Originally published in print issue #145 of Metro Magazine on June 20, 2014.
Too few people remember that fashion is a business.
Inundated by beautiful designs and stunning collections, the escapism of fashion allows people to forget that there’s a lot that goes into producing the gorgeous work that designers do. Sketching on a page only takes imagination, but bringing that vision to life and actually making money takes a business sense that many creatives neglect.
But Darcel de Vlugt has found the way to crack the code. Realizing that her love of luxury and storytelling through fashion was seldom needed in a Caribbean context that revolved almost exclusively around resort-wear, she adapted.
“When I left college I wanted to focus on the non-reality that fashion can give you, but in Trinidad most people are doing resort. I had to figure out how my aesthetic would fit here. We don’t have red carpet seasons and we don’t need another resort wear designer.”
After presenting her work at an international showcase in London, a buyer planted the idea of carving out a local bridal market for herself. The rest, they say, is history.
“The only event that people are willing to spend that kind of money on is their wedding. If I wanted to do red carpet inspired designs, the logical client was the bride. It’s a business decision, but it’s also just common sense.”
Essentially, Darcel decided to fill a niche that many hadn’t realized needed filling. Many local brides fly to Miami or New York to purchase their wedding gowns due in large part to the dearth of options locally. Darcel’s plan is to use her skills to make that practice moot, and build her brand in the process.
“I thought to myself, we don’t have a Caribbean bridal designer. I mean, yes you can go to Claudia Pegus or Meiling and get a custom design, but when you think of their names, you don’t think bridal. I want my name and brand to be associated with “bridal designer”.”
According to Darcel, specializing in bridal wear is a happy marriage between fulfilling her need to create high fantasy gowns and paying the bills.
“For me, bridal is a way to reach the Trini client, and by extension the Caribbean client. I blend the colourful nature of being West Indian with the aesthetic I honed in Europe. I don’t only want to do bridal, but it’s a stepping-stone to international clients. With bridal I’m building a bridge between my two worlds.”
But staying in business is still a primary concern. In January, Darcel attended the “Fashion Is A Business” boot camp run by Dominican designer Favela, and she says it’s changed her approach to business immensely.
“At first I wasn’t sure about the course, but after doing it, I realize how important it is to do the books and get the business together. Designing is just 5% of what you do so you have to be prepared for the rest of it.”
“When you’re selling one or two dresses it’s fine, but once you exceed that, you need to register your books; you need to know how much you’re making. You need to figure out if you’re making a profit; if you need to charge more. For me, the last 2-3 months have been all about taking to supplies, and figuring our manufacturing possibilities. Things to help my business grow.”
And even now, Van der Vlugt her signature label, is already growing. Through bridal wear, other avenues have opened up to her as a designer.
“There are so many services that people need that you wouldn’t think of, from the bride herself to the bridal party. The Groomsmen need to match. I just started with some custom ties for the men, and I got an overwhelmingly positive response. Bridal wear has so many different branches that I allow me to use all my skills.”
Even as orders pour in however (Darcel is currently booked solid through August), her eyes are looking to the future. She plans to expand once again come year’s end, by getting a new studio space, and hiring technicians, a concern that she says is the most pressing.
“On the manufacturing side, it’s about discovering the great technicians. UTT has some great talent, but it’s just as important to know that not everyone wants to be a designer and that’s not the only talent that should be nurtured. Some people just want to be technicians, and you can make serious money that way. You won’t be fronting a brand, but you will be the backbone of a business. For me it’s about finding someone good and holding onto them. You have to work hard to make them part of your business’s family.”
As for the local industry at large, Darcel has little to say except that she appreciates the way that the more established local designers are taking newer designers under their wings.
“I think it’s an exchange of ideas. We have creativity and we need the business sense. We can learn from them. They can learn the new trends and new technology from us. It’s nice to have fresh talent coming in to show you what’s happening. It’s a give and take. It’s nice to see more people just talking; sharing their experiences and lending a hand. I’d like to see everyone do more of that.”
As to her future in bridal wear, Darcel says that she’d love to try other things eventually, but filling this local niche is where she sees the most potential.
“Telling me you like the work and coming in for an appointment is two different things. If I can find something that balances my creativity and my brand aesthetic with what people need, that’s great. For now, that’s bridal.”