Night of the Cubans: HOT Couture Delivers A Sensational Show

Having covered HOT Couture since its inaugural outing at the Audi Centre in 2013, it’s been more than interesting to observe the evolution of the Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival’s foray into runway fashion: from the first controversy-ridden production, which was almost overshadowed by the divisive shenanigans of one particular runaway ego, through the change of venue to the bigger Johnsons Centre last year and a retooled team including the region’s top runway coach, Richard Young, to Wednesday night’s slickest and most enjoyable show to date.

The Johnsons Centre, cavernous as it seemed during the weeks of rehearsals, was bulging at the seams with a couple of hundred fans of fashion, a battalion of media and a few notable VIPs, including the always nattily-clad Governor General, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, Tourism Minister Lorne Theophilus, talk show host and STAR publisher Rick Wayne and special guest designer, everyone’s favourite Project Runway winner, Anya Ayoung-Chee. The great, the good and the glamorous flowed into their seats around seven, with reasonably few late arrivals considering a faux pas with the start time on the tickets.

With nine-foot banners heralding words of freedom from iconic characters through history, the Johnsons Centre screamed the theme “Fashion is Freedom” and the expectant crowd pored over the programme for the evening. After a couple of laps around the block, the GG arrived, the National Anthem was played and honey-voiced Adrian Augier started proceedings with a few well-chosen words about the sad loss of Sir Dunstan St. Omer and his rich legacy to the island’s arts and culture. After setting the stage for the most anticipated element of this year’s Saint Lucia HOT Couture, the show blasted off with the visual feast of avant garde design that is Arte Y Moda – translated as “Art and Fashion.”

This Cuban collaborative of artists has been producing an annual show in Havana for the past fourteen years, and more recently featured in the Islands of the World fashion show in the Bahamas, which is where HOT Couture producer Mae Sabbagh Wayne discovered them last year. Bringing an entourage of designers and models from Cuba was a daunting prospect, but thank goodness for Mrs. Wayne’s legendary tenacity. Within seconds of the first creation gliding down the runway – the stunning Kersten Medard shrouded in white organdy like some ethereal, otherworldly goddess – it was obvious the audience was in for a new experience.

Never before has a Saint Lucian runway hosted such an “artsy” interpretation of fashion – and I use that term with respect. The inspiration behind each piece was beamed from the giant LED screen, and in some cases the connection was clear, while others took a little interpreting. Some pieces were wearable, like the wildly shimmering golden gown adorned with a peacock feather crown – I hear SJP may order that for next year’s Met Gala. Some pieces were more like costume than clothing; the insanely convincing robot for example, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and brought to life by uber-talented Ayana Jeune.

Other pieces told a story, like the boat-skirts which clearly evoked a dangerous voyage, as beautifully performed by paddle-wielding Clinton Didier, and the sad, mysterious, emotive expressions of actress Natalie La Porte in a wonderfully intricate long, crocheted coat over an antiqued lace basque.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure the entire audience got the entire collection – laughing in the wrong place being the biggest giveaway, as well as a collective gasp as “Queen Freddy Mercury” shook his tail-feathers, but the audience was enthralled and certainly Arte Y Moda did what it was designed to do – made us all think about art as fashion and provided an inspired and inspiring start to HOT Couture 2015.

Kicking off the show’s playbill of local designers, last year’s breakout success Paradise Prints by Fiona Compton hit the stage with a brand new offering called The Iyanola Collection inspired by the HOT Couture theme of Freedom. Fiona’s much refined look featured neon petroglyphs against an interesting palette of solids, with a versatile approach to silhouettes which went from fun to chic to beachwear and hit all the right predicted summer trends.

Also in the first half, Shazi Chalon’s menswear was a nice surprise, with loads of military detailing and bright patchwork applique bringing a new twist to his signature white and neutrals. Newcomers Kimberly Solana with 8ttava and Christine Samuel with Christy Creations teamed up for a youthful, fresh collection of street and beachwear accessorised with handmade bags in a rainbow of colours and textures – plenty of potential there, perhaps with a little editing.

Cuba’s Jacqueline Fumero showed the first of four Cuban collections from six designers, and her floaty, satin-stripe chiffon gowns were a rainbow of resortwear elegance. In the second part of the show, Jose Luis and Jesus Fuentes brought us skirts with handbags and long, printed tails on crisp white shirts for the men, and genie-inspired turbans with startling monochromatic kaftans for the ladies. Oscar De La Portilla’s collection was also a black and white fiesta of organdy cocktail dresses and gowns, hand-painted and embellished with sweeping flowery motifs which were even more beautiful up close at Thursday’s Trunk Show. And finally from the Cubans, Roly Rius and Omar Alejandro brought a sexy and edgy swimwear line and proved that the national flag can be put to good use as an inspiration for trendy sportswear.

From further afield, Turkish designers Oya and Sinan Soysal made their debut on a Saint Lucian runway with two lines which were almost diametrically opposed in style; the enigmatically-named Silence of the Bees was sexy, fun swimwear featuring graphic prints on bikinis, capes and wellies, cartoon characters on cushions and a little marijuana reference. OnlyOya, on the other hand, was a boho-chic bonanza of fabric, print and colour, all intricately embellished with traditional Turkish lace and crochet details which are wonderfully detailed and delicate. A beautiful beach-bridal gown brought the newcomers’ first outing to a well-received close.

HOT Couture has always been a regional show, and with self-proclaimed Caribbeanist Richard Young at the creative helm for the second time, top designers from Trinidad and Guyana graced the runway with the best of island design. From Guyana, Sonia Noel returned with a trademark collection of crisp-tailored white cotton and basketweave cutwork detailing, spiced up with vivid red lace and lots of visible flesh. Guadaloupe’s Tamara Depestre came back with Lily Deziles on the heels of a photo feature in the current SHE Caribbean Magazine with an effortlessly appealing line which managed to be cute, sexy and elegant all at once, with signature French flair and snappy tailoring. It’s no wonder she counts Jean Paul Gaultier among her devoted fans.

There’s no doubt Trinidad remains the driving force of the Caribbean fashion design industry and once again the twin republic fielded a strong presence on the HOT runway. Robert Young returned for a second year with The Cloth, showing another side of his design point of view with a denim dominated collection inspired by workers in the field. Rhion Romany once again showed why he is the swimwear hearthrob among T&T bodies beautiful, with sheer black, strategically placed details and a flair for the dramatic.

The mighty Meiling showed why she is the empress of understated chic with another masterpiece called The Bishop Collection, all black and white and crisp and detailed as only the Caribbean’s favourite designer knows how. Beautiful lines, gasp-inducing cut outs and those patent leather brogues, how my aching feet longed for a pair right then. Meanwhile Anthony Reid’s Black Bishop element transformed Dapper Gentleman Cornelius Emz George and the boys into a black and white graphic vision of sharp tailoring and muscle flattering shapes.

Back home and our Saint Lucian designers did the runway proud over and over. Lyn Bristol made a welcome return with her signature style of billowing beachwear, ombre and tie-dyed silks teamed with Mermaid Creations’ sexy and barely there swimsuits. Meme Bete was back for a second year and Taribba Do Nascimento collaborated with J’Aeylu to highlight her ever evolving handbag creations to super effect against flirty little dresses in fruity shades which acted as a perfect foil, and her stilt-walking model was genius!

Shazi’s ladieswear was a fresh take on his signature Creole-inspired vibe, combined with layering and trendy silhouettes, while Thelma Williams’ C.W.A.D. swimwear turned it up a notch with a sexy but wearable line of daringly peep-through crochet. And as for our own Saint Lucian Queen? After a triumphant return last year, Esther’s Kuumba Designs was one of the night’s most anticipated collections, and it was gorgeous. Loads of drama as always, but Queen Esther continues to hone her craft and refine her style, combining textures and choosing colours in a way that scream “Queen” without becoming predictable.

So to the grand finale, and Anya Ayoung-Chee brought Saint Lucia HOT Couture to a close in her own trademark style with a partially-curated collection entitled “Botanica.” As ever, prints were the focal point in pieces ranging from cheeky to beachy to funky to slinky, and what a smorgasbord of Caribbean colour sashayed down the runway in bare feet to a little power soca. After the Project Runway winner and SHE Caribbean cover girl partied onstage with the exuberantly joyful models, there were cheers for the production team of Richard Young, Denise Lay, Adrian Augier and the Iron Lady of HOT Couture, Mae Sabbagh Wayne, and it was all over for another year.

Emcee Claudia Edward did a competent job of keeping things moving, but had a few pronunciation challenges. DJ Sir Lance Alot was top notch as usual and went on to play the HOT After Party onboard The Pearl, which was swarmed by exhausted but adrenaline fuelled models, designers, backstage team and show-goers who had purchased the best seats in the house. After running off steam for a couple of hours, the weary crowd tottered off on their Louboutins agreeing that it was the best HOT Couture yet, and wondering just how Mae and Adrian will top that next year.

Dee Lundy-Charles is Freelance Editor of SHE Caribbean and Tropical Traveller Saint Lucia.

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