I like to think of designing as part of me, part of my blood, and part of my heritage.”
Practically from the womb, designer Shazi John Chalon was being groomed in the family trade. With his Martiniquan mother a seamstress and his St Lucian father a tailor, there was no way he could escape it.
“I also grew up with an aunt of mine in the CDC area and she was a seamstress. So as a youth I was always messing around with [sewing] machines and I always lived in a house with machines whether I was visiting my parents who moved back to Martinique in ‘67 or whether I was at my home in the CDC. So a machine was always part of my life.”
This early training has served him well as Chalon has left his own indelible print on Caribbean fashion industry. The positive response to his recent outing at Saint Lucia’s premier fashion show HOT Couture proves that he has staying power; almost thirty years after he first migrated to New York, after a stint in Martinique, to pursue his passion.
“I actually started designing bags really; leather bags. And I gravitated also to fabrics. Producing fabrics and designing fabric patterns, a lot of African patterns for fabrics. And then I gravitated naturally to the clothing. That’s where it took off.”
His business was off and running in the Big Apple but the designer had a deep yearning to return to his Caribbean roots, which he eventually did in 1999.
“I opened my store at the Gablewoods Mall. It did very well. The response from the public was fantastic. It was a new concept. I was producing my own stuff, and also custom making for clients and all of that.”
Chalon would like to dispel a popular misconception that his creations are solely African. He admits a strong African influence but with a Caribbean identity.
“We must not forget the fact that the foundation of our Caribbean culture is our African culture,” he explained. “It is the most dominant ethnic group in the Caribbean. But we must also not forget all the different ethnic groups; our Indians, our Europeans, our indigenous Indians like the Caribs and Arawaks. All those influences are there on us. So we’ve created a unique culture which is ours, which is a Caribbean culture. It is what I am searching for as far as my work is concerned.”
Chalon prides himself on having a distinctive style. Even the name of his brand is a one of a kind; a play on the names of his two daughters Shakira and Zinzi. He doesn’t use catalogues or peruse the internet in order to preserve his natural instincts.
“What I want to influence me is the people that I enjoy living with, the Caribbean region that I love, Saint Lucia that I have my heart and soul in as well. I say to people all the time I will be walking down the street and watch a lady just walking and my mind begins to work. And I would actually create a dress just from the movements of that person. The way she walks and the way she carries herself.”
These days Chalon is striking a delicate balance between his fashion and his position as the cultural attaché to the consular general’s office in Martinique, where he is charged with creating cultural links between Martinique, French Guyana, Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia. It’s the perfect fit given his affection for all things cultural. But how does he find time to satisfy the demands of both professions?
“I think of myself as a very creative person and I think I am settling as far as age is concerned and all of that. So there’s no going out to parties and all that kind of stuff. I have two adult daughters and three grandkids. So right now you have to put a perspective on life. Fashion is a passion. I love what I do. And I also look at myself as an artist when I create. Not just a designer. So this is why I put a lot of energy in my work. Always to try and better what I did”.
Chalon has very little free time but still manages to steal a few moments to indulge in a good read and another passion.
“I love politics, because I believe no political party is perfect. Every political party has its issues. But I also believe that you cannot change things by being on the outside. If you want to change things you have to be on the inside.”
Speaking of change, he is thrilled with the decision by the creative industries to integrate fashion into the jazz festivities. It’s a move he had agitated for in the past.
“I think it was a fantastic show the second year running. For a number of years whilst I had my store I lobbied to have a fashion show included in the jazz festival. I guess the directors at the time did not see the merit in it. I got responses like jazz and fashion don’t mix. Today I am happy that those in charge see the merit of HOT Couture at jazz. We went from 200 seating last year sold out to 500 seats this year sold out. So I see we could have even more seats next year sell out.”
One modification he would like to see moving forward is the introduction of buyers at the event to aid the designers in the distribution of their lines. He would also like to explore opportunities with Taiwan and their expertise in manufacturing.
“Partnerships could be derived with our fashion designers here and have our stuff produced and then sold to the wider world.”
He has a wealth of knowledge and experience under his belt which he is eager to share with aspiring designers. Chalon has one simple philosophy.
“Most of them are sketchers and I’ll be honest with you; I have seen some very creative sketches from a lot of young persons. And what I try to make them understand is try to learn to sew. That way at least you could make your designs. Because sometimes even the sample maker will not have an idea of all the different concepts you want done.”
With a history steeped in sewing and design, ironically neither of Chalon’s daughters have picked up the trade. However all is not lost. Another generation may soon be continuing the family lineage.
“My granddaughter is five years old and she loves art. I could see that her art is already great. She could really draw very well. So maybe she might be the one to pick up the mantle.”