Q&A with Eco-Friendly Fashionista, Bene Caribe’s Abby Charles

XX: TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF… WHO IS ABBY CHARLES?

ABBY: I was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. I’m a senior program manager for the Institute for Public Health Innovation in Washington, DC. I am a graduate of Bishop Anstey Junior School, Bishop Anstey High School and the George Washington University where I earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Science and a Masters of Public Health in Global Health. I’m a Commissioner on the Mayor’s Commission for Caribbean Community Affairs in Washington, DC and I serve on the board of The Well Project, an international women’s organization focused on ensuring that women and girls have access to life saving health information.

I have a strong background in dance and was trained at Caribbean School of Dance in Trinidad and Tobago and I still dance in Washington, DC with the Taurus Broadhurst Dance Company. Anytime I’m in Trinidad I try to take classes with the Astor Johnson Repertory Dance Company.  I love colour, carnival, travel, volunteering and being surrounded by family and friends. I founded the fashion brand Bene Caribe in Trinidad and Tobago and although I live in Washington, DC, I’m proud to have a brand that is born and bred – like me – in the Caribbean.

XX: HOW DID YOU GET INTO FASHION DESIGN?

AC: I’m still not sure that I’ll call myself a designer. I remember when I was a child, my aunt bought me some personalized clothing labels, because I was always stitching up something! My grandmother used to sew and had an old sewing machine in her home, and I think I was just inspired by her to create and make some of my own pieces.

Fast forward to 2014, I was in Trinidad for a year and a half, and I thought, why not try to make some of the pieces that I like to wear into pieces for other people. So I like to say that I have a fashion brand, but I don’t really claim the title designer… as yet. With Bene Caribe, I also work with other designers to make items using some of the ends and remnants of the fabrics from our clothing production. Some designers we’ve worked with so far include Lisa Gittens of Sew Lisa, and Shandelle Loregnard of Willow and Oak.

XX: SO, TELL US ABOUT BENE CARIBE.

AC: Bene (Latin): Well or good.

Caribe (Spanish): Caribbean

BENE CARIBE means Good for the Caribbean

I started Bene Caribe really to test the concept of building a fashion brand to generate revenue to eventually start a foundation. So my goal was that with the sale of pieces we would make small donations to non-profits doing good work in the Caribbean. Over the years our mission has evolved to use fashion as a vehicle to promote what is good from the Caribbean.

Bene Caribe is Vibrant, Passionate and Conscious. Like our personalities, our pieces are colorful and flavorful! We are inspired by the passion, warmth, camaraderie, flavors, vibrancy and rhythm of our Caribbean people and the waters, skies, forests and flora of our Caribbean environment. We work with a fabric artist named Don Sealy to design some unique prints for us. He produces the fabrics for our Trinbagonian made batik pieces. We also use other wax batiks and vibrant solid colours to capture the brightness and essence of the Caribbean.

We are passionate about social responsibility. We value and believe that we are responsible for our community and aim to be responsible in the production and promotion of our fashion brand. Over the years we’ve been able to make small contributions to the Backpack Project, the Voice of Lupus Foundation, CFAFF, MOGirls, this is Me, Conflict women, and we sponsored a trip of members of the Astor Johnson Repertory Dance company to host a workshop in Washington, DC. In the future, I want to be able to give more and look forward to working with organizations to identify new ways to expand the visibility of their good work in the wider Caribbean diaspora as Bene Caribe (hopefully) also becomes more visible.

We are conscious producers and consumers and we believe that with increased awareness, the Caribbean will produce more conscious businesses and consumers who are dedicated to sustainability and having a positive impact in their communities. We presently try to be no waste and save every scrap of fabric to be used for future projects (such as belts by Sew Lisa or earrings by Willow and Oak). As we grow as a brand, I also hope to be able to integrate more sustainable practices into our production process such as using more recycled materials, integrating organic fabrics (the process of growing organic cotton is better for the environment) and more natural dyes that have a softer impact on the environment as well. Right now, organic fabrics are more expensive and harder to source in Trinidad. As our batik fabrics are handmade, our fabric is already costly, so I’m still trying to figure ways to integrate more environmentally friendly fabrics in a cost effective way.

XX: WHAT’S THE DESIGN PROCESS LIKE?

AC: I usually sit with images that inspire me and think about the colours that I’m going to work with first. Then I get to sketching images of pieces that meet the standards of comfort and impact. I send sketches by WhatsApp to our pattern and sample maker, they send images of the samples on models via WhatsApp, we make adjustments to the fit, then I order the fabrics to go to production. If I’m in Trinidad (which is fairly often) I’ll approve samples in person so that we can move to production. It’s a bit difficult operating virtually, but we make the best of it.

XX: WHY WAS IT SO IMPORTANT TO YOU TO MAKE YOUR CLOTHING LINE ETHICALLY-CONSCIOUS AND ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY?

AC: I work in public health, which is a practice grounded in social justice and the belief in equity. I try to integrate those values into all aspects of my life, so although we have a long way to go to be entirely ethical and environmentally friendly, I’m trying to integrate as much as we can at different stages in our growth. I studied environmental science in high school and did my Bachelor of Science in that subject as well, so I’m conscious of the impact of fashion and our waste on the environment.

Trinidad produces enormous amounts of waste for our tiny island, and we must find ways to reduce our waste and our footprint if we want to have a Trinidad for future generations. Slow fashion, that’s handmade and well-made, is better than fast fashion. The fabrics we use also matter – a linen sleeveless top takes two weeks to decompose in a landfill, while a polyester dress takes 200+ years. Knowing that, I’d prefer to make pieces out of linen than polyester…right?

XX: WHAT’S YOUR PERSONAL STYLE LIKE?

AC: I love comfort! My favorite piece of clothing is something that I can throw on and run out the house, and still make an impact when I walk into a room. There’s something so sexy about feeling comfortable and confident in what I’m wearing. So a romper in batik or a piece like our signature slip dress, or our swing dress, easy to throw on and roll. I love shoulders and skin, so you’ll often find pieces that bare shoulders or an open back.

I also love versatility, so most of our pieces can be worn in multiple ways, and I love a wrap waist on pants and for tops, I include long pieces of fabric to wrap multiple times and ways, adding to the versatility. Because I travel a lot and I like to pack lightly, having single, light pieces that can fit in a carry-on and be used in multiple different ways on a trip is important for me. And, because I love a fete and carnival, I always include fete-friendly pieces in our collections.

XX: HOW DO YOU STAY INSPIRED TO DESIGN FOR THE CARIBBEAN WHEN YOU LIVE ABROAD?

AC: I’m often in the Caribbean. This year alone I’ll be in Trinidad four times, Jamaica twice, Barbados and taking a Caribbean cruise as well. Even without travel, with the way that globalization and social media works, I see so many Caribbean images daily! Following landscape and lifestyle photographers from the Caribbean online also helps. But I really get inspired by the colors of my mom’s garden, and going to the beach so I have to connect and re-engage often.

XX: WHAT DO YOU THINK OF T&T’S ECO-FRIENDLINESS?

AC: I am so impressed that Styrofoam use is being reduced!!! We still have a long way to go with recycling and we need more concerted policy and regulation to really affect change with how we recycle our waste in Trinidad. Other countries are doing it well, so there are many models for us to learn from. I also think that our Carnival culture produces large amounts of waste, so we should really assess how we can integrate ways to reduce the use of plastic and Styrofoam in fetes and really encourage re-use and recycling of costumes.  We have a long way to go, and it’s good to see efforts being taken to advance eco-consciousness and sustainability by groups like Green Line Collection and New Fire Festival.

XX: WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?

AC: Bene Caribe will be part of TT Style week in October, so I’m looking forward to showing some of our new pieces there and getting ready for 2019. I’m really just trying to stay healthy and balance my full time work and this increasingly full-time fashion brand. I’m excited to have the support of a phenomenal family and a great team on social media. With their support I hope to see Bene Caribe continue to grow.

XX: WHERE CAN WE BUY BENE CARIBE?

AC: Right now, you can buy Bene Caribe pieces at The Shop at Normandie in St Anns and online at www.benecaribe.com. You can sign up for our newsletter on our website, www.benecaribe.com to learn about future locations for Bene Caribe.

 

Photography by Raya Charles
The XX Team

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