Published on: February 26, 2016
“I wanted to talk about local fashion
and local brands in a more inclusive way.
In a way that would encourage young women
like myself to invest in good local fashion.”
– Melissa Gabriel, Editor-In-Chief of Trinidad Lookbook.
A cool Saturday morning with fresh fruits, tea, toast and omelets, propped on a couch by the window in clear sight of the valley. Feet up with a bit of Instagram distraction in between conversations, the mood was set.
This is how Melissa Gabriel, editor-in-chief of the Trinidad Lookbook and myself welcomed Carnival Saturday and the beginning of Designer Island Talks for 2016.
Mel and I met about 5 years ago when I was tasked as senior designer and art director of the team developing the Caribbean fashion magazine brand and it’s inaugural print issue at my then place of employment, Abovegroup Ogilvy. Previous to the job brief, I was not aware of the blog or the growing impact of Caribbean fashion on our shores. At the time, there were not as many local fashion bloggers as there are now, nor were there as many pop-up shops, Exhibit A’s, RackedTT or popular online Caribbean fashion retailers. Since then both of our careers and lives have evolved and so has Caribbean fashion, brands and the regional blogosphere.
We discussed the making of Trinidad Lookbook, why Mel felt it was important to give a platform for emerging Caribbean fashion designers, Caribbean’s fashion sense and style. We explored how and where the idea originated and just how the partnership with the Abovegroup Ogilvy came into being. We spoke about the development process and what it was like suddenly having a huge team of people, taking her blog and vision and turning it into a brand and what it’s like to nurture an enduring entrepreneurial spirit in our Caribbean landscape.
Both as reflection and observation with great points for Caribbean fashion creatives. Take a read of our first Designer Island interview for 2016; The Making of Trinidad Lookbook.
DI: Ok so let’s start with a bit about your educational and career background;
Mel: “Well I started working right out of high school in 2002. I was volunteering at the YMCA and then the Family Planning Association doing human rights advocacy. I was the editor of soundvillage.net for a bit. — I’ve always been a freelance writer. I also had a brief moment at TSTT before landing in Abovegroup Ogilvy.
DI: And your educational background?
Mel: “I studied corporate communications and marketing and I have an LCCI diploma in Marketing from INTAD.”
“I started a media degree at SBCS, but I felt like I knew more than I was being taught. Then I tried Roytec but I had similar feeling about there as well... So I’m basically a college drop out… A recurring college dropout." (laughs)
DI: When did you start Trinidad Lookbook?
Mel: “Trinidad Lookbook started as a style blog in 2009.”
“I was in London at the time and noticed a lot of carefree personal style on the streets.”
“Like many, I was also watching Sex in the City and liked their style and of course as a girl, hearing constantly about all these designer brands made me realize that at that time, no one was talking about Caribbean fashion brands in that way— Creating that kind of reverence for the fashion brands or celebrating local fashion brands in a way that would encourage people to buy them. I felt like local fashion was still very exclusive and I wanted to talk about it in a more inclusive way, In a way that would encourage young women like myself to invest in good local.”
“The blog would encourage them to wear local designers more, show that they were affordable and where they could locate it. It was about access. ”
DI: How did Trinidad Lookbook move from personal style blog to local fashion driver?
Mel: “I started lookbook very incrementally as a style blog that focused on personal style. At the time the only publications talking about this were doing it in a way that was embarrassing to the people they highlighted. They were literally just courting bacchanal and highlighting people who were not dressing well in their opinion. That wasn’t cool to me because I don’t like embarrassing people, it’s unnecessary. So what I decided to do was to highlight local people dressing well and use them as a guide for others who needed help developing their own style. That’s how Lookbook started and of course once I came back home I wanted to make it a proper online magazine so in addition to personal style, I highlight local fashion in a more serious way.”
DI: Really? At that time no one else was talking about local fashion designers?
Mel: “CFSTYLE was talking about fashion then but mainly international fashion and I felt like if you were calling yourself Caribbean Fashion Style then focus on Caribbean fashion. I wasn’t getting what I wanted from the magazines that existed here so I created a space to highlight and write about local fashion and eventually, Caribbean fashion.”
DI: So you started Trinidad Lookbook as a style blog in 2009 and in 2012 you collaborated with Abovegroup Ogilvy to rebrand Trinidad Lookbook and reposition it from blog to fashion magazine.
Let’s talk a bit about how this collaboration even happened. Because this is when I was introduced to the blog — as a creative brief on my desk.
Mel: “I was doing Trinidad Lookbook and it took off because you know it’s easy, it’s clothes and women and they loved this new thing that was highlighting all these local fashion designers. My approach was to focus on creating original content and doing dope fashion shoots instead of the typical low creative quality bullshit that was mostly being done at that time to portray the Caribbean. So I guess Alex Smailes (Co-Director of AGO) took notice. We connected very casually at first. Then there was a job opening at Abovegroup Ogilvy and at the time I was at TSTT, so I applied for a job at AGO but I didn’t get it. I think it was receptionist or something but he said there was another opening which he thought I would be more suitable for, which was print production.”
“Then he hit me with talking about possibly doing something cool with Trinidad Lookbook and that it would be a great partnership etc."
"At the time Abovegroup had just merged with Inglefield Ogilvy but Abovegroup was still known as the cool agency that everyone wanted to work for so I jumped at the opportunity to rebrand the magazine with them. The idea was for AG to rebrand the online mag and start a print version with the re-launch. I really didn’t think I was ready for print to be honest but Alex assured me it would be ok and he is a really good sales man!" (we both laugh, knowing how true that is.)
DI: How do you feel the rebranding impacted Trinidad Lookbook?
Mel: “ The rebrand really tightened up the look and feel and the position of the brand in a way that when people saw it they were like ‘Oh I thought it was a local thing.' And I would be like ‘Yea it is’ and they’d say ‘Oh it don’t look local.’… I wanted to change that feeling we have about ‘local’."
“To have a website with a proper handle, with images that looked crisp! The photos were big and beautiful, they looked great with all the icons and graphics… All of these things really helped to solidify the brand in the minds of different people and help them take it seriously. It was like Trinidad Lookbook got a new wardrobe and a new weave! (laughs) So that helped significantly. I think the content has always been good but the packaging was now so lovely, it made it more palatable for many different people and it got a lot more attention.”
DI: So you started working on Trinidad Lookbook rebrand and started a new job, working in print production at a very precarious time with the whole merger of Abovegroup and Inglefield Ogilvy still very fresh! How was that experience?
Mel: “It was interesting. It started off really great. I had never been a 9 – 5 person so I knew that I needed a 9-5 that was cool and relaxed, especially with dress code etc. and that’s what I got with AGO.
It was a relaxed atmosphere; everyone was very chill. They were kind of weird in their own unique way but it still worked.”
“Being a client and an employee came with many challenges. It made managing work relationships and timelines with the company and my own with the magazine very difficult and frustrating.”
Yes I do recall wanting to push you over the fire-escape at AGO...
Mel: “Ha! But there were a lot of business reasons as well.”
“As far as the job itself I think the biggest problem I had working there was that while you were supposedly in this very creative space, It was not just Abovegroup the small branding agency, AGO was a blend of old school, traditional advertising agency and the cool, forward thinking branding studio and I ended up working more directly with the traditional, old school side and old school way of doing things and that didn’t work well for a number of reasons but it did really push me towards leaving and doing Trinidad Lookbook fulltime.”
DI: Outside of the awkward relationship of client/employee what were some of the creative challenges of the re-brand and the making of the first ‘Trinidad Lookbook Magazine’?
Mel: “I had a lot of opinions to balance with the team I was working with and I didn’t trust my own intuition as much as I think I should have. I felt like a lot of the decisions that were made resulted in some negativity for the brand and that could have been avoided if I had really sat back and listened to myself a little more and stayed focus on what I wanted the brand to be.”
“At the time I wished I handled the partnership a little better as the boss and owner of Trinidad Lookbook.”
But it turned out well. Despite the challenges and fears, being pushed a bit out of your comfort zone was perhaps a good thing. Print is still a very powerful medium. While digital makes access easy the impact of that first print set a tone and a level of expectation from the magazine and the brand. Though undeniably difficult to maintain, that first print run set a standard for Trinidad Lookbook.
DI: What even made you want to take on that challenge of working for yourself? And what made you think a fashion magazine would be a smart decision?
Mel: “ I think I have always been an intrinsically creative person, which is scary to say because I think people expect so much of you when you call yourself a ‘creative person’... I think the biggest tiefhead is that I didn’t really think about the challenges. My mother would always say I’m really impulsive."
"I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be to be honest. But then you bounce up the challenges and you’re like Whoa! Yes Caribbean, I see you and all your potholes!”
“It’s one thing to read a bunch of Entrepreneur magazines and think you get it but being an entrepreneur in the Caribbean is a horse of a different colour!”
“But the decision was really such a blind one. I wasn’t thinking about all the challenges when I started and that perhaps made it much easier to make the decision to start.”
“Going in with no fear, no jadedness, no skepticism. Just really going in on faith. Faith in the idea, faith in myself and faith in just what I thought could happen and having a certain amount of patience to make it happen, regardless of whatever challenges may come. You kind of make it up as you go along. You learn here, you tweak there and you pivot a little bit and not give up and it’s so easy to give up in the Caribbean… They make it so easy to give up but yea, you just keep going.”
DI: What do you think about the whole fashion blogging scene? How has it changed from then to now?
Mel: “I think people like to ride the wave. Give them five years and see who’s still around.”
“There’s always a growth about every two years. You see a lot more blogs, a lot more magazines and then you see nothing…
People like to ride that wave, forgetting that the wave crashes at some point. So they ride not thinking about what they’re going to do when it crashes and then they give up.”
“We’re closer to the fashion and lifestyle aspect so that's what we see more of. There are also the tech startups and the food startups and all of these things are happening all over the Caribbean.
This is why I never post excitedly about the next big thing because they often never last.”
“I like to kind of pause and watch what people are doing. I like to watch new designers for a while to see if their work is consistent.”
DI: What are your thoughts for the future of Trinidad Lookbook?
Mel: "The long-term plan is for Lookbook to evolve essentially, into a full-service facilitation agency for Caribbean fashion. I say 'facilitation' and not just PR because, although a lot of what we do right now is marketing and PR-via-publishing for designers and brands - and that'll continue for sure, I'd like to use Lookbook's growing network to effectively get Caribbean designers into the international market. Not just in runway shows, but into boutiques, into the hands of celebrity stylists, and help with manufacturing however I can."
DI: What advice would you give to present and emerging Caribbean fashion designers?
"The quality of your work is everything.
Focus on quality and not fame.
Have a point of view, create great work,
market your work wisely, and ask for help/advice.
Your friends and family will always gas you up
and make you feel invincible as a designer - that's their job.
Your job is to know when they're actually telling the truth
and when you need to do better."
– Melissa Gabriel, Editor-In-Chief of Trinidad Lookbook.