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Fashion MORE INFO ‘warrior’ debuts latest collection
Fashion designer Charlene Sheppard-Duncan spends half the year travelling, mostly to Africa and Asia, where her designs are inspired and made. She's seen Kenya, Hungary, Siberia, Ghana, India, Swaziland, Thailand, Belgium, Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, Ghana, Mali, Togo, Malaysia, Philippines and Morocco, among other places.
She often travels alone. It's a preference that inspired the name of her latest collection, Warriors Walk Alone, unveiled recently at the Big Black Box in Woodbrook. (Editor's note: To see the Culturego Magazine photo gallery of the collection, go to: culturegomag.com)
“If I go with someone they're afraid to take risks,” she said. “They would say, 'Girl, why you're going over there? You're not afraid?' I said, 'Afraid of what?'
“I consider myself a warrior because I have to figure it out alone,” she added in response to a question.
“I have to get gangster with the men in India because women don't do business in India. I can't be afraid. I can't show fear.”
Sheppard-Duncan has been in the business for more than two decades. She's stylist, designer and friend to singer Erykah Badu, who wore one of Sheppard-Duncan's designs in the video for the hit Tyrone and at the 2005 Oscar ceremony.
Sheppard-Duncan, who was born in Trinidad, has lived in New York since she went there as a teen to pursue her dream of being a designer. It's one she had since spotting the bald, ostentatiously dressed fashion icon Yoko Fung in Port-of-Spain, where Sheppard-Duncan lived at the time.
Sheppard-Duncan's designs sold under the label Afrofunkk are for people who share her and Fung's spirit, who aren't afraid to be different, to stand out. Just like it is walking through unfamiliar parts of Africa, walking among notoriously judgmental Trinidadians dressed like Sheppard-Duncan and Fung requires courage.
At the Big Black Box show, Sheppard-Duncan wore a long purple dress with sleeves reaching her elbows. Her forearms and fingers were almost completely covered in gold jewelry. Her thick hair was topped by a bright green and eggplant turban.
Fung, who had pride of place closest to the stage and runway, was dressed in black vest and tights, a netted scarf covering the back of her head and neck and draping across her bosom. She wore glasses with frames that looked like spider webs.
“Sometimes I walk down the street and people have lots of things to say about me. In Trinidad. Nowhere else. 'She crazy or what? She playing mas,'” said Sheppard-Duncan, recalling comments.
“Some days I'm okay with it. And some days I'm going to answer you to suit.”
“I'm trying to change that kind of thinking,” she added. “I'm sure there are fashion students who go to the fashion school here who think like me but they are afraid, so they kind of stifle their art. I want people to know it's okay to be yourself.”
Sheppard-Duncan's life and career are about taking chances and having them pay off. She wanted to go to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, even though she didn't know what it took to do that.
“When I got to New York I got a rude awakening,” she said. “You had to have a good portfolio to get into FIT. I had to build my portfolio up. I struggled, (ate) ramen noodle soup. I was determined to be a fashion designer.”
After graduating from FIT, Sheppard-Duncan was nanny for the son of designer Regina Kravitz. The arrangement allowed Sheppard-Duncan to observe and learn from Kravitz.
She also sold her clothes and accessories at street fairs in New York. Her mother in Trinidad would paint fabric and send it for her to make dresses. A representative of Essence magazine saw her work and arranged to use some of her jewelry in a photo shoot.
One day Erykah Badu sat at a cafe to watch a sidewalk show of Sheppard-Duncan's de-signs. This was just before the singer's career took off with Tyrone.
“I didn't know who she was,” said Sheppard-Duncan. The Essence rep called and said someone wanted to use her clothes in a photo shoot. The rep “pulled” some pieces, Sheppard-Duncan recalled, “and Erykah started wearing my clothes.”
Sheppard-Duncan and a partner briefly ran a boutique in Woodbrook that they eventually closed because “funky” stuff “was hard to sell in Trinidad,” she said. Now she feels more Trinidadians and Tobagonians have become more adventurous.
She debuted a clothing collection for the first time in T&T last year and is also selling similarly themed home decor items, baskets and bags under the label Sykadellic Shack.
Her clothing designs, dominated by long dresses, skirts and long loose pants, often pair mid-20th-century elegance with the loud colours and geometric designs of fabric from Africa and Asia. This year's collection featured many dresses with bow-neck or tuxedo blouses, full sleeves and shin-length flared skirts.
“It’s a little bit of Audrey Hepburn in my funk,” said Sheppard-Duncan, referring to the late British actress also celebrated for her elegant style.
This year Sheppard-Duncan added a lot of shorts and crop tops to her collection. The standout looks paired short strapless blouses with playful pom pom fringe, with shorts made of fabric with intricate patterns.
“I'm now getting a younger generation,” Sheppard-Duncan explained.
“I never had 21-, 19-, 18-year-olds really wanting to wear my collection.
“I usually design for a funky adult woman because the younger generation wouldn't understand my kind of funk,” she said.
“But now since they're coming around I said let me have something for them.”
Sheppard-Duncan's style is heavily influenced by the Maasai people in Kenya. They wear brightly coloured togas, layers of jangling jewelry and long braided hair extensions. She lived with them for six months in 2004 and has returned over the years for shorter visits, including one with Erykah Badu in 2012.
Warriors Walk Alone opened with two men dressed similarly to Maasai warriors, performing a version of the traditional Maasai jumping dance, accompanied by tassa drumming.
She first discovered the Maasai while studying at FIT and she was looking for inspiration in the library.
“One day I was looking through this magazine and I saw this dude with the clay on his face, the spear and the wigs. I was mesmerised,” she said.
“They're funky,” she said. “And they don't try to be.”
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