Are you happy being known as ‘The Gay Band’? I’m not happy being known as ‘The Gay Band’ because there are a lot of bands with gay masqueraders out there who are not branded as ‘the gay band’. I mean I even saw this year there was some next level gay guys, by the time they got to judging point, they were in a thong and a head piece. We don’t have that. I find the gay guys who are in our band, they are just out to have a good time. They are not troubling anyone, they are not targeting any guys who might not be of that persuasion. I am not happy to be called the gay band because proportionate to amount of people in the band, the gay community might only be 10% of the band. I think it is unfair as there are other bands with gay people in them. At the same time, the girls absolutely love the gay guys because they know they can jump and get a wine and that is all it is going to be. They are not going to be stuck on you for the whole day.
Thinking about your experience, you have designed for the US, Trinidad, UK. Are there many differences in what the masqueraders want in the different countries? Yes, largely. I found in the Caribbean, less is more. I don’t know why. I always had people telling me they want this skimpier and they want wire bra options and they want skimpier panties. Whereas in the UK you have a bigger contrast because obviously, we don’t have the climate here. People want a sexy piece but they do not want to feel as exposed as they are in the Caribbean. I have noticed even friends, what they wear here and what they wear in the Caribbean are polar opposites. It’s to do with the climate and culture difference. Maybe in the Caribbean you can be freer. People who are going there, they don’t know anybody. They are not expecting to meet their aunty or uncle or cousin on the road and they say ‘What are you wearing? The other thing, also when I did sections in the Caribbean, they were so much more demanding. And pick at things a lot more. So for example, if they didn’t have in the goodie bag a Nescafe voucher and someone else did, you know when you have goodie bags, you might not have the same mix but same amount. But the people would be ‘No he got a hand sanitizer and I got a voucher’. Not even the costume you know, the costume is fine. But now they are picking at the goodie bag. So the last year I did, I made sure everyone had a goodie bag and everybody had the exact same thing in the goodie bag. Luckily there were no issues. The only reason I stopped making mas in Trinidad is that it is hard to make mas in the Caribbean if you are not in the Caribbean. Cause the whole process is ten times longer and I just don’t have the patience for it.
Is there anywhere else you would like to design for? That’s a good question you know. US is probably a market I would like to get into more and probably Canada. I was looking at getting into but I was not sure. I was invited to a band launch in Canada but again it is run by a massive family and I didn’t want to get into that environment again from when I first started.
I’m noting your experience and you have been around a long time. What do you make of Notting Hill Carnival right now in terms of costumes? Costume wise, they are going in the right direction. I would say that there are top 5 bands, maybe even 6 now as Colors are coming into the mix and they are offer a good product and customer service. I think the negative part is that there are a lot of new bands popping up and I don’t know what they are doing. And this is just not new bands. There are some bands that have been here for a long time, even before I was making mas. And I think to myself ‘What are these guys doing?’ Because they have either not progressed and what they are claiming to bring to the table they don’t. Everyone is going with the ‘We are a premium band, giving a premium experience, we will bring something new to the table’. Then they hit the road and I think ‘But you haven’t done anything that has not been done already and you are not at the level where other premium bands are’. I encourage collaboration. I think there should be a lot more collaboration, there should be a lot more bands working together, particularly the smaller bands. I don’t know why some smaller bands have said, ‘You know what, rather than us going down the road with 20 costumes or 30 costumes or whatever, let’s all do an overall theme. We will still have our trucks on the road but we will be together on the road. We will each have a section of the overriding theme. There are bands with 10 people, 30 people, and 100 people. There is such a massive jump in the quality of bands and costumes these days, sometimes I don’t even know what I am looking at on the route.
The top 5, 6 even 7 bands are doing a lot at the moment. And I think the reason that they are doing a lot are they inviting others to work with them. Chocolate Nation has 6 or 7 sections within the band. They are all separate entities but they are consistent with what they are doing. I noticed Release D Riddim bought into that whole philosophy as well in that they have their own section but there are four other people that have their own section and they are taking care of production and they are probably noticing that production and distribution is much smoother. Even this year, I have decided to open doors even I don’t like to do that because of such bad experiences in the past with private sections. But I have had to if I want to expand and reach my goal of 1000 masqueraders on the road. Is that your goal? That’s my goal.
What are your numbers so far? This year could be looking close to it. Maybe 900, depending as we two new sections coming with us this year and between them, they are bringing about 250 people. Last year we had 700.
Those numbers oo not scare you? It does and it doesn’t. As well as costumes. Logistics is my thing. When it comes to trucks, drinks, I can do that. You don’t to have the problems in the band that so and so has let me down. We do have those issues. We had one year, half of our food turned up. We had a new supplier. I had to run to go to three Caribbean stores on the route to buy meals for people to eat because it is either you serve the food you have and people do not get and you apologize and you do what the hell you can to make sure that people can eat. And people did not know that happened. We were the only band in Notting Hill who had our alcohol confiscated from us one year. I feel that a lot of the issues happening in Notting Hill. We have had so much random things happen to us. Literally these are things beyond our control. And there are a few masqueraders who will look at you sideways but most masqueraders realize that this is not our fault. Even when the alcohol got taken. We got the alcohol back, the council apologized to us. It was a misunderstanding. But they didn’t give us anything formal we could post up. Our way of dealing with that was that if they played with us again, we gave them a discount that discounted the alcohol they didn’t get the year before. Plus once we got the alcohol back, we cleared out the mas camp and had a big party. So they had half their money back plus a huge party. Half the band turned up to drunk the rest of the drink. You have to roll with the punches and plan for eventualities.
Planning for eventualities, is that down to your experience or just major planning? Sometimes it is down to experience, sometimes you have to think what implications of the service are. For example, we had toilets on the road for the first time. You have to think are what are the implications of having a toilet? Where will it go? What if it leaks? All those things you have to think of all the different angles of what might go wrong.
You probably are one of the very few designers who give more thought to the male masquerader and costume. Why do you think that is? I think it is down to two things. It stems from Trinidad and my experiences of it. One they have come to the conclusion that men do not want elaborate costumes. I don’t know where they got that from but they have this conclusion. Yes there are guys that are totally happy to just wear branded board shorts. But there are men who want full male frontline with back pack and everything. But to have that decision made for you that the band won’t cater for all is band suicide. But then, realistically when I look at is that guys in the band probably consume more of the products in the band. For example, alcohol, most guys will drink more of so they probably weighing their costs. I think I have attracted an audience who don’t just want a basic costume. I do have some guys who want simpler costumes which we happily produce for them. But in a band I think there should be something for everybody, every demographic style, the whole shebang. Even the body wear options. There are guys who want speedos. There are guys who wear a thong. There will wear full board shorts. You just have to have the options for your target audience.
What do you make of Notting Hill carnival right now? Right now, well based on this years’ experience under a new entity, sort of trying to do something new and properly. I think it is a step in the new direction but it still isn’t going as fast as it should be. There are some simple things, historically we had in place from 20 years ago. The carnival was in a lot better place than it is right now. Because we had the support, the funding, we had the corporate sponsorship, the way the judging point was set up. We had the Gala the week before to judge the kings and queens. All of these things are not happening anymore have made other things not happen anymore. For example every band used to have a king and queen, a junior king and queen. But now there is competition, friendly rivalry. People wanted to get the 1st place trophy, but none of that takes place anymore. There have been improvements but not enough.
If you were in charge of carnival, what would be the three things that you implement? Well one, barriers would be used on the route properly. I’d would say from Ladbroke grove to judging point. Two, the judging point is so lacklustre. I don’t even want to stop my band at judging point. I feel like there is so much space for potential but they are not taping into it. Third, I would say media, the way media covers us but also the people who represent us in that media light. It’s almost a tug of war battle happening at the moment. I don’t think the people who are in control and represent us as a carnival, I don’t think they are professional enough to be talking in the spotlight.
Are you happy with the way things are at the moment? Do you have any regrets? I think the regrets I have are little mistakes that have turned into big mistakes and massive headaches. The biggest regret I have had is allowing certain brands/duo from Trinidad to get involved in the band. It was the same year when we did our theme instincts and they totally annihilated the brand by not supplying costumes as they should be. The costumes which came from Trinidad, they were absolutely disgusting, the finished product. Everything was shoved into a box. When it turned up, ‘I thought they cannot be the costumes’; unfinished costumes, stones because everything had fallen off. I had to spend so much money and time fixing it. There were people who did not want to play in that section anymore and we ended up losing our reputation and funds as well. Then they turned around and said ‘Where’s our balance?’ I said ‘what balance?’ At the moment, you owe me money for the amount of money I have spent trying to fix those costumes.
You and social media. Yup. I knew this was gonna come up [laughter]. When I said I am going to speak to Paul to some people they said ‘Oh my God, Paul. Him and social media. He is so rude’. But is it being rude or me saying what I feel? Just because I am Paul and I own UCOM and I am a designer, does that therefore mean I can’t say anything at all? It shouldn’t stop anyone from saying what they feel. Like I said I buy costumes, I don’t ask anyone for a complimentary to go to an event. So why is it one rule for everyone else and another for me? I feel like I am always put under a microscope, always watched. What’s Paul going to say next? It has resulted in me getting rid of Instagram. It was not adding value. And I have my personal Facebook. And mu personal Facebook, I haven’t said anything there that is not pertaining to a launch or event. People judge you by what you say on social media rather than getting to know you. Prime Example Kane from amorous, the first time he came was this summer to buy materials and stuff and he only knew me by what he saw on Facebook and Instagram and when he started to interact with me, he realised hang on ‘this guy is not what everyone make some out to be and what I see on Facebook’. It’s just a rant just a status. He said that ‘Whatever people were saying about you is bullshit. If people took the time out to get to know you as a person, they would realise that you are not what they see on social media. You are much deeper, you are much nicer than I thought you’d be. Cause even he thought I’d be horrible and rude. If they see me out, they would generally know Paul is the one who drinks, who dances, who does whatever on the floor and who goes home. Sometimes I may say things that people might not like to see but at the end of the day if I see something I don’t like or I see something that is wrong, then I will say. If you want to agree, agree. If you don’t don’t. My thing is, people sit there and they are watching everything I am saying and say ‘oh he is rude, he is this, he is that. They why are you following me? Clearly there is something about me that you are still following me.
What’s next for you? [Laughter] Retirement? Well I think I have been toying with where I go next. In terms of design, I think I am getting to the point where I am at the peak of my design career. The only thing that will do it is if I have a really ground breaking theme where everything goes haywire and I have to step up again. I think my next steps which I am doing at the moment is mentoring, teaching, workshops, consultation. There are about 4-5 young designers who I am working with at the moment. The shop is another thing which is taking a lot of my time at the moment.
Do you think it will enjoy it as much? The mentoring and the shop? I enjoy the mentoring. I am a firm believer in passing down skills cause I don’t know what is going to happen to me tomorrow and there would be someone to carry the baton.
And thinking about that, if something did happen to you or you just said ‘I’m done’, would UCOM be able to carry on without you? I think two or three there would be two or three people who would be able to step up in my shoes. Alfred from Alfredo designs. He has been with since 2003, 2004? He’s learnt and inhaled everything I have thrown at him. Renata from Leeds who I am nurturing. He male costumes are just as good as mine. There is Loik from Guadeloupe so there are people here and people who I am teaching with the premise they can hold the baton.
What can we expect from your launch? Colour. This year is colour turned up. A spectrum of colours.
Having a conversation with Paul O’Donoghue was full of surprises. I wasn’t expecting such honesty and transparency. His depth and breadth of knowledge about carnival was also surprising (although I don’t know why it should be a surprise as he has been in the business for so long). There is something about his leadership that makes people want to stay or return to his band. He has a production team, some of which have stayed with him since inception and this has ensured quality of product and signature style. He also has masqueraders, some of which have remained with him since the band was called Bacchanal Mas. For me this says a lot about their confidence in him, his costumes, service and their comfort in the band. He is passing on his knowledge, skills and experience to the next generation of designers ensuring the art of costume making and carnival continues. His impact on Notting Hill Carnival should never be underestimated. Paul and his band UCOM launches for Notting Hill Carnival 2019 today. I can’t wait to see what this season brings.
For more information of Paul O’Donoghue and UCOM, please visit www.unitedcoloursofmas.com ucomcarnival on instagram and facebook.