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Tabitha St. Bernard

The socially conscious designer

By By Kimberly Castillo

STELLA McCartney taught the world that animal friendly fashion — no leather, no fur — can be just as sexy and chic as python boots and crocodile clutch bags. When the designer debuted her label back in 2001, fashion gurus took notice and soon the words 'sustainable fashion' became part of fashion jargon and it would stay that way. More recently, a new movement has emerged out of the fashion industry — the zero waste movement. The name is ironic, considering that the fashion industry is one of the most wasteful sectors existing today.

In 2010 the United States Environment Protection Agency (USEPA) noted that more than 13 million tonnes of textiles were disposed of in the United States alone. Only 15 per cent was diverted from landfills and waste systems. Still, the zero waste movement is gaining momentum. While some of its designers choose to recycle and redesign second hand clothing to sell to consumers, others use left over fabric pieces to make other products and clothing.

Tabitha St Bernard, a Trinidadian living in Brooklyn once worked as part of the dressline design team at Tahari ASL and also interned at Vivienne Tam where her interest in sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion was stirred. When she left Tahari ASL to pursue other opportunities, she began reading a lot about social-

ly responsible fashion and about the astonishing waste that occurs in the industry. She stumbled across Timo Rissanen and his work in zero waste design. It was exactly what St Bernard was looking for.

"This resonated with me in a way that nothing else had. I knew I had found my niche. Instead of searching for a design house that would be in line with my zero waste ideologies, I decided to create my own. That way, I could ensure that, from the ground up, the values of the line would be strongly built on creating a responsible space in fashion and seeking to waste as little as possible," says St Bernard.

The idea to create a zero waste sustainable line of womenswear clothing came about in February 2012, then months later in November, Tabitha's label Tabii Just was launched. Her aesthetic? A perfect blend of her Trinidadian background and her Brooklyn heritage.

"I've been here for so long," says the 30-year-old designer who left Trinidad at the age of 19. "I love Brooklyn fashion, it's very laid back and edgy at the same time".

The company is located in the garment district of NYC, the patterns are made in Brooklyn and workers are sourced locally as well. Sticking to her mandate of zero waste and socially responsible fashion, all excess fabric is used to make shopping bags, travel and make-up bags. Tabitha and her team are currently in talks with a toy-maker to have her use slivers of left-over fabric to stuff her toys.

We caught up with the designer just as her new company was in the middle of manufacturing its Spring 2013 line.

"I think the line speaks for itself, for the most part. Zero Waste is such a unique concept. People are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of their choices in fashion. When I talk about the fact that 15 per cent of the fabric used to make clothing is usually tossed out and ends up in landfills, it shocks people and they want to do better. It's a constant process of reaching out to others and letting them know what Tabii Just is about but I'm talking about my baby so it's a great joy for me," she says.

Long before St Bernard

came up with the concept of starting her own fashion label, she had a pretty good job in the field of human services. Pursuing her dream of fashion design meant leaving behind her steady job. It was one of the toughest decisions she's ever had to make. She battled discouragement from nay-sayers who thought she was 'crazy' to throw aside a well-paying job to go after a dream. While graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology had proven that the sacrificies she had made to get to that point were worth it, it was still the start of what would be a very long and challenging journey. Beginning her own fashion label was new and uncharted territory and involved blood, sweat and many tears.

"There were deals that didn't go through. Funds that were supposed to materialise that didn't. One of my designer friends told me early on that I will fall apart. The key is to have people around me that I can call and cry to. I am blessed to have quite a few of those. We launched a Rockethub crowdfunding campaign to raise capital for the line. I pretty much begged people for money for 45 days straight, with no pride whatsoever. I became Tabii Just and just kept hustling until the campaign ended and we secured about $16,500 in capital," says the young designer.

Being a female business owner comes with its own set of challenges. I want to express my individuality and I want to be taken seriously. It's always a learning experience balancing the two. The entire process of launching my own business has been about my investing my all into Tabii Just. I never truly stop working. When I go to bed at night, I have to consciously stop myself from thinking about what I need to do for Tabii Just. It's become a part of my soul. It may sound intense but finding something that makes me so excited and invigorates me every day is what having my dream career is all about."

St Bernard recently fufilled a dream of hers when she presented her debut collection during New York Fashion Week, in collaboration with Caravan Stylist Studio.

Before she began her career as a fashion designer, she was a fashion blogger, today she blogs and interviews celebrities for a number of fashion websites. Her blogging has taken her to New York Fashion Week. As she sits, taking note of models dressed in the season's latest fashions, St Bernard looks for clothes that are chic, elegant and comfortable, clothes that can make a smooth and easy transition from the office by day to dinner at night.

While she celebrates women taking risks and experimenting with fashion, she says she's also longing to see Trini women embrace their Caribbean identity.

"I think there is an emphasis on really fitted clothes. There are so many interesting pieces of clothes we can wear that aren't slim fitting and do not show every single bulge and curve and I would like to see Trini women explore fashion that isn't so skin tight and fitted. So if you have really good legs, instead of wearing booty shorts, why not wear a short shift-dress, something that's a bit more chic and elegant? There's also a lot of influence from the US. When I came home to Trinidad I saw a lot of people wearing boots, I didn't understand that at all," Tabitha says, while trying unsuccessfully to stiffle a laugh. "It was so hot that day and when I came I was so happy to get rid of the boots and then I see women in the streets with thigh-high boots. I wish Trini women would embrace their Caribbean identity and really enjoy finding that Trini sense of style as opposed to looking toward the US for every style tip".

Aside from accomplishing one of her biggest goals — starting her own fashion label and experiencing the elation of seeing others in her clothes — St Bernard also hopes to one day bring Tabii Just to T&T. In the meantime, anyone can view her latest line, online at www.tabiijust.com and keep up with her blogs on www.tabsonfashion.com, www.thexcene.com and www.styleandthestartup.com.

"It definitely has not been an easy journey but going after your dreams is something I really encourage people to do. It's tough being a fashion designer but it's my dream and I love doing it," says Tabitha.

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