Yello Interviews: Karen De Freitas, Owner of SVG Fashion Label ‘Soka’
by Karen Rollins Feb 5, 2024
Vincentian creative Karen De Freitas was academic and probably could have chosen any career, but she always wanted to work in fashion.
Her innate talent for art and design drove her to pursue further schooling in New York and after interning at some of the world’s leading fashion houses, like Zac Posen and Yigal Azrouël, she decided to rebrand her own ‘Soka’ label in 2015 and has been designing consistently ever since.
Now, Karen is also teaching in St Vincent while concurrently working on fashion collections that reflect her Caribbean ancestry and her fascination with regional and African history.
Yello chatted with Karen about her ‘Soka’ brand and life as a fashion designer.
Describe yourself using a few words.
A problem solver, secretly funny, and kind.
Please tell us a bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Kingstown in a single mother home. I was very academically focused because my grandfather was a principal. A lot of people in my family are very academic so accountants or business owners but there are a few creatives on my father’s side.
Were you always a creative person?
Yes, I was interested in art and was always sketching. I actually got in trouble in high school and was sent to the principal for always drawing in class. But I realise now that I might have undiagnosed ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) because drawing is the only way I can focus.
I loved science as well and was good at it. I also loved languages and history, but I just was always determined to be a designer.
What was your initial career path?
I did art at ‘A’ level and taught myself a lot as well to build my own portfolio. I then became a fine artist for a while, and I also did some visual art and interior decorating. Then in 2010 I moved to New York to attend Parsons School for Design (in Greenwich Village).
What was it like studying in New York?
I really did a lot of interning in New York so that I could network with creatives and because I was nice, I was recommended for quite a few stylist jobs for magazines and music videos, but I didn’t really have a social life because I was either at school, interning, or working on my brand.
Tell us more about your brand ‘Soka’ and how it has evolved.
I started working as a fashion designer under the name Soka in 2008. It stands for ‘So Karen’ but I was also a diehard fan of Soca music at the time, so I thought the name was a good representation of my work, as well as my culture. I took Soka to Bermuda Fashion Festival twice and the Collection MoDA in Jamaica.
In 2009, I also developed my own fashion show for up-and-coming designers because I found that the established shows focused on the big names and there wasn’t really a space for people who are new.
When I was in New York I relaunched the brand to introduce myself to the New York market in 2015 and I did Miami Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week, and the Bahamas Fashion Week.
What were the biggest challenges you faced getting ‘Soka’ started and now keeping it up and running?
There is not much of a fashion industry in the Caribbean and most fashion designers have to work completely independently. There are some islands that are better in terms of production, like Trinidad, where there is such a strong carnival presence so there are some factories, but for the rest of the islands that is not there. So, I really do every aspect of the business by myself.
I also have the typical business owner issues like lack of investment and capital. The banking system in the Caribbean is a headache on its own but the attitude to creatives could be better because we’re treated like we’re not academically smart when most of the designers I know are great problem solvers.
Another problem is people not understanding the cost involved in being a designer, so they expect me to compete with fast fashion brands like Shein or Fashion Nova. I have to explain that I am designer and have a different creative process. They even expect me to have the same delivery times as Amazon!
Please describe your design aesthetic and where you get your inspiration.
I studied African Fashion History, and it made me realise the strong links between the way we dress in the Caribbean and Africa.
I looked at a lot of work by a designer called Ozwald Boateng, he designs under the term ‘Africanism’ which led me to the concept of ‘Caribbeanism’. What does that entail and stand for? So, exploring that involves a lot of research and studying vintage Caribbean images from Martinique and Trinidad along with paintings by Trinidadian artist Boscoe Holder.
My past collections have been on Dancehall Queens in the early 1990s and the Haitian Revolution in 1804. I also worked on a collection in 2022 called ‘Fanm Kreyol’. I also have a t-shirt line designed with Caribbean sayings and idioms with a focus on the Garifuna language.
Tell us more about the design process from concept to creation.
It involves a lot of research, so I look through a lot of images, and I’m always reading. I also look at Pinterest.
I will pick a scene that I like and then I will work on some sketching and draping before doing the prototyping and pattern making. Then I will start picking fabrics and building the collection. Sometimes my designs have to be compromised depending on what I can find in stores. I might have a look in mind but then I can’t find the fabric.
Once the pieces are made, I’ll arrange a photoshoot and upload the images to my website and social media.
Who is your typical client?
My biggest market are people in the diaspora with Caribbean or African heritage. I think people recognise me more outside the Caribbean because of the language I speak through my designs.
And you teach now as well, so how do you manage that alongside designing?
There is no balance, I wish there was! I’m still trying to figure out how to move out of teaching and more into creative work full-time.
How do you plan to develop your brand over the next 12-18 months?
I’m launching a new collection in collaboration with a Nigerian artist and a local macrame artist and I want to get that into some retail spaces in St Vincent, New York, and Trinidad. I am also trying to get Soka online so people can order directly through my website.
My business is also a social enterprise with some of the sales going towards art or sewing supplies for adopted classrooms, although so far, I have only been able to donate to the school that I work in.
I have also developed workshops to train other female entrepreneurs in budgeting and wellness practices and we’ve worked with teenage girls too, so part of the business is about giving back to the community.
What do you love about St Vincent and the Grenadines?
I love Bequia. It feels different on that island. I feel calm and rested whenever I go there. I try to go there every three months or so.
What advice would you give budding Caribbean fashion designers?
My best advice is to be kind. Most of my opportunities came about because I am nice to people, so I was always being referred.
Get educated, know your craft, try to be the best in your field but you should also network because a lot of the times it all comes down to who you know. Also, don’t always focus on networking up, but network across as well.
If you could go back and talk to your teenage self, what would you say?
Don’t focus on school. If I hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t have student loans and would’ve focused more on my career and interning.
Also, be friends with the people around you.
Check out Karen’s fashion collections on the official Soka website.