She has been prolific in the creation of costumes since arriving on the designing carnival scene in London (UK) and has had many successes. Arguably, one of her greatest achievements as a designer is her costume being worn by six-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton on the cover of GQ Magazine in Germany last year. She calls her costumes her ‘babies’. This is designer Vanisha Somauroo.
How did you get into carnival? Around 12 years old. Used to go to family parties… The song ‘Dollar wine’… all those songs. I grew up with them, except that I am Mauritian. After I graduated from Uni, I worked in Selfridges and a colleague must have heard me listening to my music… I listen to my music really loud. I didn’t realise they could hear it through my headphones. I was just minding my own business as I do and she said, ‘I didn’t know that you listen to soca’. I was like ‘Oh yeah I do’. She said ‘Oh then you should play mas’. Now bearing in mind that was 8 years ago. That was the first time I ever played mas. I played when RDR was with Dragons. I genuinely did not know how to get involved. I didn’t know what a band launch was, I didn’t know how costumes got made. I didn’t know anything, I was clueless. That first year, she took me to mas camp, she took me to register, I helped out a little bit.
My fisrt time play mas, I remember wearing shorts on the road on carnival day and kept pulling them down and thinking ‘Oh God I am gonna get harassed’. I was so self-conscious of being there and not knowing what to expect. And I ended having the best day. I made new friends and started from there. I was going to Trinidad the following year, but it wasn’t for carnival. That was planned before I played mas. On the night of j’ouvert, I had never experienced j’ouvert before. Literally the best night of my life. [laughter]. The guy that I was dating at the time introduced me to the Chocolate Nation band. I started helping Chocolate with distribution and stuff. It was when they were still Eclipse, the third year, there was this blue costume. I was gemming the wire bras and you know things always go wrong. I gemmed a wire bra, not the way it was initially done. And it looked better than the original. And as a joke, they said, ‘You should design for us next year’. And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ [laughter] Carnival happened, carnival went. November comes around and they asked me, ‘So do you want do this?’ And I said ‘Oh this is for real, for real? Had a meeting with them in January. They introduced me to the people for feather work. I picked the fabric told them how I wanted to do the feather work and I did the gemming. And that was my first section.
What did your family think about you entering the carnival world? At first, my family were very against it. Against what exactly? At first, before they saw me making costumes, I told them I was going mas camp. First of all, they don’t know what mas camp is. All they could see was me leaving the house in the morning then going to mas camp and getting home at 1am in the morning. I was doing that all of August. I’m certain my mum thought that I was doing drugs, that I was on crack or something cause she just looked at me like… It was only the time I produced Vida; I did the prototype in my house and she saw me working; from drawing to building it. The production got done in the house this year. So, for the last 2, 3 years, her house been taken over by feathers in the summer. And she just accepts it as it is.
How big is your team? We have a team of 10,11. It’s taken us 5 years to get there. I’m probably the name that they know but without them it wouldn’t happen.
What is your style as a designer? I think there is a particular style, but then there isn’t. When I design something, I try to cater for all skin colours and all body types. That is my first thing I try to consider in a costume. I want them to be comfortable in their own skin. Even if you are self-conscious, I give you all the options so that you can begin to grow and step into it that way, the way I did it, from me pulling down my boy shorts to me wearing barely anything [laughter]. But when you go through it, it gives you a sense of freedom, when you see everyone doing it, it gives you freedom and that’s what I want to give with my costumes. I feel everyone should feel their best on that day. I know everyone likes to categorise the hot girls. I don’t really like that. I try to cater for everyone.
What part of your personality do you think you bring to your costumes? It’s actually quite funny as I am quite quiet. Just living in my little bubble. But I like to think that I try to I bring… where I travel so much, I try to bring that into the costumes, I like them to be colourful, vibrant, fun, adventurous. That’s what I want my costumes to reflect.
How did you get to work with Krave? I remember you modelling for them. I went to Miami in 2015. I was just having fun with some of the girls. Met some of their friends and one of the girls basically scouts the models, we were hanging out the last night. So, we kept in contact and she said you should come model for us in New York. And I had never been to New York before. And that’s how it fell into place. I modelled for them for two years. Always played with them and they saw my work over the years and asked me.
You spend a lot of time in New York. Do you have family there? Do you work part time over there? My friends might as well be my family at this point. I literally can fly out there at any point as I have so many friends out there. I get my fabric out there as there is so much variation of fabric I can work with.
How did you get involved with Caesar’s Army? I’ve been friends with Jules since 2015. 2015 was a big year for you then… I was just in Miami and I just happen to meet a load of people that year. When I met Krave, I didn’t know who they were. When I met Jules, we only rarely spoke on social media as I told him that I wanted to be part of Caesar’s Army and he ‘Okay cool, not a problem’. I introduced myself when I saw him in Miami, and we have been friends since. And it was only last year that I actually got put on it, but he has known me through the years.
Your Calypso backpack, on Lewis Hamilton on the cover of GQ. How did that happen? The power of social media. It was just a trail of people that led to that backpack being there. When they got a hold of it, I didn’t even know until they find out who made it, and then the conversations with GQ began. And I was just laughing. I was just laughing through the whole thing as I thought ‘Really?’. But I didn’t know it was going to be on the front cover, because he did pictures with other pieces. When I saw the picture (and it was someone who tagged me) I was just looking at going ‘Is this it? Is this real?’ And when I saw it was the front cover, I just laughed. My reaction is to laugh at things.
What do you are think the differences are in catering for the London masqueraders as opposed to the masqueraders in other countries? I think with countries like Trinidad, the bands have their type of market and they have a production line that works for them. So, for example, they might say we can only do wire bras up to a D cup. Obviously not everyone is happy with that. Whereas I will not put a restriction, but I will tell the masquerade that it is at their own risk. I explain what the difficulties might be and give as many options as possible.
I see the carnival costumes in Trinidad, in Barbados. I see our back packs in the UK and most of them do not have the height, the width or maybe that much bling… Why do you think that is? Is it reflective of the London designers or the London carnival culture? I think that is reflective of our carnival price point in the UK. Cause in the Caribbean, their costumes can be in the thousands and masqueraders will pay it. My last costume in the UK was £695.00. I could have taken that costume to one of the Caribbean islands and it would have sold way into the thousands… It’s just one of those things… It’s the market. But now we are getting a lot more internationals, from America. And when they are used to going to the Caribbean and spending that much money, it is becoming the norm over here to spend that money. And people here are travelling a lot more too.
Thinking about carnival costumes, some people think it is becoming too skimpy, it’s too daring. What are your thoughts on that? I think it is a personal taste thing as you are never going to make everyone happy. Costumes are always evolving. Like jackets and jeans and trainers. It’s the same thing. And they will go back to the old time again. It’s a cycle. But some people are very much into their ways and some people are willing to see change.
If you could give three things that you have learnt in your personal growth as a designer, what would it be? Like any topic, you have to do your research. You have to learn where it starts, where it’s going. So, I feel like I am always doing my homework. I look at the country I will be designing for, I look at the costumes they have been producing. I look at the type of market that they have, the type of masqueraders that they bring. I look at other designers work to see stuff that I might not be able to do or things that I could learn. Not to try to repeat other people’s stuff. As you might have a very similar idea to someone. Second, to have tough skin. Oh really? Yeah. You have to have tough skin. It’s a real interesting industry. You’ll pick up friends, you will lose friends. It’s not a bad thing, it’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing. You can’t take it on a personal level. Third, just have fun with it. My costumes kind of portray things that I have been going through in my life.
Really? Can you give me examples? So, Vida in my second year, I was more comfortable in what I was doing compared to my first year. I had done my research. With Lotus, I did a non-carnival trip. I went to Kenya and it was such a beautiful country. So that year I brought more of a rich costume. I was also getting over a breakup when I did Lotus. So, something beautiful that comes out of darkness; so, me and carnival, where it started. Lotus had two meanings for me. I remember freezing on stage. I remember that. You were quite nervous… I was nervous not because of being on stage but was wondering how people would take the costume because that costume was way more personable to me.
So, you design for London and Barbados and other places. Trinidad? That’s a… I’m gonna put it out there to the world and let it manifest. I wanted to drop a costume there…but… People don’t know I have a full time job. It’s time consuming and then to go home and make time in between the travelling which looks like a lot of fun but every carnival that I go to now is work. You see the fun parts, but I am doing something behind the scenes.
So, has that taken the edge off carnival for you? I kinda told myself the moment this stops being fun for me, I have to stop doing it. It’s tiring. I lose my whole summer. I haven’t had a birthday in the last three years which is the 21st of August. So why do you not give it up? It’s actually seeing the masqueraders and seeing them very happy. When they feel their best, you can see it on their faces. They they will run to you and hug you.
Is there any particular place that you want to design for? I think the dream place would be for Trinidad. For Tribe. Even if I did it once, I’d think ‘Ok. I’m good, I can go now’. But I wouldn’t mind designing for any island.
How do you keep yourself you? There can be criticism. There is possibly lots of pressure on you now to achieve. How do you remain Vanisha? My circle of friends who are really close to me. I try to keep myself as humble as possible. I am still very much me. I’m just not as nervous to put my work at there.
What else should we know about Vanisha? I feel like what you see is what you really get with me. I am very… I would like to say that if people asked me questions, I would answer it. Like I said it is a weird industry to be in, especially as a female. I think it is perception with a lot of things. Especially with people that I am connected to, the stuff that I am doing. And it’s not I chased anyone to get connected to them. We just all happen to be in the same place at the same time and we actually have friendships. I always try to explain to people we don’t just talk during carnival. We talk outside of carnival. We hang outside of carnival. As a female when they see you do it on your own. And I happen to be in particular circles, that people have a perception of what they want to believe.
Oh? what do you think their perception is of you? I have heard stories that apparently, I am sleeping with certain people to get on certain things, umm probably having a threesome with a husband and a wife. [laughter] I think to myself well this is a first [laughter]. But people do not say it directly to me. And it will always come back to me. And I think I’m not even going to clarify to say this isn’t true. I don’t have the energy. Say what you want to say. I think I am a very monotone kind of person, quiet within my crew. I have fun but I will work when it is time to put in the work, I put in the work.
What would you say to people who want to put their designs out there? I would say that the first thing you need is a genuine passion for it. This will take up a lot of your time. It is not easy. It will not happen overnight. You have to put your personal time into it. There will be times when you say, no I can’t come out I have to finish this, I have to finish that. Otherwise you are putting yourself at risk of not delivering. There are a lot of things you will have to say no to. As long as you have genuine passion and think you have something work giving, then do it. I didn’t know how to do things, I had to learn.
Images were taken from Vanisha’s Instagram page. They include the work of Raymond Little and J. Hamilton.