Born in Trinidad, Clifford Smith Jr. has been a carnival costume designer and master cable bender for over 60 years. However, he felt that the skill is becoming a dying art form, as the younger generation has no interest in carrying on the tradition of wire bending.
This reporter met Smith at the Mango Tree Production mas camp on Parkside Avenue in Brooklyn, a day before the Labor Day carnival. He was putting the finishing touches on costumes for the in-person walk on Eastern Parkway, which returned after a two-year hiatus in hopes of winning another title for his exquisite designs.
The crafty designer, wearing a measuring tape around his neck, patiently cuts, glues and assembles costumes on pieces of wire which he bends to make the creation, which he designs from A to Z in about two weeks.
He brushed adhesive to secure the design fabric to the metal mold, then decorated it with beads, sequins and rhinestones to complete the design, bringing head-to-toe pieces to life, many of which are embellished. of feathers in a barrage of colors.
Smith has remained focused on his design concept, which sometimes keeps him in camp for more than 14 hours a day. He joined the design business because at the time artists and benders made the most money at a carnival costume camp in Trinidad and Tobago.
It was obvious that Smith, who was born in the capital of Port-of-Spain with a talent for bending, and started working at 15, took the job seriously in a country where carnival has become a marvel of the world, attracting thousands of masquerades every year.
He got his big design gig working with the hugely popular Merry Makers Steel Orchestra, a group that helped develop his skills and allowed him to travel throughout the region designing costumes in St. Thomas, St. -Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Croix, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica and Canada, among others.
The craftsman has improved over the years, joining bands like ‘Minshall Mas, Hearts of Steel’, even becoming one of the 14 founding members of the award-winning costume band ‘D’Midas International’.” which has been registered at Red House, T&T and Washington as a business.
His extraordinary talent has also been showcased in cities across America. Smith outfitted masquerades in Miami, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston, Maryland, New York, California, and Texas.
As his skills grew in demand, Smith in the 70s joined Guyana’s number one band, Solo Productions, founded by the late Neil Chan. He worked alone alongside top designer Claire Goring for twelve years as a bending master.
Smith has a record 428 suits among the many others he has designed over time, from yarn bending to completion. He became a world-renowned award-winning manufacturer, winning individual titles for King and Queen at the New York Carnival Costume Contest, for Mango Tree Production, and others.
In addition to the Miami Carnival, Smith has worked in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Maryland and New York, showcasing her work. He says he doesn’t brag about his creations. “I let my work speak for itself.”
He said he doesn’t set the price for section costumes but leaves it up to the conductors. Its prices for large intricate individual kings and queens differ based on design and size. They cost $7,000 and up. This is also determined by material and decorations, due to rising costs which are now twice as high as two years ago since businesses closed during the pandemic.
Most revelers who pass through camp buy the designs on a payment plan, making installments before the carnival.
During the two-year hiatus, Smith said he traveled to Florida and Boston, where small pop-up carnival events took place, noting that only two groups masked up in Boston.
“I would like to pass on the know-how, but the younger generation has no interest in bending the wires. They ask what I pay,” he laughed. He shared that he led workshops at Trinidad, Canada, California, and that he has worked with Sesame Flyers International, but not to an extent that continues the tradition.
He said wire bending is a dying skill. “There aren’t too many benders in costume camps these days. Some guys brag about being benders,” but he denies that, adding, “what they do is just add from fabric to a piece of yarn, not bending it to create a design, and they are not the best”, while acknowledging that what he does is exceptional.