Clary Salandy, a founder of the Mahogany group on why the glorious costumes of Notting Hill Carnival are about so much more than feathers and sequins
There are so many things we associate with Notting Hill Carnival – the jerk chicken, the steel pans, the Red Stripe – but it’s the costumes that steal the show each year: those extravagant headdresses that rival peacock tails; the fluorescent wings of material that catch the sunlight.
And as Clary Salandy juggles the costume contents of a trolley in one hand, keys with the other, manages to answer a work phone call, and points me towards her design station teeming with Carnival creations, it’s clear to me that this Carnival costume designer is a vibrant personality, a natural for the job.
However, as she takes a seat to begin our chat and dabs away the fatigue from her brow, I am made aware of how behind-the-scenes operations are far less glam and far more grit than we’d like to think. Exhausted as she might seem during our conversation, her passion shines through. ‘The Notting Hill Carnival is the most important thing that we do. It’s the biggest showcase of our design ability,’ she affirms. ‘People wearing a little feather and bra doesn’t represent the meaning of the first sets of carnivals… when we wear a costume it symbolises; like a poppy commemorates [servicemen and women who have died in war], a costume commemorates for us in the Caribbean, all those slaves that died. All of us have family who were a part of that. It’s important to me that I respect and honour the history because I wouldn’t be here in Britain if they didn’t fight to be free.’
To Clary, and so many others, Notting Hill Carnival is much more than a bank holiday celebration. ‘When we go onto the street we’re doing the same thing that Martin Luther King did. It’s a march. That’s why the street is so important. It’s a symbol of that ability to walk on the street, the end of the laws forbidding it.’
The designer’s long love affair with Carnival began when she was only three: as a costumed toddler she won a prize during a festival in her native Trinidad. Her parents often encouraged her to visit Mas camps and see the hard work that went into bringing Carnival into fruition. ‘My dad would take us backstage and you could see the costumes being put together,’ she says. ‘When you were little, something only a metre wide looked like it was 10 feet long. I have good memories of seeing these big, beautifully-made sculptures that are very inspiring. It was the best era of Carnival in Trinidad – the 60s into the 70s.’ She later came to London to go to art school where her peers believed her outgoing personality would be perfect for a career in theatre. ‘And so costume design was a natural thing,’ she explains. During college, Clary had her first brush with the Notting Hill Carnival ‘in ’85 or ’86 I think. I helped make costumes. But back then a band had only 30 costumes!’ she laughs, while shaking her head in disbelief. ‘When you see Mahogany on the street, we take up the same length as 500 people would. But we have an impact that is so visual.’
As the costumes Clary creates are used for events outside of Notting Hill Carnival, the theme has to be relevant all year round. ‘Recently a really great friend of the Carnival community, Geraldine Connor, died. So we did the theme that was called ‘Let the Music Play’ as she was a great musician,’ she says. She has many favourite memories of the Notting Hill Carnival. One was an important lesson in costuming. ‘In 1989, we were working for a small band, and we just won everything. We walked across the judging point at dusk. And at that moment, all of the colours just changed because of the UV we used. The costumes transformed.’ She taps the glowing orange snout of a lion headdress, saying almost to herself, ‘I’ve never stopped using fluorescent colours since.’
Before I go, I ask Clary what theme she has in store for Carnival spectators this year. She smiles and says, ‘we’re calling it “Imagine This”. Imagine that the world was able to do this. Imagine that man was able to do this. It’s an open theme that allows us to go anywhere we want to, and still be current. And that’s another thing about Carnival! You need to imagine it.’
Clary Salandy is the founder of Mahogany carnival group and is Artistic Director of the UK Centre for Carnival Arts, find out more at carnivalarts.org.uk
Words: Maryam Rasheed