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Calvin French – Model, Photographer and Friend

Looking at the Trinidad native’s legacy and a timeline of his career.

A look at this Trinidad native’s career and lasting legacy

NameCalvin FrenchYearsJanuary 29, 1949 - September 20, 2018BirthplaceClaxton Bay, TrinidadEthnic OriginTrinidadianOccupationsFashion Designer, Model, Photographer, EditorShare

Early Life and Career

Calvin French was a fashion designer, model and photographer. Known to close friends as an inspirational showman who graced the runway, he was a pioneer for Black models in the 1980s and 1990s fashion scene.

French was born on January 29,1949 in Claxton Bay, Trinidad. In his early life, he worked at a hair salon called Joan’s, and would attend the Trinidad and Tobago Carnival with childhood friend and future colleague, Rafaell Cabrera, both of whom used to design costumes for the carnival queens and beauty pageants.

French moved to Canada at the age of 14 and started working as a hairdresser in Toronto and Montreal, moving to Edmonton in 1969. He continued working in hairdressing, while also pursuing design and fashionshow production.

One of his most successful production achievements was the Miss Black Alberta pageant, the first Black beauty pageant in Canada, on July 12, 1975. Top VOGUE cover girl, Beverly Johnson, was the head judge. French designed all 16 gowns for the contestants.

Miss Black Alberta pageant, July 12, 1975

Breaking Barriers

It was at this time that French began considering a career as a booking agent for models. After moving to Toronto in 1976, he started a company and magazine titled SPLASH with Cabrera, who had moved at the same time from Trinidad. Working as the fashion editor at the magazine gave French more exposure and made him a recognizable name.

In Toronto, the magazine held its biggest fashion show at the Hilton Hotel ballroom in the late ’70s. Len Henry, former model and producer who credits French as one of his biggest inspirations, remembers his shows as “cultural statements” with diverse casting, something that wasn’t done often at the time. “He dared,” says Henry, “It was jaw dropping; he had a vision.”

Throughout their time working at SPLASH, French and Cabrera would often travel to Europe visiting cities such as Paris, Milan and Rome – fashion capitals of the world. During these excursions the two would visit famous clubs such as Club Sept in Paris, and Jackie O’ in Rome,  and would be introduced the work of designers such as Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino.

After coming back to Canada for a short time, French decided to move to Milan permanently, where he stayed for the next 20 years. Among his ventures during this time was a modelling agency called UGLY PEOPLE.

Gerard Gentil, the renowned fashion photographer, was a close friend who travelled with French while working on fashion assignments. He doesn’t recall him experiencing overt racism. “Calvin had too much of a smooth and carefree approach to life and people,” says Gentil. “He was a free soul, non-aggressive and very comfortable with himself. This guy had such an aura about him, that people were more curious about him as a person, without dwelling on the colour of his skin.”
Reflecting on the current discourse on race Gentil adds, “At that time, back then, we didn’t have all the information that we have today, so we were in denial. Yeah, I wonder how he would experience what’s happening right now.”

Influence and Legacy

After a long and successful career in Europe, French moved back to Trinidad in 1999 to bring the fashion scene to his home country. There, he and Mika Balogh, who accompanied him back to Claxton Bay, started a fashion line called Zoltan.

In Trinidad, French continued to recruit models, and even scouted women who went on to compete in Miss Universe, Miss World and all the local Trinidadian pageants. He also worked with Miss Universe 1998 Wendy Fitzwilliam, and famous entertainers, Alison Hinds and Destra Garcia.

In December 2008, French published his book Calvin French on The Avenue: Every Place Has an Avenue, in which he described every aspect of his career and disclosed the inner workings of the fashion industry on Ariapita Avenue, the hub of fashion in Port-of-Spain.

He also started his own magazine called YOU, in October 2017, often showcasing Trinidadian fashion and culture, which he continued to work on until he passed away in September 20, 2018. His close friends recall his work in Trinidad as some of his biggest accomplishments.

Friends describe French as a man with a lot of style and a captivating presence. “He was never over the top,” remembers Cabrera, “but he had a large personality.”

Gianfranco Ferré, the Italian fashion designer whom French modelled for a number of times, would say humorously, “Calvin, I hate you, because you have such beautiful hair!” Calvin had a shaved head.

A sticker plastered on French’s diary read, “When you say style, you’re talking French,” Balogh recalls.

French was flamboyant and passionate, also remembered by many for his favourite quips, ‘Miss Thing’ and “Oh, yes darling,” but above all, French was an optimist, an inspiration in the fashion industry and a loving friend to many.

Black and white photo of Denise McLeod standing beside Calvin French, the two Black supermodels of their time, their arms around each other, both wearing vintage House of Lorraine fashions, 1976
Denise McLeod stands beside Calvin French, the two Black supermodels of their time,wearing vintage House of Lorraine fashions, 1976

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