Having designs on the carnival scene
Colita Cook-Shillingford’s go-to look is all black, her hair in a bun.
The colourful designs she debuted at the Nova Mas International launch seemed a little out of character — to people who didn’t know her that well.
“Anyone who knew me from high school or knew my grandmother, Sylvia Joseph, or my mother, Beverley Joseph Zuill, who were both seamstresses, would say I was now following in their footsteps; others who don’t know my history had no idea.
“I wear black every day, I keep things simple. My everyday attire is boring and drab, but it’s down to years of looking after other people.”
For nearly 20 years she’s focused on her two sons rather than herself, however there was a time when fashion was her drive.
“I’m a former Miss Bermuda ‘92, so I like the pageantry,” she said. “It’s always been a thing for me. In high school, I used to make my own clothes for grub days [and other events].”
Due to leave the island to study merchandising and design, a summer job at a clothing boutique gave her pause.
The business was small and she was exposed to every part of it.
“I got to see the buying process, the number of customers coming in; I got to see it’s a struggle.”
She was wondering how she would translate her studies into a viable career when a customer offered her a job in insurance.
“My parents were always very supportive. They always said, ‘Whatever makes you happy.’ It wasn’t pushed to me that I had to go to college.
“So, I thought about fashion merchandising; that it was not a practical career choice for Bermuda.”
Ms Cook-Shillingford got her start at Colonial Insurance; she’s been with American International Group for the past 20 years.
Everything changed in 2018 when friends convinced her to join them at a Bermuda Carnival launch.
“There was this energy, this vibe from everyone in the room,” she said. “I felt it and wanted to be a part of it.”
That determined, she considered the skimpy costumes on offer and decided she needed something she felt comfortable wearing.
“I loved the costume, but didn’t want all my bits hanging out,” she said.
She designed a belt “with a lot of draped fringe”, which gave her the coverage she wanted.
While doing research on where to get the material from and how to bring it here, Ms Cook-Shillingford learnt about a workshop Nova Mas was holding as part of the Bermuda Cultural Apprenticeship Programme.
“My boys are now 17 and 15. My priority hasn’t been me for a while; it fit right in with what I was looking for,” the 48-year-old said. “I did the workshop thinking next year when I do carnival I’ll have more ideas for me.
“It wasn’t a dream of mine to design carnival costumes. I was interested to learn what goes into it and to make my own costume better, more suitable for me.”
Despite that, when Daryl Cox announced a competition open to everyone who’d attended the workshop he’d led under the auspices of Nova Mas International and the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, she entered her design in it.
Ms Cook-Shillingford and Barbie Paynter took top honours in the Carnival Costume Design Challenge.
As a result, they were given the opportunity to design costumes for Nova Mas members to wear this year.
While Ms Paynter’s ultimate plan is to design for carnivals around the world, Ms Cook-Shillingford is “not there yet”.
“Barbie and I, what we hoped to get out of doing the workshop and our overall aspirations were totally different coming into it,” she said. “For me it was about having fun, learning something new. As long as it remains fun, I will do it.”
In the meantime, she believes she has “so much more to learn”.
“I have a sewing background, but I want to be able to create the whole thing myself — from start to finish.
“For me it’s all a learning experience. Not having that knowledge won’t stop me from designing, but my goal is to learn more.
“Even my designs this year, when I saw them on live models, watching the way they moved about the stage, I thought there were some things I would change.
“Come Carnival, I’ll be looking at [my design] from a different perspective. I don’t just want it to look pretty.
“For me it’s how practical it is on the road — does it allow people the freedom of movement to play mas?
“I’ve got some ideas already for next year and have started putting them down on paper even though I’m still not done with this year.”
•Follow Colita Cook-Shillingford’s designs on Instagram: allurebycolita
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