• Kara Martin

Leighton Starr - The Pencil Pushing Fashion Looks Forward

Updated: Aug 21, 2020

by Kara Martin

Fashion Illustrator, Leighton Starr’s personal look is as sharp and clean as his sketching. We meet the 24-year-old wearing a fitted, plain-white turtleneck, black headband and spectacles, and slim, ankle-skimming trousers, cuffed.

It’s a classic fashion move, monochrome. Think of the “matte” style uniforms of Karl Lagerfeld and his original inspiration, Coco Chanel. Quietly arresting. But it’s also a look that syncs up nicely (whether intentionally or not) with Leighton’s love for lead pencil on paper.

The kid can draw. And he knows this. In fact, it’s been known since he was a child – flipping through magazines and textbooks, with special attention focused on human anatomy, and eventually drawing forms. Throwing garments on top of bodies was an eventual no-brainer.

A graduate out of the University of Trinidad & Tobago (UTT) diploma in Fashion Design, Leighton was exposed to everything from sketching and sewing to marketing and packaging, eventually wiggling his way into the fashion industry doing various odd jobs – “from sewing to sketching for designers to working on costumes for stage productions, Carnival, everything” – and finally landing his first paid gig as an illustrator for none other than Meiling Esau.

On Career-Defining Gigs

“I got a DM (Direct Message) from Meiling on Instagram and she told me to come in because she was looking for an illustrator,” says Leighton.

"And I went in thinking that it’s probably just a dead-end. I’m thinking she probably has a lot of people coming in for this job. I showed her my portfolio and she gave me some stuff of hers to test, I sent it back, she made a few edits, and then I got a retained position there.”

“That was pretty cool. Kind of crazy. In fact, I was really surprised at how accessible she makes herself. She has this great quality of sort of mentoring any great young creative that she takes under her wing. It’s almost like she has built a family of creatives, and they get free reign to come in and ask her any questions, get advice in any way that can help build themselves up in the industry."

“And the [fashion] community here is so small, close-knit, that, once you work well with somebody, the references just keep going on and on.”

He adds: “I think the most interesting jobs that I get are for costume design – designing individual costumes for bands at all the Carnivals, really, including Notting Hill, Spice Mas, Crop Over, Miami etc. Those are really cool.

“I would be most excited to do a magazine cover – hopefully Vogue – but really any magazine cover would be so fun because magazine covers really started as illustrations before photography.

On Fashion in the Digital Age

It’s worth pointing out an app’s role in getting the stars to align for Leighton and Meiling. Technology and social media are playing a gargantuan role today in fashion’s longevity. Not only is Instagram a platform to source any and every one from muses to models and employees; it’s also effectively your online marketplace to sell and grow your brand. Whole ad campaigns have been developed on it, entire fashion shows streamed live for billions to feel included front row.

“When I think about all the jobs I got from social media, it’s probably 90% of the jobs I’ve ever done,” says Leighton. “You post, you hashtag, you tag people, people share your stuff … Before technology, you just had your little shop, but now I have people coming to me from Germany, London and all these distant places I don’t think I would have ever gotten the chance to work with.”
You know a sketch is Leighton’s if half her face is missing. He keeps it cheeky and interesting with just one eye and eyebrow, little to no nose, and a pronounced, glossy lip.

“That started at UTT,” he explains. “When I was there we had to do around 15-20 sketches to submit before we could do the illustrations themselves, so I would just do really half-drawn faces, barely any facial features, and I kind of ended up carrying it through to my everyday illustrations.”

And yes, there is a real-life muse behind the lithe, leggy model – childhood friend Ifa Biggott. “She’s, I think, one of the most stunning models that works in Trinidad. She claimed me, I claimed her; we are technically a creative partnership.”

Leighton’s Process

“If I’m working with a designer I usually check out their Instagram account to get the vibe of their brand so I know what I’m going into, I know how to approach them…Then I have the initial meeting where we talk about the project we’re going to take on and just get all the official stuff out of the way, like pricing, delivery etc.

“If it’s just a one-off illustration, I’ll use a picture they have [given me]. If they want me to do a sketch or prototype before they make it [a product], it’s usually a lot of reference images being thrown at me and having to choose which ones to highlight.”

He finds himself in such demand that he might be working on several sketches simultaneously, himself preferring to chip away at one design, section by section, with frequent breaks to cast weary eyes on something else; he happens to be a bit of a perfectionist, a sucker for a sharp, clean line.

Looking to the Future

I hope the future of fashion would be more accessible to people who don’t immediately have the finances to do huge projects. If we invest in production, the fashion industry would grow immensely,” says Leighton.

I feel like a lot of designers and creatives are having to treat what they do in fashion as a part-time thing, and if we could find a way to have them make this their fulltime job, that would be great. It would be great if we could start looking at fashion as something that can bring in revenue on a larger scale for the economy itself. "

I also want to see a lot more local designers [represented] in franchised stores; young ones, as well, could use that financial support and push.”

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