Turning The Page: Peter Elias PivotsSunday, January 31, 2021
I want to say that I look forward to growing exponentially, because it's the ideal thing to say, but truthfully, I want us all to survive, to do more for others, and to truly believe that if you do the right thing and stay the right way, that good will eventually happen.”
— Peter Elias
There's no doubt that COVID-19 has altered our daily routines and the way that we collectively share in our diverse Caribbean living. From the way we socialise at large-event gatherings to the intimacy of spending time with family, routine grocery store visits to the grandeur of wedding celebrations, the pandemic has brought into laser-sharp focus a multitude of considerations that, in ostensibly sheepish hindsight, we have often taken for granted before 2020. At the epicentre of human expression, there is fashion — ardently described by the iconic Miuccia Prada as “what you wear (…) how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.”
With the billion-dollar global fashion industry grinding to an unceremonious halt because of the pandemic, “pivoting” strategies have been the dialectal order of the day as a means of survival for many professionals. On the Caribbean fashion scene, designers have been thrust into “fight or flight” syndrome — forcing them to revisit every aspect of their retail trade to take a deeper look at the way we treat with business. For Caribbean style and beauty arbiter Peter Elias, this has meant sweeping changes to his legacy business during challenging economic times, including the closure of one of his signature locations, consolidation of three other outlets into one at the west end of the island, and the opening of a capacious, brand-new boutique in Long Circular, Trinidad.
Fashion has seemingly become an intangible extension of Elias's very being over the years, channelled through his work as a designer, retailer, stylist, former pageant franchise holder, and philanthropist.
“When I started in this business over 30 years ago, there was a Jamaican gentleman by the name of Sam Mahfood that I met when I came back from university, after having travelled through Europe for two or three months,” Elias reminisced about his fateful dinner conversation with the mogul businessman, who had been a long-time family friend. When the young and eager Elias expressed an intention to return to Europe to build his fashion career, Mahfood strongly advised him to reconsider his focus. “He said to me, 'We're a part of the Caribbean: A new body, a new world, where we can make a difference. You can actually contribute in a meaningful way.' After that conversation that night, I decided that I wanted to stay here,” Elias said.
Fashion has, in its most authentic appreciation, helped Elias to find a bridge between cultural identities, acknowledging his Lebanese heritage and his Trinbagonian essence. It's an awareness and responsibility that distinctly carries over to the way he does business to this day — a trait that he is very proud of and one he is well known for in the region.
“COVID-19 has really made me look at clothing and style as a metamorphosis. I'm still dealing with product as a necessity function, but at the same time it's made me refocus. Some things that I thought were meaningful have given way to a new direction, a new purpose for me. It's made me reconsider the value that I bring to the Caribbean human experience,” he explained.
With this renewed sense of consciousness for the fashion aficionado in the last year, the new Peter Elias boutique — a spacious location conveniently situated on the ground floor of the bustling Long Circular Mall in St James — has become a symbol of blending his viable business' adaptability and vision to cater to multiple target markets, while remaining representative of prioritising the evolution of his truest purpose as a celebrated Caribbean ambassador. From the eclectic range of music played in the boutique to create a unique vibe, to the warmth of the customer experience for womenswear and menswear courtesy of his floor representatives, Elias is focused on keeping the community connected through fashion and creativity with a global emphasis by keeping his pricing competitive in a local market rife with options — including the advent of social media retail options. Ultimately, he believes that this is part of an ongoing journey to rediscovering the good in his life's work. “I'm a survivor like many others have shown themselves to be, and what this time of uncertainty and loss has taught and reminded me is that goodness to people and helping people feel better about themselves is much more important than this context of success that we all hold onto in one way or the other,” he reflected.
Having witnessed significant changes in his 33-year career lifetime — with a career start in textile and fabric importation for some of the region's most iconic fashion designers such as Heather Jones and Claudia Pegus — a major part of 'finding the good' for Elias has been uncompromisingly recognising product quality while contributing meaningfully to this broader idea of community in his immediate fashion environment that spans a global network. Elias noted that a part of the challenge occupying the retail space has been simply making fashion make sense — and cents — to the consumer. “In attending trade shows overseas, I would see that everything that I had envisaged was already being done on a certain level and at a certain standard. So that soul-searching really made me consider ready-made products as an option in serving new and existing customers, in addition to creating my own line,” he explained. Bridging that gap, therefore, became of paramount importance for Elias as he sought to meet the needs of a variety of customers who were also re-evaluating the way that they see and experience fashion.
No stranger to finding new ways to elevate the quality of his core brand beliefs, Elias expertly stepped up to the style plate during the pandemic to find ways to add value to his consumer experience. Exceptional customer service remains a signature of the Peter Elias experience, but that merely scratches the surface of his intentions. Behind the scenes, he has been excitedly working on creating a new fabric that combines two existing materials: cupro — made of regenerated cellulose fibres from recycled cotton linter that makes the fabric breathable and drapes similar to silk — and viscose — a type of rayon originally known as 'artificial silk' that is considerably versatile, boasts impressive colour retention, prioritises comfort in tropical climates and is considerably inexpensive. “70% is cupro and 30% is viscose, and when you feel it, it feels like pure silk and it's still machine-washable. One of my international producers and I have been working on some tie-dye samples, digitising it – so it's been tapping more into that idea of community and building each other up with our talents, recognising those skills in your network and finding the joy in those moments of innovation while bringing value to the people I serve at home,” he explained. With production nearing completion, plans are underway for Elias to release this new fashion offering in early 2021 — with other plans in the pipeline to be revealed later this year.
During this season of transformation, Peter Elias has acknowledged that living in the gap of unknown retail territories brought on by COVID-19 has been uncomfortable and unfamiliar to some degree. Nevertheless, the quietness has allowed for the emergence of an opportunity to make space for this husband and father of two daughters to do more for a legacy filled with purpose and promise. Relying heavily on his faith, he has seen these quiet and tumultuous moments of reasoning and reckoning as an opportunity to better audit the way that we live purposefully and to bring even more structure and functionality to his operations for himself and his team of dedicated, accommodating and specially-trained employees — all of whom he has thankfully been able to retain throughout the global crisis. “With everything that has been going on, I feel as if the world is smaller, and the way that we care for others and that sense of community among us is bigger,” he noted.
It's an existential reality that continues to weigh heavily on Elias's mind as he presses forward into the new normal in the fashion retail industry — the definition for which is unquestioningly ever-evolving. “When we have another conversation in five years, I'm excited to see where everybody is — not just the creatives and the fashion designers, but the entire Caribbean ecosystem. I want to say that I look forward to growing exponentially, because it's the ideal thing to say, but truthfully, I want us all to survive, to do more for others, and to truly believe that if you do the right thing and stay the right way, that good will eventually happen.”
— Tenille Clarke
Tenille Clarke is an avid storyteller, seasoned publicist and cultural enthusiast who often writes about her ongoing love affair with travel, entertainment and culture through a Caribbean lens. Follow her digital journey @tenilleclarke1 on Instagram and Twitter.
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