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Wayne’s fashion world

Gercine Carter

Wayne’s fashion world

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“Fortune comes with realising your gift because I think we are all given gifts,” says Wayne Smith as he positions a leaf on a knitted ecru sweater.

It is one of the select pieces from his collection of wearable art currently on show at the Queen’s Park Gallery at Pelican Craft Village, a mere sample of the work he has done over the last 30 years for clients who have fallen in love with his unique creations.

This Barbadian designer recognised his gift from childhood. When other boys were engaging in traditional male pastimes of the day, Wayne was creating fashion collages from the “odds and ends” of fabric his father brought home from the garment factory where he worked.

That work was the early influence for the mosaic dress designs that later became a Wayne Smith trademark.

As a boy, his blind grandmother’s sewing machine sitting unused in the corner “called my name”, he said. “I just wanted to use that old Singer with the pedal.”

 In his early teens Robert and his older brother began making clothes after pulling apart a shirt used as the template and his friends supported him, ordering shirts and pants.

He was among the first batch of students to enrol in the Barbados Community College’s (BCC) Bachelor’s in the fashion design programme, but confesses: “I did not last . . . . I got tired of the very streamlined process of being made into a fashion designer based on what theory said. The academic process bored me to a certain extent.”

Impatience to get ahead took over, and he spent only one year in the programme. Today he is thankful for that knowledge gained and encourages others to complete their studies. “It did not affect me negatively but I think education is important.”

Wayne was at the BCC with designers like Nefertari and Pauline Bellamy and relishes the opportunity to have been exposed to tutors like Joyce Price, a stickler for detail.

“I think that is one of the things that are missing from the current crop of fashion students. Those little details that make the difference in terms of the right type of interfacing for a collar; those tiny details that would take it to a totally different level . . . . It is about the finer things that really make a garment pop and be special.

“The important thing for me in fashion is the finish. Good design is subjective but you know bad work.”

He added, “We have tutors who are academically trained but may not have had the experience in terms of the number of years that a Joyce Price would have spent in the industry. I think that made a world of difference to those of us who studied with her.”

The soft-spoken designer sees a fashion scene today in which everybody wants to be labelled a fashion designer and “be grand with it”. He does not want to be a commercial designer and says, “I am not consumed by the industry.”

“I do my own thing in my little corner as an artist to satisfy me. Sometimes the returns may be good, sometimes they are not, but again to me life is not necessarily about financial gain. I am happy

 that I can enjoy the process of what I do but I can still survive by it. So I am not in competition at the end of the day to have a wonderful bottom line,”

At the gallery he runs his hand over a white shirt, his favourite piece in the show. Next he moves to a striking knitted top draped over a voluminous burlap skirt. Owned by one of his clients, the top was inspired by a macramé work of art called Tribal by fellow artist Rosalind Watson.

The ability to interpret and translate other art forms into wearable art is what distinguishes him as a designer. He remembers watching another craft artist, a veteran at Pelican Village, a Miss Gaskin, doing her raffia work and how he took inspiration from her designs for the distinctive statement in his burlap corsets.

“I would have to say that the universe conspired with the people around me as a child not only to get me started, but also to present the likes of Price and the late designer Robert Weekes, not only to help keep me on the path but to make me technically sound as I made the journey,” Wayne remarks.

He credits Price for his penchant for fine finishes and attention to detail, remembering her admonition to students that their finished work should not bear signs of its production on a kitchen table.

Wayne credits Weekes for inspiring him to improve and to grow. Their meeting was the turning point in his life. He was not floored when Robert first told him “You are not good but you will be”.

“I was over the moon. I did not take it in a negative way at all,” Wayne said as he recalled Weekes’ response to his question, “How do you like my designs?” Instead he went on to be apprenticed to Weekes  and in the process acquired valuable knowledge about the techniques of costume design, particularly costumes for Queens Of The Band in Barbados’ Kadooment Day competition.

“I really learnt the trade from a master.”

But neither Weekes nor any other designer was in the picture when at age 17, he took the bold step to design his first evening gown for a beauty queen. His client was a friend who had entered a pageant, and found herself in the desperate situation when the original designer copped out a week before the show.

“She turned to me. I had made one or two little dresses for her before and she said, ‘You want to make my evening gown?’”

He readily took on the challenge and ended up dressing the show’s second runner-up.

His evening gowns that followed made it to the world stage, worn by Barbados’ contestants in international competitions such as Miss World and Miss Universe.

Once when he was on holiday in New York, walking along Fulton Street, a man rushed out from a store to enquire where he got the shirt he was wearing. On hearing it was his own design, the man invited Wayne to make shirts for his shop.

Some of that shop’s clients later found their way to Wayne’s door for customised service. “What it taught me was the demand for detailed stuff and that people were hungry for excellent workmanship and that once you do it well, people will pay for it.

What’s Wayne up to now? He has stepped away from fashion commercially and gone into agriculture.”

Most of his time is spent tending his small farm in St Andrew where goats and sheep are reared, and specialty products such as cassava and sweet potato flour are produced.

 “I had always loved animals, livestock especially” he explained, adding “I never really had any growing up as a kid, so I decided to go for it.”

He believes life is about the journey and there are other things to be experienced. “I did not want to get old and regret not doing them.”

He refuses to launch out further in the world of fashion design.

“When I looked at the fashion world and indeed most things that success means – being in the public’s eye – it is a lot of pressure.”

 I remember doing Caribbean Fashion Week to rave reviews, and someone saying you have to do the after-parties because that’s where the deals are done. I wasn’t about the drama. I just wanted to do my thing and enjoy it so I have never pushed for a major contract.”

“I get joy. Maybe not financial success, but joy.”