In 2019 when the Jamaica Observer featured Leightonette Thomas, a Montego Bay-based fashion designer, who had started a business called UL Couture, she was enjoying a breakout year as a fledgling professional in her field, building an ever-increasing client base, popularising her work through Instagram and overcoming the challenges of the market by negotiating discounts from suppliers and buying fabric in bulk to reduce costs.
The headline of the Observer article was 'Designing a future in fashion'. But what nobody could see at the time was that six months into that future, Jamaica would be locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the almost four years that followed, which brought a global health crisis followed by an unpredictable Montego Bay fashion market, Thomas would have to leverage the same determination and adaptability that had brought her success, just to keep her business alive.
"I am grateful to still be in operation," Thomas said. "UL Couture survived COVID and I am still in business."
Just before the onset of the pandemic, the entrepreneur, had moved from her home-based, one-woman operation to a shop in the downtown section of the city where she hired two people to assist her.
"I moved to the town and word of mouth was getting out," she related. "I get a lot of walk-ins. I get designers popping up to buy fabric which I sell now."
Those advantages were not always there to be enjoyed during the worst periods of the COVID, and Thomas revealed that during the early stages of the pandemic she was living off her savings as she had closed down completely.
"I wasn't taking any work," she said. "Then they introduced the mask business but it wouldn't really work for me but I did a few of them. And I ended up giving away most of them."
Fast forward to the reopening of the economy as the health crisis subsided and the fashion designer realised she now faced a challenging clientèle with limited budgets.
"They are not paying as much to do the designs I would like to push forward," she lamented. "So it kind of hinders you as a designer to put out what you want rather than just taking the work because we have to pay the bills."
She explained that prior to the pandemic she could get up to $40,000.00 for a dress. Now, her clients "will literally want to go for a $20,000.00 dress" instead.
Her business has always relied on party-goers seeking high-end outfits for popular events. But the post-COVID environment has brought unpredictable shifts in the usually stable event calendar.
"Normally we have our seasons," the fashion designer explained. "So in January it is extremely slow. Then it will pick up for the Easter weekend then you'll get like a pause, then like for June you will get the weddings and July the summer activities. And then a pause for the back -to-school because we don't do school uniforms and in October it will be the Heroes' weekend."
"The party business was really seasonal and reliable," she continued. "So we were looking forward to most big events like Dream Weekend. I would normally be setting up for Dream Weekend now. I haven't had any clients for Dream Weekend as yet. Most people are not buying ahead of time. They are mostly cramming into a one week space to get out a really sophisticated design."
But Thomas has met these challenges with a mindset of adaptability.
"Most times, for example, we do bikinis but most clients are going in for wire bra designs, now," she said. "It wasn't really my thing but it comes down to getting with whatever they want."
She has even taken it a step further and is selling the frames for wire bra designs to other designers.
Thomas is not hesitant about branching into other such business activities to supplement her income and she has been buying fabric and trimmings, selling them to other designers for the past few years.
"It's not a big business because to buy in bulk and the cost to bring them in is ridiculous," she stated.
Another strategy that she is considering is the rental of outfits.
"Most people are just watching the dollar," she said. "They don't want to spend, especially returning customers. They have the dress they wore last year in the closet and it is like they're scared to buy another one so that's why I wanted to do the rentals."
"It is a strategy that is widespread overseas but the other side of it, as you know, is that people may run off with your expensive goods," she added. "That's really scary and that's why I haven't really started it yet."
But this is the kind of exploration of new ideas and strategies on which Thomas will have to rely as the Montego Bay fashion market continues to experience significant shifts in a post-COVID environment.
The young entrepreneur also disclosed that local designers are now facing greater competition from Chinese websites that sell cheaper, imitation designs.
"Well, customers get an imitation for cheaper," she said. "Or they get a bikini for five dollars which we cannot sell for five dollars in no way at all."
The promoters and marketing companies who use UL Couture to provide uniforms for their models are also cagey about the market.
"Instead of coming to me three weeks ahead of an event, they are coming like two or three days ahead," Thomas disclosed. "They don't want to spend the money and they don't get a good turnout so everybody is gauging the market if I can put it that way. So most things are just last minute."
From designing a future four years ago to negotiating the present, today, the fashion designer remains determined, optimistic and passionate about her calling.
"There is always a challenge but I am still happy about designing," she asserts. "This is the thing that I have always wanted to do from I was young, so I think that is the reason why I am still enduring and going through with this. I am just trying to find new ways to make money as long as it still surrounds the fashion business."