It’s in the bag

Laura Dowrich-Phillips takes a look inside the handbags Caribbean designers are creating

  • Ellie Weekender bags from Ken Williams. Photograph courtesy Roger Edralin
  • Ken Williams and Miss World Canada pose with one of his bags. Photograph courtesy Roger Edralin
  • Designer Karen Watson. Photograph courtesy Karen Watson
  • A bag from Jendayi’s afrocentric line. Photograph courtesy Karen Watson
  • A bag from Jendayi’s abstract line. Photograph courtesy Karen Watson
  • Glaja Mayne with some of her colourful creations. Photograph courtesy Glaja Mayne
  • Mayne’s handbags sport a unique wooden handle. Photograph courtesy Glaja Mayne
  • A belt bag in calf hair. Photograph courtesy Ria Ramkissoon
  • The sky hobo bag with crocodile pockets. Photograph courtesy Ria Ramkissoon

Ken Williams: Retrodelic

Born in St Vincent but resident in Canada since he was 10 years old, Ken Williams was working in the world of computers when, about three years ago, he began to feel burnt out. He changed jobs but felt a strong urge to change careers entirely. His hobby, collecting old, battered bags, provided that escape.

“I saw this old, vintage doctor’s bag and that’s where it started. The quality was so good, the leather was good—it was just a really well constructed bag. Later on, I would find out a lot of people who were doctors and lawyers used the same [kind of] bag,” he recalled.

The many compliments he received on his bag made him realise there was a market for such a product. “The artist in me kicked in and I said, ‘I’ll make my own.’ ” Retrodelic was born, the name inspired by the vintage look of his designs.

Initially, Williams designed his bags for men, but he has since included women’s designs in his collections.

A feature in LouLou magazine gave him recognition and led to appearances in the Toronto Star newspaper and other magazines such as Lucky, InStyle, Wish, Soho Business Magazine and, just recently, SHE Caribbean magazine.

Williams’s first collection, “Courage,” was launched in 2005 and featured a line of vintage-inspired leather handbags and luggage. The company’s first creation and signature piece is the Ellie leather handbag.

Retrodelic bags are targeted to an upscale market. Made with high-quality full-grain leather, the bags are stylish and elegant, with playful names such as Candy Clutch, Lady Love, JoJo and KeeKee.

Williams lists celebrities such as Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria, MTV’s hot show Laguna Beach, entertainment reporter Dana Devon and Ray star Jamie Foxx among his clients. Foxx, he said, loved the bags so much he bought enough for everyone in his entourage during a visit to Canada.

Williams, who said the vivid colours of his bags, as well as the wild, vibrant interior fabrics, were influenced by his Caribbean roots, would love to get into the Caribbean market as well as more retail stores in the US and UK.

Karen Watson: Jendayi

Karen Watson’s colourful handbags used to be a major draw on Frederick Street, Trinidad’s main shopping area, in Port of Spain. There, under the eaves of a store, the designer wowed passers-by with her creative designs.

Today, she operates out of her home, where she sells to faithful clients, produces wholesale bags and makes time to tap regional markets through events such as the St Lucia Jazz Festival.

Watson describes herself as a creative person and honed her artistic skills at the Edna Manley School for the Creative Arts in Jamaica.
She initially got into the clothing industry, then sales. Feeling the need to express her creativity and shunning the competitiveness of the clothing industry, she turned to handbags.

The inspiration for her unique creations comes from a combination of factors, she said.

“I love to decorate. I have an affinity for colour and design. I like to experiment with fabric and textures and I am also into symbols.”
Watson, whose label name Jendayi is Swahili for “Give thanks,” likes ancient African symbols, which are incorporated into her designs.
“I create for everyone. I have abstracts, an afro-centric line and a feminine line.”

Watson says the feedback about her bags is positive because she puts a lot of positive energy into what she does.

Her ultimate goal is to find a production house that can produce some of her designs on a larger scale so her handbags can go worldwide.
Already, Watson’s bags have sold across the region, in St Vincent, Guadeloupe Barbados, St Lucia, Tortola and Jamaica.


Glaja Mayne

Glaja Mayne was born in Jamaica but left as a young child, when her family migrated to Florida. Although she has no real ties to the land of her birth, Mayne’s designs do bear evidence of a Caribbean flair. She uses bright reds, blues and yellows in her designs, teaming contrasting colours to create one-of-a-kind pieces. But her signature is the wooden handle that adorns each bag. From large hoops to seaweed-inspired creations, the handles draw on nature and architecture.

“I would buy books regarding marine life and pull things related to the bags regarding the structure. Buildings and art also inspire me,” she explained. The bags, made from denim, cowhide or upholstery material, all carry fun names which invoke images of the tropics: Sun Smile, Pagoda, Tree Branch, Crab, Pom Pom Tree Mayne does not describe herself as a handbag person and, in fact, was passionate about being a fashion designer before she turned to bags.

“Out of the blue one day I started doodling and I created what looked like a cute handle—that was it.”

In April, Mayne left her full-time job as an insurance broker to design, create and sell her handbags.

“This is my passion, I could do this 24/7. Sometimes I work without realising it’s the next day. I love this, it’s like my heart and soul.”

Mayne says her goal is one day to have her bags in the hands of the stars and well-known fashion designers.

Ria Handbags

Ria Ramkissoon’s interest in handbags started when she was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. After fancying a bag she couldn’t afford, she switched from the manufacturing management course she was enrolled in to the accessory design programme.

Her future was sealed.

As if to convince her that she was on the right track, fate intervened one night when one of Ramkissoon’s first designs, a bag made of sari material, was stolen at a nightclub.

“The person emptied everything and took the bag. That’s when I decided to do this for a living,” she said.

A Trinidadian, Ramkissoon derives inspiration from the island each time she visits.

“Usually I come home four times a year. That’s when I collect myself, sit in the backyard with my laptop and design my collection.”

A bustling market in the eastern town of Tunapuna inspired her Market Tote design, and Ramkissoon describes it as one of her favourites, which she uses to go shopping or to the beach.

Another design, the Harness Bag, was inspired by her memory of policemen mounted on horses.

Her bags have been featured in a number of magazines including Essence and Cosmopolitan, and her signature is the chain-mail design that she interweaves with other materials for a unique look.

While she enjoys designing and one day hopes to open a store in Trinidad, Ramkissoon is also looking to expand the consultancy work she has been doing with other designers.


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.