Trinidadian-born Clifford Smith Jr. has been a carnival costume designer, and master wire-bender for more than 60 years. However, he opined that the skill is becoming a dying artform, since the younger generation has no interest of carrying on the tradition of wire-bending.
This reporter met Smith at the Mango Tree Production mas camp on Parkside Avenue in Brooklyn, one day before the Labor Day carnival. He was putting on the finishing touches to costumes for the in-person road march on Eastern Parkway, that returned after a two-year pause with hopes of winning another title for his exquisite designs.
The artful designer, wearing a tape measure around his neck, patiently cuts, paste, and put together costumes on pieces of wire that he bends to fabricate the creation, which he designs from start to finish in about two weeks.
He brushed on adhesive to secure the design fabric to the wire mold, then decorates it with beading, sequins, and rhinestones to finish the design, bringing to life head to toe pieces, many festooned with feathers in a barrage of colors.
Smith stayed focused on his designing concept, that sometimes keeps him upwards of 14 hours a day in the camp. He joined the designing business because back then, artists, and wire-benders made the most money in a carnival costume camp in Trinidad & Tobago.
It was evident that Smith who was born in the capital of Port-of-Spain with a wire-bending talent, and started working at age 15, took the job seriously in a country where carnival became a wonder of the world, attracting thousands of masqueraders yearly.
He got his big designing gig working with the hugely popular Merry Makers Steel Orchestra, a band that helped him to grow his skill, and allowed him to travel throughout the region designing costumes in, St. Thomas, St. Lucia, St. Maarten, St. Croix, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Antigua and Barbuda, Jamaica, and Canada, among others.
The craftsman got better over the years, joining bands like “Minshall Mas, Hearts of Steel,” even becoming one of the 14 founding members of award-winning costume band “D’Midas International” that was registered at Red House, in T&T, and Washington as a business.
His extraordinary talent has also been showcased in cities across America. Smith has outfitted masqueraders in Miami, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Boston, Maryland, New York, California, and Texas.
As his skills became more and more in demand, Smith back in the seventies, joined Guyana’s number one band, Solo Productions, founded by late Neil Chan. He worked alone side top designer Claire Goring, for twelve years as a wire-bending master.
Smith has a record of 428 costumes among the many others he designed over time, from wire-bending to completion. He became a world-renown, award-winning fabricator, taking home titles for individual King and Queen at the New York Carnival costume competition, for Mango Tree Production, and others.
In addition to Miami carnival, Smith worked in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Maryland, and New York, showcasing his work. He said he does not boast about his creations. “I let my work speak for itself.”
He said he doesn’t price the section costumes but leaves it to bandleaders. His prices for large intricate individual King and Queen differ, depending on design and size. They are $7000, and more. This is also determined by the material and decorations, due to the rising cost that is now twice the amount from two years ago since businesses were closed during the pandemic.
Most of the revelers who pass through the camp, purchase the designs on a payment plan, by making installments leading up to carnival.
Over the two-year hiatus, Smith said he traveled to Florida and Boston, where small pop-up carnival events were held, noting that only two bands masqueraded in Boston.
“I would love to pass on the skill, but the younger generation has no interest in wire-bending. They ask what I am paying,” he chuckled. He shared that he has conducted workshops in Trinidad, Canada, California, and have worked with Sesame Flyers International, but not to an extent that allows the tradition to be carried on.
He said wire-bending is a dying skill. “There are not too many wire-benders in costume camps these days. Some guys boast that they are wire-benders,” but he denies it, adding, “what they are doing is just adding fabric to a piece of wire, not bending it to create a design, and they are not the best,” while acknowledging that what he is doing is exceptional.