Conversations. Social Media. Assumptions. Paul O’Donoghue. If you listen to some conversations and look at social media, you will have a few assumptions of the man Paul O’Donoghue. Whether you want to accept it or not, whether you want to believe it or not, Paul O’Donoghue of United Colors of Mas was instrumental in changing and progressing the face of costume design and distribution in London and for Notting Hill Carnival. This interview has been a long time coming. Sit back, lie back, relax. Get comfy whilst you get to know the sometimes controversial Paul O’Donoghue.
How did you get involved in carnival? The involved part took place when I was 8 or 9 years old. I used to go to a play scheme which was very close to the Yaa centre. At the time it was called The Factory. There were interactions between the play scheme that I went to and Yaa. I actually went there to do drama and steel pan. I was interested in learning to play pan. Upon entering the building I saw that they were making costumes. It stopped me in my tracks and I was like ‘Carnival, should I go to steel pan or should I help out with this?’ Cutting a long story short, I got more involved in the costume side of what they were doing rather than steel pan and drama. I ended up participating in carnival the following year. That started off my carnival obsession. Then when I got to like 12, 13 you get to that body changing, hormones, I stopped participating. I attended carnival both days but I did not participate at all. But during this time, I was getting into the outset of designing. I spent a lot of time at home, sketching costumes, designing costumes; random things that came to my head.
Then I was 16 or 17 when I sent just some of my random sketches to Flamboyant Mas Band in West London. I posted it under their door with my name and number. They contacted me really quickly and asked me to see them which I did. They asked me if I wanted to be an apprentice as I had potential with my drawings. And before I knew it, I designed my first band at 17 years old which was pretty crazy.
It took a lot of courage for you to just post your designs under the door… The thing is I’d never really showed it to many people. Just a couple of people. I just said ‘You know what, let me just do it’ and it was weird as I had low confidence back then. So it was a big thing. I designed a large piece which was featured at the Gala at the Olympia in 1991 for the competition that used to take place the Saturday before Carnival. I designed a male individual, wore it and placed 3rd at my first go. And I was like ‘Wow’ Cause back then I went against some of the big bands at the time. That was the biggest achievement for me and the fact that I wore the costume, it really put me on a different platform.
How did you move from Flamboyant to having your own band? It happened quickly as I only stayed with Flamboyant for one year producing for the band. The second year I just designed for them. I was on the transition of departing as it was a family run band and it was hard to co-exist there as I was seen as an outsider. It was not as easy as working with a band which was committee run. My next port of call was Masquerade 2000 (M2K). I sent them designs and pictures of stuff that I have done and a guy called Lincoln reached out to me pretty quickly. But the problem was that I lived in West London and they were based in Leytonstone East London which I don’t know why but back in the day felt like it was a million miles away. This was in 1998. He took me on straight away. I was there for 9-10 years trying to progress the band. It was a committee run band, decisions has to be passed from me to them. They would have a meeting about it and then they would come back to you to say yeas or no. It was a very long tiring process. They were working towards becoming a charity but they were still publically funded and had a constitution.
During the time at M2K, I started to go to Trinidad carnival and saw how things were run there, the style of costumes and straight away I knew what I wanted to bring back to the UK and inject into Masquerade 2000. That was 2003 2004 times. They looked at me sideways when I was saying ‘You know, we can offer some younger options for people.’ At the time, we had tons of children in the band, tons of mature people in the band. But we didn’t have the 21 year olds to the 35 year olds. And I thought we need to go down this route. Gradually, they let me put my influence on things. They said, ‘Start off with one or two sections’. Before I knew it one or two sections became the whole band. Then I brought over things like frontline options, midline and section individuals and stuff like that. That was the first time anything like that was done in the UK. Before, you would have a section costume and a structural costume that would lead each section. So to have options was new. The only stumbling block with M2K was that they did not want to progress as fast as I wanted to. I wanted to take it into the whole premise of customer service, you know people are still spending their money. Because the band was publically funded, the costumes were partially subsidised by the band so they kept the costumes at a low price. But the way I saw it was people are still paying money so it should be more customer focused. We introduced the whole distribution as I saw it in Trinidad.
Then in 2007, things took a really bad turn with the band. There were people on the committee that I could not function with. I felt that I was partially financially supporting the band. Simple things like putting a microwave, putting food in the mas camp. I am bringing things from my home now because people are refusing to put them in. And I thought to myself ‘Why am I killing myself for a band that does not appreciate what I am doing?’ I was sacrificing my day job. I would have to take two months unpaid before carnival to produce. I thought to myself ‘This is pointless’. At that time, I had a good production team, I had a good set of people around me who were on the same page and I thought ‘I think we should leave, try and see if we could do our own band’. And my partner at the time said ‘You know what I have been telling you this for ages. Just go and do our own thing. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But I think we should try it’. And that is how Bacchanal Mas was born.
How difficult was it for you to make that transition from M2K to Bacchanal Mas? Extremely difficult. The first thing is that it takes over your home. When you are first starting you have resources and funds but you don’t have enough to rent a space outside your home. I was fortunate enough to have a spare room so that was used. And it was a massive money pit. I think the first two to three years of having the band, I didn’t even want to look at my bank account. It was nonexistent. What I was earning from work was going into the band and what I was earning from the band was going into the band. As we were trying to give the all-inclusive experience, nice costumes and everything the price difference between the two bands were only £40-50. When you took in all the factors, it wasn’t making any money at all. We knew what we had to do but you couldn’t take that jump slapping £100 on a costume cause people will look at you sideways. The be all and end all was that you just had to digest all the costs and wait for things to start to turn. Did you know that they would start to turn? I kind of did but in the process of turning, you have to step everything up.
I played with your band in 2009 and I still have the costume and the headpiece all intact. You have probably one of the best production teams in London. How is your production so tight? I think realistically it is me. I look at it from a masquerader’s perspective. I go and pay for costumes in other people’s band. I will pay to play. I don’t go around asking can I get a complimentary because I am so and so from London. I don’t do that stuff. I know when I go to a distribution centre and I see things falling apart, people haven’t got what they paid for, a section leader hasn’t given them what they want, I don’t want to be the person on that side receiving that costume but I also don’t want to be person on the other side of the table telling people that they don’t have their costume. I’m probably the most finicky person when it comes to quality and time. I hate time being wasted. If a month has gone by and I haven’t done anything in the mas camp yet then I’m like ‘Shit, I gotta go do this’. I just have to get it done. Because consciously, in my head, I know I am in the vibe now but I know if I haven’t done such and such by a certain month, then that is going to have a knock on effect on the months following it. There have been many times when things have been made and I have looked at them and said this is not right, it’s not good enough. We might even have to strip down the whole lot. Have you done that before? Yes, even this year, I came back from holiday and bits had been done and I kinda flipped. Not flipped at the person, just frustrated that things have gone so badly wrong that I picked up the whole pile and lopped them down the stairs. You couldn’t even strip these, they had to be done again.
So by now your team must be used to your standard? They are but sometimes they think that if they do it quickly, it will impress me. But I don’t want it done quickly. I want it done right. If it takes you an extra two hours then take an extra two hours. Cause if you do it wrong for example what I threw down the stairs, it will take me an extra five hours to do everything all over again plus redecorate it. Because I think that they may not be capable or confident of doing it then, I would do it myself. I can’t let a product go out with crooked stones. I don’t want a stone out of place, glue string all over it. It has to be spot on.
How big a team have you got? Have you got original members? There are core members of 10 people have either been around from day 1 or within the first few years of the band starting up. There a lot of new members. But generally they have stuck around. I don’t think they will go anywhere else cause they know what they are getting here. The team is not massive like some people think. Maximum, we will have 15 people working in the camp during the summer peak period and during our regular time, there will only be about 3-4 people working. Because of the way that we work, you’d be amazed at the amount of stuff that we can do in a week.
How do you know who to trust to work with you Paul? You just don’t. The hard thing about it is when they don’t come with good intentions. And you discover that they don’t come in with good intentions. You just think to yourself well ‘How do you spot this earlier?’ You just have to allow it to happen and see what their intentions are. Sometimes you can see with their behaviour and their demeanour and how they interact with people. We have had people in the camp who have come in and cause mayhem. They are not with the band anymore. There was a girl who used to be part of our band donkeys ago that came back and I thought she had changed and everything was cool and she’s messed up everything and I thought ‘She’s the same girl’. We do want to have the tradition of having a mass camp open all year round, people can come in, see the head piece up close, chat to a couple of people. The positives do outweigh the negative. People have made friends, relationships, got married because of this band. So I have to look at the success and stories.
If I had to ask you what your signature style is. What would that be? My signature style is a masquerader’s fantasy. I have kinda tuned in to what people want at the moment. I know there are things like tiara, collar pieces. I have to think that ok if I don’t offer that, people won’t wear it. But I need to still stay true to the masqueraders that like the headpieces and like the big back pack. So I think just staying true to what your masqueraders want and also what you want whilst getting what they want. Because sometimes they might think they are getting for example a typical collar, but when you actually look at it, it is not and you will see that when the launch happens. I had up with another idea for the collar cause you can’t keep coming up with the two shoulder thing. You have to keep injecting something new into it.
What is your target audience? My target audience are masqueraders who have the funds to pay for the costumes [laughter] first and foremost. Our costumes are not cheap. We do put our prices which are not proportionate to the product we are offering and the services that come with it. We are probably one of the very few bands in London that offer a two day experience. Sunday is included with Monday. With other bands, Sunday is £50.00. So some people will look at our prices and they will think ‘I can’t pay that for a costume’. Our target audience… definitely people who are not shy to wear our costumes, flamboyant costumes on the road, the male masqueraders. You know, we go for the gay community, the people who are going to buy flamboyant costumes. Our frontlines pretty much go to the gay community as they like flamboyant costumes. They’re happy. But we still have to cater for the guys who may lean on the wall for most of the day tapping their foot. And also we have to think about masqueraders who are 18, 30. We have masqueraders who are 60 plus. They like a solid costume.
How do you keep the freshness? Materials. Having good relations with your Chinese suppliers is 101. If you don’t, let’s put it this way. I also own a shop. I see a lot of designers who come into the shop to buy materials and I have always said to them, ‘Look why don’t you sit down with me in the quiet times and design your trims. Tell me exactly what stones you want’. Don’t come and say ‘Oh do you have a red stone, do you have a blue stone.’ That shouldn’t be how costumes are done. Yes you have materials that are transitional. You will always mix them with stuff. But if you are doing fresh custom designs every year, if the service is there why are you not taking advantage of it? What will happen is if you are buying the same stones that everyone is buying, then everyone’s costumes will look very similar. The choices of materials from China changes every season but people don’t take advantage of it. And because I know and see it all the time, I take full advantage of them and buy from every conceivable place. And sometimes if I like a trim but don’t like how it is positioned, I will chop it up and add pieces to it to make it my own.
You produce for a lot of different bands in London. Not anymore. I stopped. You stopped? Why? I stopped because it was getting ridiculous and as I said I have a small team. I don’t have enough people to sustain how many bands want me to design. I think for this year, I must have turned away about 5-6 bands. I told them the most I can do is design for you and someone else can produce it. I have had to limit it. I am doing my band, I am doing Berlin and did the designs for Caribbean Sessions. That’s it. The days of me sleeping in mas camp, getting one hour of sleep every day during August, I can’t do it anymore. I was making myself ill. As much as I wanted my costumes to be in certain bands, it was getting ridiculous. The other thing is, doing five bands in London and seeing the rankings, me coming 1st, 2nd 3rd, I am just competing against myself. It shouldn’t be like this. There should be people who want to, not just want to design but want to learn how to design properly and I think that is one of the biggest things. People are not taking the time to learn how to design, how costumes are put together. I was fortunate as back in the day, I learnt how to wire bend I learnt how to sew, I learnt how to construct massive costumes, and I learnt metal work, welding. I had to learn every single aspect of the costume so I know how to make a costume from scratch.
Do new designers get that you have to learn that or do they think it is a relatively easy process? I don’t think they do because they haven’t seen it. And I think one of the biggest movements for the worst that took place in the UK was as opposed to mas camps staying open, mas camps are closing. There is no mas camp environment anymore. You just don’t have that culture where you have all the tools and you might go ‘Oh I want to learn how to use a sewing machine, I want to learn how to use this today.’ Most people are working from their houses or temporarily rent a unit for a month and that’s it. It’s kind of sad cause I remember when I started, every single mas band had a mas camp. There was always that environment.
Are you happy being known as the gay band?? Find out how Paul responds in part two tomorrow.