Ria Ramkissoon is living a designer's dream.
A former student of New York's prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology, the 39-year-old El Dorado resident produced her own eponymous handbag line, RIA-RIA, when she was just 24.
Her bags have been sought by Hollywood celebrities like Hilary Swank and Cameron Diaz, and sold in luxury boutiques around the world including Harrods in London, Barney's in New York, Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and Seibu in Japan.
After spending almost 20 years based in New York, Ramkissoon is ready to give back to Trinidad, hoping to restart her family's garment factory as a hub for young, trendy designers like herself to produce fabulous products, while they relax on a breezy Caribbean island.
"I thought of going to Bali, where they have a thriving handbag manufacturing industry, and simply work then sit on a beach and relax. Then I realised I have that here. I have a factory here, and I know a lot of people in New York who would appreciate a location that was closer and cheaper, with no language barrier," she told the Business Express in an interview in Port of Spain last Wednesday.
But despite the opportunity, Ramkissoon has encountered a major obstacle to her vision-the difficulty in finding labour to operate her factory.
Her challenge is not unique.
And, as the lively discussion that ensued when Ramkissoon made this point at a workshop on Enhancing the Fashion Chain during the recent Caribbean Investment Forum at the Hilton Trinidad proved, it is something significant that the fledgling local fashion industry must accept and deal with if it is to move forward.
The CIF panel comprised Ria, Paris-based fashion branding consultant Thierry Bayle, designers Karen and Kathy Norman, chairman of T&T Fashion Week Anthony Rahael, and chairman of the Fashion Industry Development Committee (part of InvesTT) Jason Lindsay.
The audience consisted of various industry stakeholders, including Fashion Week board member Rosemarie Stone, and director of the Caribbean Academy of Fashion and Design Christopher Nathan.
"My aim was to come back to Trinidad and help local designers, with my expertise and provide a factory to facilitate production," Ramkissoon told the audience, adding that people kept discouraging her, saying she wouldn't get labour.
The underlying factor for this apparent labour shortage, it would seem, is the lack of motivation, due to a lack of incentives and opportunity, which may be directly linked to the lack of investment in the fashion industry.
"People don't see fashion as a worthwhile industry: just pretty girls walking down a ramp," said Stone, although she acknowledged that the government is finally beginning to see it that way.
One pivotal moment in the development of fashion is local designer Anya Ayoung Chee winning the hit US fashion reality show Project Runway last year.
The government made her a T&T brand ambassador afterward.
As Rahael pointed out, last year there was no T&T Fashion Week because the committee could not generate enough sponsorship.
Ayoung Chee's success meant that the government may have paid more attention, and will be working to get this year's show up and running.
But like Ramkissoon, Ayoung Chee- after winning- expressed her desire to set up shop in Trinidad, but had trouble finding a manufacturing base.
It's a story the Norman twins, Karen and Kathy also face.
For their K2K Designs, they split manufacturing between Trinidad and New York in order to maintain quality and quantity.
"The availability of human capital in Trinidad has diminished... The factory we use in Trinidad might be the only one in Trinidad. It would be fabulous if Ria could get her factory up, because I think most people would like to give back to Trinidad, but we don't have the resources to do so and that's unfortunate. I think we have potential, creative minds and talent, but we need human capital on the island to support that and help it grow," said Kathy Norman.
"A lot of the growth in the fashion industry is spurred by government and corporate spending. We don't look at this locally. Here, energy generates the most money, so a lot of money isn't put towards fashion. It's up to government and corporations to put capital behind these designers and invest, because fashion in and out of itself is an expensive profession," added Karen Norman.
"You have to access investors and markets to develop. The challenge we have here is that people who support the industry patronise it rather than invest. We need more than just patrons. We need the attention from investors who are willing to part with their money, not as a patron but to get a return on investment," Lindsay said.
"The state must prioritise how it spends money. Fashion competes with a number of other sectors in the creative sector alone, much less with oil and gas. If you look at the state's priority and the pecking order, we will not get that attention unless we can identify the markets we can access and see how we plan to access it," he continued.
Lindsay acknowledged while Trinidad and Tobago had a garment industry, it has died; and when that happens, a lack of motivation arises, and nothing—not even incentives—will attract people to the sector.
"We have the creativity but we need to motivate it. What the UTT and others are now doing is attaching an entrepreneurial aspect to (fashion) that will create that motivation... It's a chicken and egg thing with all the creative industries because people who want to invest say that they can't, because people aren't trained; people aren't trained because they aren't enough opportunities," he said.
Rahael suggested that the country must recognise its strengths and weaknesses.
"If our actual weaknesses are manufacturing garments then why try to fit a square peg in a round hole? Let us import labour. Let the state import labour to help us with our weaknesses. Our strength seems to be designers. If we have good designers who can design for both the local and export market let's focus on our strength. Why are we trying to force the working people in Trinidad and Tobago into the garment business; they don't want to and that's a reality," he said.
Ramkissoon concurred: "There is room for a garment industry in Trinidad. I agree with what Anthony says about importing some labour, (but we should be) making it work with local and foreign labour and seeing what we can build from there. The manufacturing does not necessarily have to be in the same place you want it to grow."
Lyndsay added: "From a business development perspective, it is theoretically impossible to build an industry without a manufacturing component as a foundation element. We many not (be fully suited) in Trinidad, but we should still pursue it and be open to different ideas to execute it, but it would be irresponsible of us to development without manufacturing. That's why parallel to the outsourcing model, we definitely need to invest time in some element of manufacturing, not necessarily to be competitive, but to actually produce what it is we are selling."
Ramkissoon says she is still optimistic that he factory will get off the ground, and with a local labour force.
"I am fearless. I don't go forward thinking I will fail. The fashion industry in Trinidad and Tobago is very sustainable. My parents had a successful garment factory for close to 40 years; they closed because my father passed away and my mother didn't want to run it alone, not the lack of money or work. From what I have seen and grew up in, it can be lucrative. If you target it right, and figure out what your market needs... and here in T&T, it's new ground we're breaking. The old industry has died and we have to create a new industry," she said.