Those who have ever met Anaïck Calif know this. This thirty-year-old native of Guadeloupe is a volcano that nothing can stop. It was late in her life that Anaïck decided to give up everything to pursue a childhood dream – to become a fashion designer. A reconversion that led her to question the barriers we put up for ourselves as well as the mental burden of success in Caribbean culture. Portrait.
«My favourite anecdote comes from my childhood. My mother was a devout churchgoer and we used to go to mass every Sunday. I didn’t go anywhere without my markers and coloured pencils. I was only five years old, so that was the best way to keep me still. So during mass, I would quietly colour in the little booklets and imagine clothes for the different characters. I knew right away that this is what I wanted to do. »
Some would argue that our passions are innate and childhood a revealer. Anaïck, as many artists would say, has always known what drives her – fashion, designing collections, catwalks, creativity and the versatility of the industry fascinate her.
Where others would mention Dior or Chanel as their first inspiration without batting an eyelid – you have to show your credentials in an environment bordering on claustrophobia – Anaïck likes to bring things as close to home as possible.
“Of course Dior, Chanel and haute couture make people dream, and yes, it can be very beautiful. This type of handwork is difficult to find nowadays, but what is haute couture, really? When I see how Jean-Marc Benoît’s sublimates straw in his work, or Daniel Garriga who mixes and harmonises improbable colours, the fluidity of Andrea Iyamah’s pieces or Stella Jean’s work with patterns… for me it’s the same. We have to stop idolising the ‘classics’ blindly.”
Beyond idolatry, it is the decolonization of our aesthetics that is at stake. To whom and to what do we grant the status of ‘haute couture’? Who are the guarantors and, above all, who are the gatekeepers? These are questions that many designers of colour face every day – especially women designers. Anaïck, who has been working in the field for a few years, is no stranger to this either.
“In my last job I know that was a problem. Fashion is a small world, very competitive with a majority of women, but it’s the designers who get the best of it. When you’re a black woman, you’re already standing out and if you express your displeasure, you’re immediately labelled an angry black woman.”
So she decided to take matters into her own hands and set up her own brand after a complicated professional experience and a deep introspection that will allow her to realise how far she had come and the extent of the know-how she gained over the years.
Anaick Calif: for the love of fashion
« I realised that the only thing holding me back was my lack of confidence. I have an atypical background and my last professional adventure was mentally difficult, even if it resulted in a very nice collection. But if I can give 100% to someone else’s vision, why not to my own? »
Uncertainty can be a real poison for the mind, but Anaïck refuses to let herself become her own worst enemy.
«Regularly I tell myself that there are more useful jobs out there and this is just one more brand in a sea of designers that seems to be getting bigger every day. But on the other hand, it reminds me that this is really what I love, that I bring my touch, my personality. It’s a challenge for me to see a project through from start to finish, beyond the need to know if customers will buy my designs or not… and if that can motivate some to make that leap of faith, that’s fine by me! »
“Getting things done.” If there is one message her creations seek to convey, it is this. To do things, against all odds – and especially against oneself, as an encouragement to others and to herself to not give up.
“My designs are functional and versatile. I want people to feel comfortable. The fashion industry is the most polluting and it’s a real emergency, so I also go for minimalism. In reality, you don’t need a thousand clothes if you have designs that fit all situations. This is my way of contributing to the fight against climate change.”
In a world where trends come and go at the pace of Instagram or TikTok algorithms, creative muses can quickly become elusive and original ideas much, much more rare. A phenomenon that does not worry Anaïck too much. For her, inspiration is all around us if we know how to see it.
“I made peace with the idea that one can’t be inspired at all times. When I was younger, my creativity was difficult to channel, but when you get into the business, you have to content with the fact that reality is quite different. Exhibitions, concerts, books… I love it. I put art into my life whenever I can. But what moves me the most is landscapes… probably because of my passion for travelling. It’s quite complicated at the moment, but even a weekend away from the city can be enough. A little discovery, a hidden, bucolic spot and here we go again. »
Of course, like those she admires, Anaïck is determined to integrate elements of Creole culture into her creations – an act of activism, almost -, that she considers indispensable.
“Our identities are rich, and I think we are not aware of this enough. For me, it’s a way of keeping our culture alive, making it timeless. My ultimate dream is to see my clients wearing my creations, which all have a bit of Caribbean flavour, whether they are aware of it or not… that they wear this culture and that it speaks to the world!”
Changing careers: an act of faith
For our interview, Anaïck took the time to reflect on the creations that have made her most proud. Two of them immediately come to mind, undoubtedly because they were decisive turning points at a time when she was still confirming her choice.
Indeed, Anaïck, who has always had an artistic streak, excelled in her Humanities studies with a Plastic Arts minor. But under pressure from her parents – not to mention the prohibitive prices of fashion schools – she opted for something that seemed more substantial to them before landing in film school anyway. As a prop maker and production manager, she conquered her world. It only lasted for a while. The call of fashion became too strong, and she couldn’t help but return to her first love.
“The first one was as part of my Bac Pro Fashion Professions. It was an internship project, a mix of trends I had spotted and something that was on my mind. Basically, it’s a kind of loose-fitting overalls that can be worn on its own or with a t-shirt to keep it simple. And my mother loved it, although I never thought she would. I won a prize for this design – which I went to collect wearing my outfit of course (laughs)… which won me my very first customer! The second is a trenchcoat made from sailcloth that one of my acquaintances liked so much that they asked me to create a line of unconventional wedding clothes.”
A seminal moment that encouraged the young designer on a path she had long looked at from afar with eyes full of stars.
It all started when Anaïck went to New Zealand. With a bag on her back, she set off to discover the kiwi island – alone. But more than the island, she set out to find herself. In an unknown land, it is always easier to allow yourself to be who you are freely, far from the perhaps disapproving looks of those who think they know you.
“I weighed the pros and cons and realised that I didn’t want to waste time anymore.”
So she started in the film industry, a field she already knew well. On the side, she took classes at a fashion school and landed a role as an assistant costume designer. This was an enriching experience that allowed her to learn on the job. Shortly afterwards she became a stylist for a costume shop.
«It was really good. I learned a lot, especially about historical costumes. My client base was made up of the all New Zealander cinema. When it was time to go home, there was no way I was going to do anything else, so I went back to school to get some serious training.»
Anaïck spent the next two years retraining, but also creating and making clothes, the starting point of a path that she knows will be long when one lacks the means and the right contacts.
“They often ask for ten years of experience in addition to a background in the field. So I said to myself that I would create my own experience by setting up my own business from the start. It is this experience that gives me confidence in the future. I did it myself.”
Questioning success, removing obstacles
Freshly graduated, the creator takes on projects of all kinds – it’s all about gaining competences while making a name for herself. Now based in Montreal, Anaïck has no regrets. She believes that her late transition to a new career has allowed her to start with an experience and a maturity that her twenties would not have allowed for… which does not keep her from examining critically the factors that delayed this choice of career.
“We have too few successful role models who break out of the box we are limited to, especially in the Caribbean. Choosing the arts, or any other creative career for that matter is seen as irresponsible, a whim. You have to do well, go to college, come back with at least a master’s degree, and then fit in with the rest of the world – metro, work, sleep… minus the metro and adding the traffic jams. What light are we really shedding on our designers?”
But that is not all. According to her, the family constraints are just as rigid. In Caribbean homes, you must be serious to ensure a solid future, and many parents try to nip in the bud any artistic aspirations that are supposed to remain in the realm of leisure. Pursuing one’s dreams is a radical act of courage. It is to go against a society that strives to remodel us into good little value-adding members of society.
“Our parents want us to do well. Of course, they care and wish us the best possible future given who we are, where we come from, our history… But often it’s at the expense of our deeper natures. To say that fashion is not a real job, that it’s not what you’re meant to do… is wrong and it takes away our ability to choose. I always knew I would work in fashion; I just didn’t know when.”
It is also an element of concern for those who would like to pursue a career home like Anaïck. While more and more young people are taking the decision to return to the motherland, she questions the many Instagram accounts that glamorise a reality that is known to be much more complex.
The gaze cast on the one who returns home can be heavy as if in search of an alteration caught like a disease over the years spent outside of the island. But it is also the gaze of the one who returns that changes – the gaze on oneself, on the other and on an island that has perhaps not evolved as much as hoped.
“Having experienced this several times, it is a culture shock to return. I too wanted to contribute to this myth that we have to build up our island as a sacrosanct duty for which we would have a sort of collective responsibility, and I literally banged into a wall. My accent, my way of thinking – it was quickly made clear to me that it would not pass… especially when you try to change things. Resistance is a protective reflex that represses those who would not readjust to the local ways.»
A legitimate concern that Anaïck tries to alleviate by reading all the content posted online by young Caribbean folks who have begun their transition or those encouraging exiles to take the plunge. However, if starting her own business in Canada was obvious, maintaining her operations with an international focus from Guadeloupe seems more complicated.
“It’s a real question that keeps nagging at me. Of course, I want to settle in Guadeloupe – it’s my home. But I’m also afraid that it will limit me, even though I recognise that the technological context is different. Things that were not possible even five or ten years ago are possible today.”
So many sociological and psychological barriers must be broken down before success can be expected. A reflection which has led Anaïck to review her own definition of what success means.
“For a long time, I had the impression that you had to be recognised abroad or in France to be recognised by your own people. But after years of wandering and travelling, it seems less important to me. I decided to free myself from the gaze of others and do what makes me happy – for me and never mind the recognition. For me, success means being able to take time for myself to recharge my batteries. It’s not even a debate anymore. It’s a must.”
After two hours of discussion, the chatter finally stops. Anaïck has to go look for fabric for a client’s project – a dress. With a smile on her lips, she explains.
“I like to conceptualise, to start with an inspirational image and to see a piece take shape. These are my favourite moments.”
As she gets ready, Anaïck has a glint in her eye. The volcano has awakened.