What do you get when you combine 100 yards of fabric, 10,000 sequins, pounds of glue and metal and mounds of feathers? No, not a Vegas show. Think closer to home. Give up? It’s the annual, highly extravagant creations of Ralph Taylor for the Caribbean International Festival parade, which will travel down Jefferson Avenue this Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m.
For more than 30 years, Taylor has created elaborate costumes and floats for Caribbean festivals around the world, picking up awards along the way. His Detroit-based company, Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions, has exported costumes to New York, Chicago, Trinidad, the Virgin Islands and Toronto.
The 63-year-old has been a mainstay in Detroit’s Caribbean parade since its inception in 1975. Other groups make outfits for the event, but Taylor’s are in a league of their own. At once practical and fantastic, his costumes blend the skill of an adept metalsmith with a unique flair for color, fabric and shape.
Detroit’s festival aims to teach children about their Caribbean heritage. “Many kids … they are so enmeshed in the American culture that they don’t realize they have two cultures,” says Mavis Spencer, president of the Caribbean Cultural and Carnival Organization, the group that plans the Detroit parade and weeklong festival events. Spencer says she expects thousands of people to attend.
In metro Detroit, there are more than 70,000 people of Jamaican heritage, to say nothing of people originally from Haiti, Barbados and beyond.
This year’s theme is “fantasy Indians” (Native Americans are an integral part of Trinidad’s history). Music will be provided by Emotion, from Haiti, and Barrington Levy, from Jamaica. There will also be a Friday night beauty pageant for girls ages 14-21 of Caribbean heritage. And, of course, the festival will sell lots of ethnic food.
Taylor’s work is a big draw — crowds can’t help but notice his immense, over-the-top creations.
But you’d never guess the type of work he was producing, judging from the outside of his workshop. Situated on Lafayette just west of Indian Village, his dour, gray warehouse sits across the street from a grassy lot and looks more like a forgotten building than a whimsical haven. Inside, a hallway with vaulted ceilings leads to two intricately carved wooden doors guarding the building’s prize: a magical den of arts and crafts, crammed with more feathers than a flock of geese.
To illustrate this year’s theme Taylor is making fancy headdresses and copper armor. In his warehouse studio, color explodes from every direction: fire red and deep blue, purple and green, yellow and gold. Some costumes are so large that they will eventually be attached to floats and worn by stationary models. His “wings of beauty,” for instance, have a 40-foot wingspan. Taylor welded the flexible frames for the wings using aluminum tubing and fiberglass rods. He then covered the metal rods with fabric and more than 1,500 sequins.
Taylor estimates that each costume takes 16 to 24 hours to make — some individual pieces take as long as six months to complete. For this reason, he doesn’t go it alone. Neighborhood volunteers lend plenty of help, stretching the fabrics and tacking on decorations during the weeks before the festival.
On a sunny afternoon, Julian Theriot, 11, and Ramil Collier, 12, quietly prepare headdresses in Taylor’s studio. They’ve been working since 9 a.m. and won’t return home until after 4 p.m. They say they like the work.
“They’re going to be dressed as Indian warriors,” says Taylor of the preteens.
His other costumes will be worn by local sponsors, who pay up to $1,000 a pop for the honor. It costs Taylor between $200 and $2,500 to build each ensemble. A mini grant from Detroit’s Cultural Affairs Department helps to defray his costs.
In 1968, Taylor moved to the Virgin Islands, where he worked as an instrument fitter; shortly after, he moved to the Bahamas and, finally, to Detroit. To Taylor, going to Carnival in his native country was a major childhood event.
“Carnival was like baseball to me,” says Taylor. But instead of home runs, Taylor’s fascination lay in the elaborate hand-made costumes of the masqueraders. He was especially fond of the costumes worn by his uncle, a machinist who dressed as a military officer.
“He would actually make his own medals and stuff for his jackets,” said Taylor, “and I would always marvel how he could take a piece of brass and cut out a star.”
Historians believe the tradition of Caribbean Carnival festivals began in Trinidad around 1785 when French colonists put on elaborate balls before Lent. African slaves would hold their own event, incorporating rituals and folklore. When slavery was abolished in 1838, the freed Africans brought the tradition of Carnival onto the streets. The festival expanded and diversified over the years as the island’s immigrants added their own distinct touch.
When he’s not working on costumes, Taylor teaches manufacturing at a public vocational school and builds displays for venues like Cranbrook, the DIA, the Renaissance Center and Cobo Hall.
He is also developing a musical extravaganza, much like The Lion King. “I’ve been toiling with it for the past three years,” said Taylor. “There’s gonna be a story based on a young boy coming to America and pursuing his design efforts.”
The autobiographical plot will be set to the music of steel drums, another of Taylor’s hobbies. He teaches music lessons at the back of his workshop.
For someone so busy, Taylor doesn’t shirk from his responsibility of giving Detroit a parade to remember.
“I enjoy doing the costumes and I look forward to doing it every year,” he says. “It means a lot to me. That’s the culture that I came from.”Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org