Caribbean craftwork at its best

Kristen Johannsen, diving Belize's great barrier reef, reflects on the work being done to protect coral reefs around the Caribbean

  • Exhibitors from the Dominican Republic. Photograph courtesy CGCS
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  • On the cat walk. Photograph courtesy CGCS
  • Fashion is a big component of the CGCS. Photograph courtesy CGCS
  • Photograph by Wayne Cezair
  • Photograph by Wayne Cezair
  • Photograph by Wayne Cezair
  • Dominican pottery. Photograph by Wayne Cezair
  • Joy Hall
  • Barbados's Minister of Industry and International Business, Reginald Farley (right), presenting an award to winning participants. Photograph courtesy CGCS
  • Illustration by Wayne Cezair

“The best of the Caribbean in one trip.” This, in the words of coordinator Joy Hall, is what professional buyers can look forward to when they attend Caribbean Export’s annual Caribbean Gift and Craft Show (CGCS) in Barbados this September.

Now in its eighth year, the trade show has grown by leaps and bounds. It started in 1994 as the Caribbean Craft Marketplace, with 39 handicraft exhibitors. By October 2000, reborn as the CGCS (a name-change designed to embrace a wider category of items on display), its exhibitor base had expanded to 212, and its buyer target of 200 was decisively surpassed.

This year, Hall and her Caribbean Export (CE) team expect to welcome 250 participants, exhibiting everything from ceramics to sculpture, fashion to stuffed toys, and are targeting a minimum of 300 sector-specific buyers.

“We have succeeded in positioning the show as the premier trade show in the Caribbean,” Hall says, with justifiable pride. “Some of the growth we have seen has been a direct response to things we have done. We have put certain things in place, for example, on-site banking facilities, to let buyers know they can come here to do serious business.”

Serious business is indeed the name of the game for Caribbean Export, an organisation (funded jointly by the European Union and the 15 CARIFORUM member states) whose mandate is to nurture and develop the export trade in the Caribbean region. Export — particularly for craft and gift items — can mean intra-regional as well as international  markets: a hotel boutique in Grenada might be interested in fashions from Trinidad, or artwork from Haiti; while more and more foreign outlets (for example, the cruise ship industry) are expressing interest in Caribbean crafts.

It is this cross-fertilisation that makes the CGCS such a rewarding experience for most of its exhibitors. “It opened up a very unique market for me,” says Jamaican ceramics sculptor Robert Campbell, who attended the show for the first time last year, and left with orders from Barbados and Antigua. “It was really beneficial.”

Other exhibitors echo Campbell’s sentiments, and like him, many plan to return this year. “It’s one of the only shows in the Caribbean that brings together people in the crafts and gift business,” explains Shane Johnson, Managing Director of Bakers’ Choice, Barbados. Richard Tanner, of Caribbean Perfumes Ltd., St Lucia, agrees: “It’s a very good way of networking, of building relationships with both suppliers and potential customers.” And John Knox, of Applied Technologies Inc., sums up the general consensus succinctly: “Every time I’ve been, I’ve found it extremely useful.”

The Caribbean Export team works hard to make it so. With a limited budget of approximately Bds$80,000-$100,000, virtually its entire 40-member staff gets involved in ensuring that the CGCS is a success: some even model designer garments in the fashion show! A tightly coordinated management committee handles buyers, exhibitors, special events and marketing, all with a single goal in mind: to facilitate export growth in the region.

“Our mission is to get the buyers to interface with the exhibitors so they can work on deals and start getting our products out into the marketplace for the world to see,” explains Promotions Officer Kim Young. Joy Hall concurs: “We feel satisfied that as part of our mandate we are delivering a service that helps our stakeholders build their export potential.” For an exhibitor to participate in the show, CE must first be convinced that the product is “export-ready”, both in terms of quality and of packaging. The producer’s capacity for meeting export orders is also crucial.

But most important of all is the requirement that the product be authentically Caribbean. This is the non-negotiable underpinning of the CGCS. All participants must be able to offer “something Caribbean, something that’s so intangible you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know it’s Caribbean,” says Kim Young. Designs must be original, items predominantly hand-crafted. No made-in-Taiwan souvenirs with Antigua or Grenada painted on the front!

To guarantee this authenticity, CE’s quality promotional programme has developed the Authentic Caribbean Seal, a branding standard that it is attempting to propagate across the region, not just in relation to arts and crafts, but also for products as diverse as music and food items. The seal is awarded to producers who meet certain quality criteria. Young explains, “We want the constant development of that quality so that we can compete in the global marketplace.” While possession of the seal is not absolutely necessary in order to exhibit at the CGCS, it is highly desirable. It allows the CE management team to pitch the show to potential buyers with a high level of confidence in the goods on display.

And what an array of goods there will be. Veona Maloney, in charge of Exhibitors Facilitation, estimates there will be about 20 categories of products, ranging from traditional craftwork to the latest trends in Caribbean artisanry. A list of exhibitors evokes mental images almost of a Middle Eastern bazaar: leather and metalwork, perfumes and ceramics, paper products and wooden sculptures, paintings, jewellery, fashion, foodstuffs, hammocks.

Dominica’s Amerindians offer basketry items made on the Carib Reserve, using techniques that “only the Carib Indians know”, says Saturine Dodds, one of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. From Haiti, you’ll find ceramic mosaics, and cunningly designed CD holders that resemble little houses. Trinidad and Tobago sends a wealth of batiks and hand-painted fabrics, as well as pepper sauce.  Jamaica offers wooden sculpture and rasta crafts; while St Lucia weighs in with perfumes made from amazing local scents, including orchids, nutmeg, citrus and  coffee. Even the continental Caribbean is represented — Guyana, Suriname and Belize, with leatherwork, furniture, musical instruments, traditional dolls, gold jewellery, and more.

In short, the CGCS (despite being housed in the ultra-modern Sherbourne Conference Centre) is a veritable Aladdin’s cave that would have made Scheherazade gasp in wonder — a medley of smells, textures, tastes and colours that give new meaning to the word “exotic”.

Of course, none of this extravagant display of creativity means much without the buyers. They are the Sultans for whom the banquet is being laid out, and CE is going all out to attract as many of them as possible, both from within the region (the English, French, Spanish and Dutch-speaking Caribbean) and internationally (North America, Latin America and Europe).

Lynda Seon, in charge of Buyer Facilitation, says the organisation has sent out 2,000 direct mailouts, with customised cover letters and relevant information packets. She is confident about surpassing the target of 300 registered buyers, since in addition to the mailouts, the show is being promoted through regional trade organisations, international trade correspondents,  regular press releases, and targeted visits to key markets.

“We recognise that attendance by buyers is one of the key success factors of the show,” she says. “Our first buyer was registered two days after the mailout.” Registration costs a modest US$5.

Once registered, buyers can expect even more “facilitation” from Seon and her team. “We are negotiating with hotels and airlines for concessionary rates,” she explains (off-island exhibitors will also be eligible for these perks), “and we will be organising transport to and from the Conference Centre.” In addition, CE has been negotiating with the Barbados authorities to ensure hassle-free clearance at Customs and Immigration, and Caricom certification for buyers within the region. “We are really making every effort to make the show a success,” Seon says.

A part from the pampering, buyers will find the show worthwhile in other ways as well. For one thing, it is sector-specific, focusing on regional gifts, crafts and, increasingly, fashion. (Many trade shows throw a wider  net to cover “goods and services.”) Buyers, says Joy Hall, tend to prefer sector-specific trade shows to huge, any-and-everything emporia, where it can be difficult to focus on one’s particular interest. The possibility of seeing “the best of the Caribbean” in a single, dedicated spot is appealing, since many of the region’s artisans cannot afford to attend the major international craft shows, and the handful that do are easily overlooked amidst the thousands of other exhibitors.

Best of all, the CGCS allows potential buyers to negotiate directly with producers, outlining their needs and budgets, and avoiding a middleman. Even someone like fashion designer Derek Moore, who painstakingly creates one-of-a kind garments, or Suriname’s Trudi Holtcamp, an 80-year-old grandmother whose needlework pieces each take three or four weeks to produce, has the chance of making contact with a buyer who can cope with such limitations.

“The success of the show is to have more satisfied buyers coming in,” declares Joy Hall. By that criterion alone, the CGCS can already be judged a success. The show has a number of repeat buyers who have patronised it for several years: individuals like SOFA’s Fiona Jack, from Antigua, who says frankly, “That’s where we do the majority of our buying.” Jack’s English Harbour shop is a pot-pourri of Caribbean crafts (the name, contrary to what you might expect, does not refer to furniture, but to sculptural objects, functional art). She sells papier-maché from Haiti, coconut tea-pots from St Vincent, books from the Dominican Republic, pillows from Barbados, jewellery from Trinidad. “I support the CGCS 100%,” Jack declares. “Anything that’s made in the Caribbean that’s worthwhile is definitely there. I’d be totally lost without it.”

For Joy Hall and her team, happy buyers like Jack are what makes it all worthwhile.

“When I was young,” recalls Heather Jones wistfully, “I dreamed of being an artist. I told my mother I wanted to wear a wide hat and a pretty, floating dress and sit in The Hollows and paint.”

She never did it. But it is perhaps no coincidence that Jones, one of Trinidad’s leading fashion designers, hand-paints her own silk chiffons to make sensuously floating creations for other women to wear — to The Hollows (a Port of Spain public garden) or anywhere else.

Jones is just one of 20-odd designers whose work will be on display at the CGCS fashion showcase, Fashion Rhythms 2001: Millennium Expressions. With her boldly tropical batiks, tie-dye, and hand-painted fabrics, she might be said to personify  the zeitgeist of the exhibition, which aims at presenting to regional and international buyers the essence of Caribbean fashion design and production — the “cream of the crop”, as Lisa Callender, the show’s organiser,  puts it.

“We’re trying to build an avenue for the batiks, the indigenous hand-painted designs, the things we feel tell a story particular to the Caribbean,” explains Callender. “It has been well recognised that the fashion industry is very deserving of support. The challenge is how do we promote them.”

Fashion Rhythms 2001 is the first step in Caribbean Export’s game-plan to present a cohesive Caribbean fashion front to the world at large. Or rather, the second step, since the Fashion Rhythms concept made its debut at last year’s Caribbean Gift and Craft Show. Previously, the fashion component of the CGCS had been more or less incidental: fashion was viewed as an extension of the “gift” category; and the fashion show was mounted more as a form of entertainment for the public than as a serious pitch to attract buyers.

When she was assigned the fashion portfolio last year, Callender, normally an export business adviser for CE, decided to go bold, and market the sector almost as a mini-expo of its own, with an eye to targeting fashion-specific buyers. A fashion hall was created separate from the other gifts and crafts, and a major fashion show was mounted to allow exhibitors the chance to strut their stuff. There were some inevitable teething problems: designers thought the “fashion hall” was situated away from the mainstream crowds, and the catwalk show was far too long; but on the whole, they are enthusiastically in support of CE’s initiative.

“It’s fantastic!” exclaims Guyanese designer Derek Moore, known for his one-of-a-kind creations that feature everything from beads and stones to shells and coral attached to earthy wraps of cottons, linens and silks. “It was my first opportunity to be involved in a Caribbean show. I had a chance to match myself up against a lot of other designers, and I learned a lot from them.”

Heather Jones is equally enthusiastic: “I’m behind the show 110%. We need foreign buyers to make it big. We need to scream, let them know we’re out there. Fashion is show-off business, it’s not a secret. If you can’t show off, you may as well close up shop. The Caribbean voice needs to be collectively heard, for a new powerful statement.”

The fashion show, and indeed the CGCS on the whole, is considered rewarding for a number of reasons. Most designers view it as an invaluable networking tool: they get to  meet their counterparts from across the Caribbean region, and a lot of cross-fertilisation takes place. Jamaica’s Norma Soas, for example, dressed up her fashions with “some very unusual accessories from other (craft) show participants, which gave them some publicity too.”

“It’s a wonderful way of finding out who’s doing what,” says Meiling, Trinidad’s classic fashion designer whose signature garment is the exquisitely detailed white linen shirt. And Brown Sugar’s Judith Rawlins, of St Lucia, agrees: “I thought the most fun was the interaction between the designers,  and of course, the buyers.”

Ah yes, the buyers. They, of course, are what it’s really all about. The raison d’être of the show, as Lisa Callender explains, is “to serve a developmental purpose to facilitate export: to put people (designers) in touch with buyers, and from there they can start negotiations.”

Callender says Caribbean Export is “actively and aggressively targeting buyers, because that is what we see as making the show sustainable and worthwhile.” She acknowledges that attracting buyers to a show of this nature is a “long-term vision” — a vision which Fashion Rhythms was created to achieve. “We’ve only done it once and I know the show has to gain credibility,” she muses, “but I think we’re making the right moves. I feel very positive about it establishing itself as a regional and international calendar event.”

Currently,  the show’s major clientele is regional: craft shops, boutiques and hotel buyers from across the Caribbean, and of course members of the general public who happen to visit the exhibition. But the unspoken aspiration is to attract wholesale buyers from abroad as well. “We would love to see more international buyers,” Callender admits, “but to attract them we need more media exposure. Fashion is a very competitive business worldwide.” She points out that the big advantage for international buyers coming to the show would be the chance to see “all the Caribbean in one place.”

Last year’s CGCS attracted more than 200 professional buyers, and about 4,000 other patrons, enough to make the participating designers feel their effort was worthwhile. “The Caribbean is a huge potential market,” points out Meiling, whose past collections have appeared on catwalks in New York and Paris. “The show opened up the regional market for us. And it was much more economical than flying to each island separately.”

The other designers concur. “I did about $10,000 in business through the show, and the repeat orders have already started to happen,” says fabric-painter Uche Ogbue. “I’m small, I don’t mass-produce, so the show was very, very much worth it.” And individualist Derek Moore says, “I got a lot of contracts. I’m doing work right now for a Washington-based TV talk-show host. I now see my work going somewhere.”

On-the-spot sales have also been good for the fashion designers, as Joe or (more likely) Jane Public can make purchases directly from the display booths. Norma Soas thinks the runway show is useful in this regard: “I found that people were really excited about going to the show. Afterwards, a lot of them came to the booth as a result of what they had seen.” This year, in fact, two runway shows are planned: one for professional buyers, and another, later on, for the general public.

One of the designers’ main beefs with last year’s CGCS is that its very name emphasises the presence of gifts and crafts, but makes no mention whatsoever of fashion — a problem, since conventional fashion buyers would see no reason to attend. “We know there was that concern, and we don’t want to repeat it,” admits CE’s Lynda Seon, the team member responsible for buyer facilitation. “This year we’ve made a concerted effort to target fashion buyers, even adjusting our promotional mail-outs to suit.” What’s more, they are tackling head-on the need to attract more big international buyers to the overall exhibition: of the 2,000 mail-outs, about 60% had foreign addresses.

This should make all the  participants happy, none more so than the fashion designers, whose creations crave the drama of a wider audience, larger markets. “I’m looking for that dream buyer,” laughs Brown Sugar’s Judith Rawlins, “the one who has a million dollars to spend!” This just might be the year her dream comes true.


The organising of Caribbean Export’s Caribbean Gift and Craft Show (CGCS) is “a massive undertaking,” says Promotions Officer Kim Young. “Everybody in the office rolls up their sleeves and gets down to the dirty work,” in order to get the show off the ground.

While there are still (and probably will always be) bugs to work out and improvements to be made, the results of this team effort are nonetheless impressive. Housed at Barbados’ Sherbourne Conference Centre, the show last year occupied two floors, with one floor being dedicated to the “fashion hall”. Although it is aimed mainly at professional buyers, the show does open its doors to the general  public at specific times. “We want the public to see and become proud of what we produce here,” says Young. “We have for too long had a tradition of not being proud of what we produce, or thinking that foreign goods are somehow better.” Last year, more than 4,000 people attended the show.

Balancing the needs of the buyers with the enthusiasm of the public can be tricky. To address this, the first two days will be dedicated almost exclusively to buyers, because, as Events Co-ordinator Hannah Clarendon points out, “The show is essentially for the trade.” Buyers will also enjoy an exclusive fashion show. Members of the public will only be allowed in after 5 p.m. on the second day.  On the last two days (the weekend), the show will be open to the public from 10 a.m. onward, with a fashion show on Saturday night.

The CE team has also put together a number of special events to add value to the show, for exhibitors and viewers alike. Two  seminars, led by experts in the field, will enlighten the former on crucial issues such as product development and design and professional packaging; while artisan demonstrations of various handicrafts will educate and entertain the general public.

Another highlight of the CGCS, at least for the exhibitors, is the “Best of Show” awards, which form part of the opening ceremony. Awards for the best booth, best product line, best packaging and best hand-crafted product are handed out during the ceremony, and a display centre at the entrance showcases the winning companies. “It’s good PR for the winners,” says Clarendon.


Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day; teach him to fish and you’ve fed him forever.

The Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export) operates, essentially, on that principle: it teaches people to fish, or at least, to fish more effectively. A regional organisation of the 15 CARIFORUM States, with substantial funding from the European Union, the CE has a very specific mission: to help Caribbean enterprises increase their international competitiveness and capacity for export.

To this end, the agency (which became fully operational in January 1996) offers selected companies a range of services and expert support in the areas of business upgrading, product development, market research, training, market promotion, trade information, trade advocacy and much more. Some services are offered on a cost-sharing basis, others come with a fee attached. There is even a measure of financial assistance available, through CE’s Export Competitiveness Fund, to assist promising businesses in upgrading and marketing their products.

With its mandate to promote the export of authentic Caribbean products both regionally and internationally, CE is working constantly to raise production standards, improve quality, and encourage consistency. The agency has developed the Authentic Caribbean Seal to ensure that Caribbean products are clearly recognisable, particularly in international markets where product differentiation can be difficult because of clever packaging.

The seal is not only a guarantee of authenticity, but also of quality, since it is linked to international quality systems such as ISO 9000. It is, in CE’s words, “a mark of excellence, identifying the best Caribbean products.”

With the help of CE’s highly-qualified consultants, regional companies have the chance to improve their competitiveness and expand their markets: the sky is the limit. And once they have learnt (so to speak) to fish effectively, there is little doubt that they will teach others to do the same.


Programme Guide

Thursday 20 September

8.00 a.m. – 7.00 p.m. Trade Buyers

3.00 p.m. –  4.00 p.m. Opening ceremony/Awards Presentation

5.00 p.m. – 6.00 p.m. Fashion Show for Buyers

Friday 21 September 

8.00 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. Trade Buyers

8.30 a.m. – 9.30 a.m. Seminar

5.00 p.m. – 9.00 p.m. Open to Public

7.00 p.m. – 7.30 p.m. Artisan Demonstrations

Saturday 22 September 

8.30 a.m. – 9.30 a.m. Seminar

10.00 a.m. – 9.00 p.m. Open to Public

7.00 p.m. – 7.30 p.m. Fashion Show for Public

Sunday 23 September

10.00 a.m. – 9.00 p.m. Open to Public

2.00 p.m. – 3.00 p.m. Artisan Demonstrations

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.