Village Dispatch With Karen

One day while out buying ice-cream for my nephews, I came upon a cute, eclectic store. It was the sign that caught my attention first - a minimalist, monochromatic rendering of the word "Akimbo". Apart from the crisp design, I was taken with the word itself. It is a word that's so widely used in the Caribbean, capturing a quintessential pose of AfroCaribbean women - that growing up I came to view it as more West Indian than British. So curiosity piqued, I glanced into the boutique. Displayed was a thoughtfully curated selection of goods. I was eager to return (when not on an ice-cream run) to enjoy a more thorough look. 

 I had yearned to see such spaces in my town instead of always having to go to the Port of Spain perimeter for them. As a shopper and someone dreaming of establishing my own entrepreneurial projects in parts of T&T beyond the West, the existence of Akimbo aroused hope that there was a market for aesthetically pleasing, artsy businesses in Arima and elsewhere. Months later, I returned but couldn't locate the space. I was crestfallen. 

Fortunately, I eventually found the elusive Akimbo again via Instagram and  I felt keen on sharing the boutique on the AM blog.  All of the merchandise that Karen carries at Akimbo is made by Caribbean designers and artisans. On top of this, the ambiance is airy and inviting. It's a concept store in the best sense of the term. It's somewhere that slow fashion and visual art have pride of place. It's somewhere that musical artistes are welcomed to share their sound with a receptive community through intimate events. I want others to know about Akimbo because the store is adding value to the Trinbagonian retail environment and to T&T's oldest borough. 

Without much planning, Karen and I met at Akimbo's new location to chat. She shared her journey in setting up the boutique, her favorite Trini communities and some of the things that feed her soul.

AM: For starters, where were you born and raised? 
Karen: I'm from New York, Brooklyn, as most Caribbean people (in the US) are. I am the first born American in my family. My whole family is Jamaican.  I was born and raised in Brooklyn when it was Brooklyn, not the fake Brooklyn with all the white people walking around with their dogs. I don't know what that is but I'm from the real Brooklyn.

AM: What led you to the fashion industry?
I was from a single parent household and my mother would always try to keep me busy while she was working. So she put me in piano lessons, dance, art classes etc. I don't think she did it to necessarily build an all rounded person but I ended up falling in love with it all anyway.  I attended  an alternative high school where they let you just be. I was exposed to so much creativity and freedom of expression there. I had a great art teacher, a funky white lady a bit before her time. She told me "Karen, I think you have what it takes. You should try art school." I ended up going to the Fashion Institute of New York to study Fashion Design and Pattern Making. It was fabulous but it was one of the most challenging things in my life. I cried my entire time there. It wasn't meant to be competitive but you really were competing. My mother was like "Oh! You wanted to go to Design School when I told you to go to Nursing School! Well, go and design!" That was it. I couldn't  quit.

 I made it out and graduated in Pattern Making but I didn't have the discipline to be a pattern maker or designer. Fortunately, for me but not for other people, around that time in the fashion industry they started to outsource everything. It (the NY garment district) ended up becoming a ghost town. I began working at one of the most reputable  advertising agencies in NY as an admin/executive assistant. My boss would say "can you bring this upstairs to Accounts or Graphics and I would beam "Okay!!". I said to myself "I love this. I don't know what this is but I love it." It was Advertising, Marketing and PR. An opening came in Media Planning and I went upstairs. I decided to go back to FIT to obtain a degree in Marketing and Communication.

AM: How did you end up living in Trinidad & Tobago?
Karen: My friend told me to come down to T&T for Carnival. She said "It will be fun and oh, btw, there's this really cute guy I want you to meet." My response was "does he have high cheekbones, pouty lips and is very dark?" She said "Karen he looks exactly look like that!"  That was that. I came, met him. I came to just have fun but he turned out to be a really cool, deep, really serious, spiritual man (laughs as she pretends to say this in her husband's voice). Twenty-six years and two kids later....

 Omg! Are you serious?! (I stare at the photo she has pulled out of her husband who still matches the description so exactly it's incredible.

 AM:Talking about manifesting your desires, what inspired you to create Akimbo?
Karen:I was still pining away for art, fashion, socializing and all these things. Out of the blue, a good friend asked  me if I could do anything in life what would it be? I replied that I would love to have a business where people could  shop, sip wine and where there would be art and music. I thought about it and decided that I would call it "Akimbo". I was remembering two things. Being from Jamaican parentage, when a girl would put her hands on her hips, her parents would scold her for being rude or fresh or acting womanish but they would say "kimbo" instead of akimbo. So yeah and they would slap your hands down. That was the birth of Akimbo.

AM: Same here in T&T! I wonder if that's an African thing.

Karen: I also thought of how when fashion designers walk down a runway at the end of a show, they often walk with their hands akimbo. So, that's how the name came about. We opened in November of 2015 on Queen Street (in Arima). We started off really small, with things on consignment. It was pleasant surprise that designers were very open to that and honored. We started off with those pieces, Caribbean lifestyle products and there was also an art exhibit.

AM: Why did you choose to be located in Arima?
Karen: When I initially came to T&T my first home was Morvant (Laventille). My husband is from Morvant. When I went there I just loved it. I still do. Anyhow, even though I was around Morvant and Port of Spain, I had a friend who was from Arima and he explained the history of Arima to me, the indigenous history here with the Caribs etc. Additionally, I thought it was fascinating how he could point out various random people and be able to identify their families. There was this close knit vibe here.

Arima also reminded me so much of Brooklyn. For one, the way people would sit outside and watch the children play. Plus, people from Arima have a style that reminds me of Brooklynites. They dress down but they have their own flair. What's nice about their style is that it's effortless. Furthermore, I didn't like the exclusivity in Port of Spain (and its suburbs). I didn't like all the isms, the have's/have not's, cliques, elitism in the Port of Spain scene. Mind you, those things serve their purpose (in the fashion, creative business arena) but I like being able to zip in and zip out of it. I'm not judging it or people there but I just can't be in it all the time.

AM: Can you name 2 local creatives whose work excites you?
Karen: Robert Young, artistic director/designer behind The Cloth and visual artist Tyrel De Biques.

AM: Where do you go in Trinidad and Tobago when you need some of Mother Nature's  therapy?
Karen: Well fortunately, I live on an island where I am surrounded by trees, hills, valleys, rivers & ocean. They provide me with therapy daily, even just by looking out my window.

AM: What else do you tap into to care for yourself? 
Karen: I meditate. I am hoping to master Transcendental Meditation. 

AM: What do you visualise for Akimbo going forward?
Karen: I believe in it not due to stubbornness or pride but because I see it so clearly especially when I notice other concept stores like it popping up. I don't see them as a threat, I feel like "Yes! Something is coming". I just have to have patience and perseverance because it is really tough. 

But yes, it's  exciting  that there's an entrepreneurial burst happening. We have to stray away from oil and gas. We have such a strong creative industry. It's going to take a while for the politicians and the government to support it as they should but that's alright. When they're ready, we are here. It has to start. Even though I'm not a born Trini, I'm an African woman of Caribbean heritage. We are all one family. And they told me once you are with a Trini man...You fill in the blanks. (We both laugh)

AM: Well, Karen, we embrace you and we are cheering for Akimbo! 

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