French fashion icon and founder of the Chanel brand, Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel, once shared the notion that “fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. It is in the sky, and in the street, and that fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening”. In essence, she believed that fashion exists in every aspect of daily life. One Caribbean designer has captured the essence of this idea in her own approach to garment design and management, as she converts the energy and creativity that is the Caribbean into wearable art.
Under the aJeanté label, Antiguan fashion designer, Jean-Marie Thomas has built a brand that started as a dream during her formative years, but then blossomed into a reality during her early teens.
“I have been interested in the fashion industry from as early as the age of eight. During my teenage years, my involvement grew through participation in fashion shows, both as a model on the runway, and in the background in hair and makeup. Later I started to mentor other models and assist with the management of showcases”.
Following her tenure at the Carmen Penco School of Fashion Designing in Trinidad and Tobago, Jean-Marie launched aJeanté in her island home of Antigua and Barbuda. In the beginning, she admits that she was a ‘jack of all trades’ with the design and production of a variety of lines including; casual, corporate, formal and evening wear. However, she quickly channeled her creativity into the areas that were the most optimal choices.
“I had never thought about working for someone else as a fashion designer. I always knew I wanted to start my own business, and so it was natural to do just that after graduation. Initially, I had such a wide range of product offerings, but I like to think that my niche found me, and forced me to focus on one area, for two main reasons. For one, resort wear was in high demand by most customers, and I was naturally good at designs of this nature, so it was an easy transition”.
Fast forward 18 years , aJeanté now creates elegant but affordable pieces under the label’s Cruise Collection for mass production to boutique hotels, resorts, and the general public; as well as luxury custom-made designs from the Haute Couture Collection. Jean-Marie has also made the decision to outsource the production of her designs to a company in Jamaica, which employs just over 20 persons.
“In the beginning stages of my company, I did not really face many problems because I saw any potential challenge as an adventure to explore. But after about a decade in business, the global financial downturn resulted in the business taking a hit in the form of a drop in sales and subsequently production. I made the decision at that point to close my production studio in Antigua, and change to a model based on outsourcing as the economy began to stabilise”.
As the Founder and Managing Director of a fashion design company, Jean-Marie recognises that the business side of operations is as equally critical as the creative aspect. As such, she has always looked for opportunities to enhance her professional skills, and by extension the capacity of her trade. In addition to exploring prospects at the local level through the Ministry of Trade, Jean-Marie also took advantage of regional programmes delivered by the Caribbean Export Development Agency (Caribbean Export).
The couture connoisseur’s engagement with Caribbean Export spans a period of just over a decade, with more frequent interaction under the recently implemented 10th European Development Fund (EDF) Regional Private Sector Development Programme (RPSDP), in the form of trade missions, training, and business matchmaking.
“With support from the Agency, I have participated in a number of initiatives including the Creative Industries Study Tour to Europe, Dominicana Moda, Caribbean Fashion Week, Export Marketing training, and Business Forums in the Dominican Republic and Europe. Of these activities, the Export Marketing training in Barbados, and the trade shows in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic [Caribbean Fashion Week and Dominicana Moda] were the most beneficial”.
Jean-Marie shared that the training in export marketing, which was also delivered in part by support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), helped significantly with the streamlining of her business processes.
“Effective business planning is extremely important in any type of business endeavour, and with this seminar I was able to gain invaluable insight into some of the key steps required throughout the preparatory process. I also used the knowledge gained to revise and improve my operational strategy. So for me, this was a tremendous opportunity upon which to capitalise.”
The enigmatic entrepreneur also showcased her talent during Caribbean Fashion Week and Dominicana Moda in 2012. Jean-Marie believes that these occasions were the catalyst behind the increased visibility of her brand at both the regional and international levels.
“The international media coverage and the exposure my company received during these two interventions are incomparable. Even though I was not able to secure any deals, I can never put a price on the marketing reach this afforded me; so I consider these missions a success”.
Jean-Marie admits that her company is still in its infancy stage as it relates to exports. However, her strategy for reaching new markets is at the forefront of any work she undertakes.
“Marketing is a big part of our business strategy overall, but for export, direct sales marketing is key. At the local level, physical and online one-on-one meetings with potential clients are my main focus. For international buyers, trade shows are the prime setting not only for better visibility, but also because this is where you build credibility with wholesale buyers”.
In the building of the aJeanté brand, Jean-Marie learned the value lesson about the importance of professional improvement.
“It is important to keep abreast of the changing trends in the fashion industry, and remain informed about developments within the sector. Another requirement for growth in this sector is credibility. If buyers know that you exist and that you are serious about your craft, opportunities are more readily available. I believe that the trade show route is one of the best ways to build that credibility”.
The Caribbean fashion maverick’s biggest business wish for her company is seeing her collection in department stores and high-end boutiques across the United States, Europe and beyond.
“I sometimes imagine what it would feel like to be walking the streets of New York or Paris, and seeing my designs in the store front or on the racks of these popular department stores. It would be a dream come true”.
In the short-term, Jean-Marie is focusing on her 2017 Collection, which is currently out, so most of her efforts are concentrated on the business behind the marketing, showcasing and publicity of these lines.
Jean-Marie believes that her achievements are tantamount to her emphasis on planning, research and continued follow-up with contacts made in the industry. She has successfully fused her childhood dream, with her undeniable talent to create a Caribbean brand that has the ability to transcend our regional shores in the quest for broader borders.
To find out more about Ajeanté contact:
Founder and Managing Director
Gambles, P O Box 2255
St John’s, Antigua & Barbuda