area would sew for her but I did it and she was very pleased with the dress. She went up and down the road showing it off to everybody. After that I got lots of customers.”
At 18, Douglas attended the Trap Hagen School of Design in New York. She stayed in the city with her sister who resided there and worked in the day sewing buttons on bridal gowns and went to school at night. After working and studying on a double shift arrangement, Douglas became very ill and had to be sent home after a five week stay in the hospital. During the hospital confinement Douglas’ beautiful dark hair turned absolutely white.
It was a shock to Douglas’s mother when she returned home at the age of 20 with white hair. Douglas quickly realised that her new hair colour was making a statement and decided to leave it like that. She went straight back to dressmaking using the new skills she had acquired in New York. Her business started to thrive when an Italian man by the name Antonio Costello saw her work and decided to take her and another seamstress, Mimi Dorci, to Italy to do a fashion show there.
Recalling her time in Italy Douglas said, “We had a wonderful
time there and did well in the show. Mimi met a young beau who captured her heart. Because of this fellow, she was late when it came time to catch the train to come home she missed the train so I had to go on without her. It was only after I got home that the news reached us that she had taken the next train which had crashed and she died. It was very sad. I was about to open a new shop and decided to name my shop after her.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Douglas when her new shop “Dorci’s” opened on Frederick Street in Port of Spain.
One of the most memorable moments in Douglas’s career came in 1965 when South African singer Miriam Makeba came to Trinidad and visited her shop. Expressing her love for her clothing, Makeba invited Douglas to come to New Jersey, where she lived, to make an entire wardrobe for her. She went.
Designing approximately 60 to 70 outfits in three months, Douglas and Makeba became good friends.
She said, “We got on very well and I went everywhere with her. She was a wonderful woman, full of love for everyone.”
Douglas has a signed photograph of Makeba which is planning to have enlarged and hung in a special place in her living room. She is currently making t-shirts for boys because she finds what is being offered in stores today for them is just average.
For the original report go to http://www.trinidadexpress.com/featured-news/The_remarkable_Eileen_Douglas-107010458.html