The classy uniforms she designed for the 21-member Barbados delegation in the Parade of Nations at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, turned heads and were voted among the best.
Brathwaite can take a bow.
“I was born into a family of seamstresses and I was actually always involved in sewing for myself and the family,” the designer who is better known for her exquisite gowns for pageant queens and brides said last week.
The Rio buzz over the bright gold jackets and blazers, blue trousers, blue, black and gold neckties for the men and the same matching inside blouses for the women, has been particularly special to Brathwaite.
This was the third Olympic Games for which she would have been selected to do the designs. She said: “This time I thought ‘no blue jackets. We are going to come out like the Caribbean.’ I wanted it to be impacting; I wanted that Barbados would stand out.”
Long before she was given the job of designing the uniforms, her designer eye had spotted the ideal fabric in the national colours of Barbados at Abed’s store, though she had no idea it would be used in a way that would be a big talking point at the Olympics. Barbados’ 50th anniversary of Independence was approaching and she was sure there would be an occasion to use the fabric, so she had just purchased it and set it aside. “The print was so bold and the colours were so strongly Barbadian,” she said.
In just ten weeks, Brathwaite had made all the female uniforms, constructed the men’s ties, had the men’s trousers and shirts tailored and the blazers made by a company in Trinidad. The entire set of uniforms bore the signature Pajú design label of Pat Brathwaite.
She explained: “I chose a simple design because in getting to find out the number of athletes and looking at the different body types and shapes, I thought ‘let’s keep a simple design and work with it – simple design, a good fit and a vibrant colour, that was my plan for the Rio outfits.” The world noticed and approved.
From way back when she was a teenaged student at St Ursula’s School, Brathwaite was making outfits for her schoolmates. “It took over my school work, it happened naturally and I decided then that was what it is going to be.”
After St Ursula’s she went off to further her education and started out studying meteorology, but she soon ditched that.
Fashion was really her passion and realising from early fashion school was not going to be possible, she purchased her own sewing machine and was on her way to a career in fashion design.
Soon the name Pat Brathwaite began to be associated with exquisite gowns worn by beauty queens and was appearing on runways among other popular designer names of the day.
“People thought my work was great. I knew at that point there was nothing else I wanted to do,” she said.
She designed the gown worn by Miss Barbados contestant Wendy Chee-a-Tow in 1983 and people took notice. The next year she was invited to go to London as a young designer among veterans, to participate in a Barbados cultural show at the Royal Albert Hall. It was an ideal opportunity to showcase some of her best work. Many Miss Barbados gowns would follow even as she made the foray into designing bridal gowns.
While she says: “To me, all my pieces were master pieces,” she still regards the gown designed for former Miss Universe contestant Jewel Garner as one of her best pieces. It was voted ninth in the best gown section of the Miss Universe competition.
The influences associated with her short-lived flirtation with meteorology have often been interpreted on her sketch pad.
“I am inspired by sight, be it my surroundings, colour, shapes, fabrics. People inspire me too. Sometimes you don’t have the raw materials to work with but personality can be my inspiration to design an outfit.”
She has proven herself as a fashion designer to parents who did not support her at the outset because they saw no future in her preferred choice of career. Today she is happy they are behind her “one hundred and fifty per cent”.
It is because they have seen her determination and watched her forge ahead on her own, believing in herself and confronting problems such as financing a business.
Brathwaite said: “You have to prove that you can do what you say you are going to do.”
She has also proven herself to those fashion-conscious Barbadians looking to make a distinctive fashion statement.
“There are some who believe in local designers though some people will go online and choose an outfit. But I say quality supersedes all that. That is my story.
“Give a client excellent quality, good service and they will be back. It is a process and I think people are beginning more to appreciate what we have here. I don’t know if it is because of Rihanna, but people are seeing us at a more international level.”
That clients who have worn her designs over the 30 years she has been in business would come back to her time and time again for that original outfit even after going abroad to shop, reinforces her confidence that the local designer still has a place.
“We, the designers, are still here. Some of us have had to diversify because of the times; things are tough and it is hard but the fittest will survive.”
She admits she has had to change focus and make a bit of a deviation from her bridal niche. “I find there is a lack of events involving fashion. We don’t have the fashion shows we used to have that give us the opportunity to showcase our work, so you get stifled as you are not able to have the opportunity to show what you want to show.”
She noted Barbadian designers no longer appeared to have the outlet of Caribbean Fashion Week to showcase their work.
“I think we need to get back out there” Brathwaite said.
“I call myself an artist. You need to be fed, you need to keep working with your talent, you need to keep getting it out there and this has stopped for us.”
She is taking a breather from all the work she has just completed for the Olympics and is often sitting before a television set, cheering on the Barbadian athletes whose uniforms she has designed.
As the mother of 15-year-old Ashlee who is an athlete, she understands the emotions at that level and has been sending the Barbadian competitors individual notes of encouragement.
When Barbadian hopeful Akela Jones began her Olympic medal quest Friday, Brathwaite, her husband Wayne, their son Xavier and daughter Ashlee huddled in front of the television set, their heartbeats increasing with every jump attempted by Jones.
The Olympic uniforms now behind her, Brathwaite has turned her attention to her next project – a line of swim wear for “skinny and full-sized” women.