Keisha Als growing into new spaces
Born on the calypso island of Trinidad and Tobago, 34-year-old Keisha Als takes every opportunity presented to her as a fundamental motivational factor, constantly curating her legacy within her career. A stickler for the clichéd ‘everything happens for a reason’ life quote, the costume designer uses this mantra to ease into a state of acceptance in uncomfortable situations, as she expresses that a ‘trust in a higher power’ flows out of the philosophy.
An always-determined worker, Keisha explained her favourite childhood memory of being allowed to play ‘dress up’, and enjoying the quintessential mix of play and cartoon; steadily developed into her passion. At 18, after her first two years of playing mas in Trinidad, Keisha developed the urge to design despite not having an artistic background. “The joy I got at the time, being a new reveler, inspired my impulse to enter the carnival industry, spending the next few years, arduously volunteering at mas camps”, she stated. This later added to her knowledge of the business of carnival, which assisted in the general networking.
“Growing up, I wanted to be everything, from a stockbroker to a lawyer. It really depended on how cool it sounded to me at the time. In my later teens, I was very attracted to the world of marketing and mass communications. The desire to enter the creative industry only surfaced around age 19 and has never shifted since”, shared Keisha. At 20, she spent time working at a Trinidadian mas camp where she met two seasoned designers – Crystal Aming Marcus and Sandra Hordatt – who both openly guided and encouraged her to pursue designing. “I vividly remember steaming peacock feathers and asking Crystal if she thought I should try designing. She encouraged me – to her, a young stranger – to go for it,’’ she reminisced.
Already established in her island home, the designer sets goals and objectives as she spreads her wings in other countries, making her mark. Her introduction as a designer into the Jamaican carnival market began in 2012. Keisha remarked that “the relationship with the Dream team was a natural progression into the Xodus family, not to mention my association with YUMA – the Trinidadian affiliate Xodus band”. She described the new position as an Xodus designer and marketer as an ‘organic, enterprising’ moment, celebrating nine consecutive years as a designer in 2020.
Harmony in the Wind
Partnering with Jamaica’s largest carnival band, Keisha debuted her creation, SiaLia – Harmony in the Wind. Both partners decided to introduce the individual costume, designed specifically for stage, as an option for masqueraders after observing crowd reaction for the stage version. The SiaLia section now offers three versions, ranging from the more affordable Monday Wear to the elaborate individual option.
“The Xodus 2020 theme, Enchanted, inspired me to search for an ethereal concept. SiaLia represents the magical bird that exists in the enchanted realm. The actual costume feathers are primarily shades of blue, and the scientific name for a bluebird is SiaLia, hence the section title,” she explained.
Ecstatically being a part of the ever-growing carnival diaspora, island hoppers and enthusiasts, multitasking has become a way of life for the designer. “I have a very active lifestyle and busy schedule so I genuinely enjoy spending time at home in bed or in true tropics style at the beach.” However, the challenges to balance with intent and execution have definitely been a learning curve. Setbacks are a mainstay occurrence in the ever-chaotic world of carnival. Experiences with design, production, suppliers and customers over the years have all assisted in sifting through the problems that come with such a dynamic environment.
“In my career history, each time I’ve been denied access to a particular opportunity, I devise a new strategy to grow. It was because of a door to my face (figuratively speaking) that Monday Wear was born for me. I use that as a reminder to persevere,” Als expressed.
“Carnivals throughout the region are growing exponentially and, subsequently, the demands on designers. Staying ahead of the curve, in my opinion, means constantly assessing your aesthetic, your fan base, and the general response to your product. Shift where and when it’s necessary, while welcoming challenges as one grows into new spaces.”