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Who Made My Clothes: Our Batik Artist, Don Sealy

Written by Stephanie Ramlogan of No More Fashion Victims

"I discovered it (Batik) by chance in Florida. A friend from the UK was working with it on canvas. When I got home, I tried it on fabric. Here we are 20 years later."

Fashion Revolution Week, April 23rd to 29th 2018, is an important movement that prompts us to ask a simply profound question: "Who made my clothes?" After the devastating Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh five years ago, we cannot ignore that there are real people working diligently to produce the clothing we love to wear. Asking about where our clothes come from, demands a sense of pride in the response. You feel that much better knowing that whoever created your favourite pieces, loved doing so, and they passed those feelings onto you. It is so rewarding to think that your purchase of a blouse, or a dress, went to an artist; a creator who was treated with respect and appreciation. Garment construction is intricate work. Clothing design is not just a skill, but a talent.

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I chatted with Don Sealy, the Batik Artist for all those special Bene Caribe styles that have become the identifying image for the brand. For over 20 years he has been dedicated to using fabric as his medium.  He is a relaxed, easy to talk to gentleman. He speaks with the clarity of experience, and the optimism of a content life. Our chat took place on an overseas phone-call, but it felt barely different from if we were on opposite sides of a Trinidadian front porch, sipping on fresh juice.

He explains to me the process of Batik, and explains that when there is polyester snuck into a blend and called cotton, it throws off the work and renders the piece unusable. For him of course, with a trained eye and a perfected hand, he can tell the difference now. Every piece is different, but he is good at reproducing patterns. He is inspired by nature; local trees, plants flowers, birds and abstract art. He names LeRoy Clarke as an inspiration, when I ask about other artists that he admires. He tells me that Batik is a dying art, and he hasn't seen anyone doing batik in Trinidad on the scale of production that he does. Some Batik techniques he puts off, unable to commit to them right now with his busy schedule. One piece can take weeks, and it's also very costly to produce. So he spends his time on commercial work, as the hours permit.

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I ask him, "How does it feel to see people in your work?" This is a question I think about when I imagine Asian factory workers reading fashion magazines and seeing their patterns and assembly work on high fashion international models! I think of independent designers; often one-man shows, and how they proudly post pictures of clients in outfits that they made. Do factory workers feel the same sense of pride, even as they remain nameless and faceless behind these brands?

"It is a good feeling." He says humbly. But I can hear him smile. "I see people out wearing it. I see photographs. I remain very low key. I get my gratification from just seeing people in them."

I reach for my own Bene Caribe Batik scarf, and observe the intricacies of the print. From now on, every time I wear it, I will imagine how it was once plain white cotton, and over a night or two, it came to be this rich olive green, with an earth-toned foliage pattern, as Don carefully sat over it in his Belmont home studio, in the cool quiet night time, listening to his favourite Jazz music. He says that's when he creates. When the temperatures are low, and there are no disturbances.

Thank you to @rayacharles for these images x