Coffee Break Chat: Antiguan Fashion Designer Daniel Shem Henry, Henre Designs
by Karen Rollins May 20, 2019
Antiguan fashion designer Daniel Shem Henry is a man on a mission.
He started his label ‘Henre Designs’ at the age of 19 and opened his own studio by 21. He now has ambitious plans to open stores in some of the major fashionable cities in the world, including London.
But Daniel’s journey has not been easy.
Concerns about stigma and ridicule meant that he initially kept his passion for design and fashion hidden and decided to pursue a career in the sciences instead. But after a period of “feeling lost”, Daniel knew that a creative career was his destiny.
Yello spoke to Daniel about his life as a young entrepreneur in Antigua and his plans for ‘Henre Designs’.
Tell us about your childhood in Antigua.
I had an interesting childhood. I was raised in a fashion-forward household and, from a young age, I played a lot with fabric and liked putting looks together.
I’m the eldest of five children and I had to help my siblings get dressed and I used to create looks for them for church, school, functions and parties. At that time, I wasn’t aware that I was creating fashion, in fact, it was more of a chore.
But my parents really nurtured my creativity and they always gave me the opportunity to be creative with tasks like doing interior decorating for the house, decorating the Christmas tree, or creatively directing our family portraits.
I was always high spirited and loved the performing arts. I sang and danced at church and was theatrically inclined. My childhood made it easy for me to push my creativity to another level.
I wouldn’t say I was a typical child because I knew a lot and was different to children my age. I was smart and excelled at school. But my childhood made it easy for me to go over into the fashion industry.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I always wanted to be an inspiration and an individual that people could look up to and see as a positive example.
I stumbled on being an entrepreneur, although I’ve welcomed it with open arms, and I’m very happy with my decision to go into fashion designing full time.
How did your label Henre Designs start?
It started off as a partnership. I was working with a young lady who was very good at sketching and I was the creative force.
In a way I hid behind her for about a year because I was afraid of the stigma and ridicule of being in the fashion industry. After that first year, I realised that we were becoming a name and I started to take it seriously.
Unfortunately, the young lady bailed on me, but that made me step up and research how to manage a business. I went online and got familiar with brands, learned about business strategy and creating a business platform.
I had to really ask myself ‘where do you want to go?’ before putting anything out into the public and I had to find myself. Once I found myself, everything just fell into place. My family pitched in, friends became clients, and it evolved.
I can remember the first piece I sewed. It was nothing special just a black pencil skirt for work, but it was just that support from a friend of mine who trusted me to create it.
Then I entered a few competitions and won them all because I was different. I had a viewpoint that was different to all the designers that I was competing against.
People started coming to me, so I needed to learn how to be an entrepreneur.
Then my parents gave me a piece of land and I started to work on creating a fashion hub. I was 19 when I started Henre Designs and within two years I was able to open a physical studio.
What was the biggest challenge you faced setting up Henre Designs?
The biggest challenge was finding myself. I was very lost because I was studying the sciences, but I was doing what society expected of me. I did excel at school, and I was expected to do well at exams and then university and continue in the science field.
I knew that I wanted to work with the creative arts, but I had no sense of direction and I didn’t have anyone to guide, inspire or motivate me. I had my family for support, but they weren’t in the creative field, so I wasn’t comfortable with myself or the direction my life was going in.
I think society has indoctrinated us to only think about traditional careers like being a doctor, lawyer or teacher so it was a challenge to push myself in another direction. I wasn’t ridiculed personally, but I was afraid of it.
In the end I distanced myself from the negativity and focused on becoming successful even though I didn’t have any formal training. I bought my first sewing machine by saving up my lunch money and then I would go on YouTube and watch videos and just cut up my mum’s curtains and bedsheets to make clothes. I’d also cut up two shirts and stitch them together.
I had to fight to get to where I am now and follow my instincts and natural creativity. I’m proud to say that Henre Designs is now a fashion house which is run by a group of young people, mainly men, who are interested in fashion.
Explain more about the idea behind your fashion house.
The idea was to have a space where young, creative minds could come together and receive nurturing and support. There aren’t many places where we can learn about fashion and fashion designing on the island, so we had to create our own space.
There are no fashion schools or courses on offer in Antigua and most people can’t afford to go abroad to study so we had to start something on our own.
Most of the designers were also scared because they’re not necessarily academic but they are more tradespeople, so they didn’t want to go back to school, and this gives them an alternative.
Who are your clients and how do they find you?
Every year we put on a fashion show where we debut our clothes and we have different capsules within that event for the seasons.
We also have a charity event called ‘beauty with a purpose’. This involves going into schools and running workshops where we can show young people that fashion can be a career.
Another charity aspect we have is called ‘Madame Henre’. This is where we go into the schools and we find young ladies who can’t afford to go to prom, and we do a make-over for them. It’s an entire transformation and we supply a luxury vehicle, designer dress and pay for everything.
We’ve become a household name in Antigua, people know about us, and the brand. We’ve made ourselves present in Antigua, now we’re working with various local businesses on advertisements, and the business has grown.
We’re still trying to maintain an exclusive fashion brand though and we have a limited client list that you can only join through registering every year.
We have ready-to-wear clothes, but we also have custom wear, which is only for clients who register.
What’s the process if you register and want something made?
After registering the next step is coming in for a consultation where we sit with the client and work out which direction you want to go in.
We’ll advise on an appropriate style that goes with your height, body type, complexion and what might work for the event and the season. During that time, we might also choose fabrics from swatches or what the client has brought with them.
After that process the garment will go into production. We offer unlimited fittings throughout so that we can ensure the garment looks just right and the client can mention any concerns.
Once the garment is ready the client signs a release form where they state that they are happy with everything. Then we do a full-dress rehearsal with shoes and jewellery before the final release.
The client plays a vital role in the creative process and we pay attention to every detail so that they’re completely happy.
Who are the fashion designers you admire?
Locally, I would say Demarley Davis. He’s one of our young designers and he has been an inspiration especially in terms of his work ethic and approach to the industry.
Regionally, I look up to Kimya Glasgow from St Vincent and the Grenadines and Kimon Baptiste-Rose who is also from St Vincent.
Kristen Frazer from the British Virgin Islands is my number one. The first time we met was like fire! And then there is Ecliff Elie from Trinidad.
Internationally, I like Balmain, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Alexander McQueen. I came across Alexander McQueen at a young age and I knew I wanted to create pieces like he was making.
What kind of designs do you like to make?
At Henre Designs I’m the couture dress maker. Demarley does a lot of the tailored pieces for men. Then our assistant does the details like beading.
Our aesthetic is urban, but it has a sense of chic and elegance. It’s classic and draws a lot on French fashion, architecture and culture but with a Caribbean flavour.
I’m a proud island boy, and we are a proud Antiguan brand, although we are trying to appeal to everybody and want to push the barriers.
Where do you hope Henre Designs will be in five years?
We plan to have stores in London, Rome, and the United States. We’re aiming to go global and take this little small island brand to the international market.
We already have clients in the US and other parts of the Caribbean and I really see us becoming a global brand. I’m driven to the point where I will make it happen.
We also want to expand the fashion house. We’re making the space bigger and we want even more people with creative minds to come and join us.
I’m proud of what we’ve achieved so far, how we’ve evolved, and especially the support we get from Antiguans.
What advice would you give other young Caribbean fashion designers?
Just dive right in and swim!
If you dive in and you can’t swim, then when you hit the bottom, start to walk.
There’s no particular way to begin a fashion career but you must believe in yourself and be confident in your brand. It’s easier said than done, but what worked for me when I didn’t have a direction, was just getting started.
Find your voice, who you are, and then everything else will unfold.