By Delfine Kernizan
These Haitian-American designers meld Haiti and the Congo in their unique fashion designs.
Through decades and across nations, fashion designers have always drawn inspiration from culture, including the architecture, environment, landscape and traditions of everyday people. Through textures, silhouettes and prints, fashion designers have stitched the impact of civilizations and their respective societies into countless collections. The designers of the BKLYN Fashion Academy are no different.
On May 11, in the lobby of the Brooklyn Public Library, the Academy’s fifteen designers presented their culture-inspired collections to a crowd of spectators, as part of the “Mode en Couleur,” or Fashion in Color, fashion show. The fashion show served as the epilogue to a twelve-week intensive program, in which participants created 3-4 pieces based on the history and fashion of Les Sapeurs, a Congolese subculture dedicated to style and walking works of art.
Among the Academy’s participants was Haitian-American Jennica Drice, a young designer debuting her collection.
“I’m from Brooklyn, I’ve always been a designer but my background is in crochet and knit.” Drice was referred to the program by friend and Haiti Cultural Exchange founder, Regine Roumain, who encouraged her to apply.
“What really attracted me to Les Sapeurs, the fashion subculture of the Congo, is how the female Sapeurs would still wear men’s clothes, and I really liked that,” Drice said, in regard to the theme of the night. She drew inspiration for her collection from the rebellious nature of the female Sapeurs, which was evident in the textiles and silhouettes of each piece.
“I took the defiant aspect of it and used it in terms of texture and fabric and even the purses, made out of wire organizers. I really took the defiance to heart in every part of my construction. Even the jackets, the asymmetrical look,” said Drice.
It wasn’t just the visible construction of the clothing that went against the grain- she challenged herself by creating one-of-a-kind pieces made entirely of sustainable, recycled textiles from FABSCRAP, a sponsor of the show.
In addition to the presence of masculine and subversive details, each model was draped in large, gold accessories, bringing a sense of regality to the collection.
“At the end of the day, we are royalty, let’s not forget that,” she said.
While the fashion of Les Sapeurs was the main theme of the night, many of the designers drew inspiration from various cultures and elements. Berny Martin, of Catou Wear, also credited his childhood spent in Haiti for the influence of his line, specifically the natural landscape and inhabitants.
“Growing up in Haiti, for me, was beginning to have a sense of life based on life-forms, things that create life. Trees, plants, and, animals around the block.”
Martin also combined the afrocentrism of the Congolese culture with the culture of his current home- the Midwest- to put a twist on the theme, creating “a nice tailored look for the professional attire of the men and women that are in the office.”
The influences of the Haitian, Midwest and Les Sapeurs cultures were evident in perhaps the largest collection of the evening, as models donned impeccably tailored suits in modern and African prints, dresses in delicate floral prints, and decadent fur accents.
But it wasn’t just the theme and the fashion of the BKLYN Fashion Academy’s Mode en Couleur show that drew Martin in. The design veteran also helped produce the show, with the support of his production company, Midwest Fashion Week.
“We want to expand our name about what we do. Coming from the Midwest, a lot of people are not knowledgeable about what is the Midwest culture of being an American,” he said.
Martin also alluded to an effort to change the general perception of the Midwest, saying, “When it comes to the Midwest, people have an assumption. People think that the Midwest doesn’t have any sense of culture or values. So usually it’s like it’s all white, but there’s a lot going on there. Yes, there’s cornfields and all that, but they also have their own identity.”
Although the fashion production company is centered on Midwest culture and value, Berny Martin does not want to be limited or confined. “Our company is a global journey, I don’t like to be categorized and limit what the universe has to offer,” he said.
Catou Wear is also focused on limitless design, as consumers are welcomed and encouraged to interpret each piece their own way, and to put their own, unique styling to the test.
“I speak through my designs at an aspiration of what life has to offer, versus creating limitations. I like to see my designs in every part of the globe, dressing anybody of any shape or form, and, at the same time, taking that and manifesting it in your own way.”
Global cultures like the Congolese and Midwest aren’t the only ones to influence Catou collections. Past Catou collections have drawn from the various African cultures Berny Martin experienced while living in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, and visiting Goree Island and the ancient kings and queens.
“Growing up in Haiti was one part of my life, I like to refer to it as my childhood. I actually became a man by visiting Africa and I accepted my identity about who I am as a black man in this culture, my place in society,” said Martin.
Martin’s personal connection to Africa and its different cultures only heightened his experience working with the BKLYN Fashion Academy and creating his Les Sapeur-inspired collection.
“For me, digesting design is fluidity. Because I accept those things, there’s no conflict. I can relate to it, versus, we still have a lot of Afrocentric cultures that have that conflict of accepting the afrocentrism in their culture. Although they have it, they’re afraid to vocalize it.”
As a veteran in fashion, having produced multiple collections for various seasons, Berny Martin introduces an interesting perspective on time and design, and the importance of action.
“In design, I like to reflect on two different values when it comes to time. True designers have been a designer since the beginning of their lives. But the minute you put action behind your design… so I’ve been designing since I was in college, but I’ve been a designer all of my life.”
For young designers like Jennica Drice, who have only been designing for two years, the BKLYN Fashion Academy has provided an outlet to for designing, allowing them to put action behind their designs.
“I’ve learned some skills from my mom and YouTube, but through this incubator I’ve learned sustainable fashion, pattern making, and because it was a collective, we got to learn from each other, which strengthened our skills individually.”