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A Fashion Designer Shares His Favorite Spots in the Colorful, Creative Bahamas

By Theodore Elyett, as told to Ashlea Halpern

07.30.19

From the September/October 2019 issue

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Louis and Steen's is a New Orleans–inspired coffeehouse with ample outdoor seating to enjoy the ocean view. 

Photo by Melissa Alcena

Louis and Steen's is a New Orleans–inspired coffeehouse with ample outdoor seating to enjoy the ocean view. 

Local Theodore Elyett finds inspiration in his island home’s rich history, Crayola-hued architecture, and culture of entrepreneurship—Here are his go-to places.

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I was born and raised in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. Art and fashion were always important to my family. My dad painted and drew as a hobby, and my mom ran a sewing factory. Every day after school, my mom or dad would pick me and my older sisters up and take us to the factory.

I was eight years old when I made my first dress. I used a heat-press machine to put a tiger face decal on the front of it and gave it to my sister, but it didn’t fit, because I didn’t know anything about body measurements. She pinned it to her bedroom wall. I eventually learned how to sew through trial and error and by watching my mom and her employees. My grandmother used to sew as well, and every summer my sisters and I would repurpose old clothes and put on a fashion show for my parents.

My professional career started at age 13, when I designed a dress for my best friend, who was entering a modeling competition. The costume was made with the same burlap used to create coconut sacks, and it was inspired by Junkanoo. Junkanoo is a big part of Bahamian culture. It goes back to the slavery period, when [plantation owners] would give their slaves time off around Boxing Day and New Year’s Day and [the enslaved African Bahamians] would have a parade. We still celebrate it. And that’s how my career took off—some girls in the Miss Bahamas pageant saw that design and hired me soon after: One girl rented the Junkanoo costume and I made a costume for the second girl.

At the Bon Vivants Café & Bar in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, fashion designer Theodore Elysett settles in to enjoy his favorite drink: a double-shot mocha.

Growing up in the Bahamas definitely influenced my aesthetic as a designer. Island life moves me. My inspiration comes from the beach, the waves, the bougainvillea and other vegetation, and just the warmth and friendliness of the Bahamian people. Sometimes I pass certain buildings and the color coordination inspires me, because the homes are painted in such vibrant colors: orange and yellow, lime green and blue.

Of course, the Bahamas have changed a lot since my childhood. The islands used to be more laid-back, with smaller-scale boutique resorts. You could walk into any home and the doors would be unlocked. I worry about the Bahamas losing their boutique feel, because that’s what differentiates us from the rest of the Caribbean. That, and the fact that we have 700 islands and cays, each with its own special features.

Another great thing about living here is the ease of doing business. In school and in family life, you’re taught to become an entrepreneur. Even people who have a nine-to-five job still run a small side business, hoping to go full-on with it one day. So the landscape is very conducive to owning your own company. I’m an entrepreneur from small beginnings myself, but I aspire to become a global player in the fashion industry—like the late Oscar de la Renta. He comes from an island nation [Dominican Republic], yet he’s sold in Bergdorf Goodman in New York.

As a young person working in fashion, it was my dream to go to New York or Paris. But I’ve come to the realization that it doesn't matter where you are in the world; if you’re talented, people will find you. I’ve showcased in Beijing. And last year, I joined the artist-in-residency program at Baha Mar, a new resort in the Bahamas. There were sculptors, painters, and poets, but I was the first fashion designer. Guests would tour the art gallery and then visit with the artists in their studios. It was an amazing experience. I’ve also had the opportunity to showcase a gown in London, representing the Bahamas in the Commonwealth Fashion Exchange Program! So I don’t feel that I’m at a disadvantage anymore.
The Bon Vivants café is located on the Bahamas's capital island of Nassau near the water's edge.

Bon Vivants
They are open all day for coffee, with upscale cocktails at night. I like the turmeric latte and the tonic with espresso. And as an aesthete, I love their attention to detail: the wallpaper, the authentic Bahamian fans on the verandah, even the lemon-verbena scent in the bathroom.”

Louis & Steen’s
“At this laid-back, New Orleans–inspired coffeehouse, Louis & Steen’s, the majority of the seating is outside so you can take in the ocean view. The Ethiopian Rose latté with oat milk is amazing; I also like the sweet potato pancakes, the açai and matcha bowls, and the beignets. It’s a very friendly, family-oriented environment. When you walk in, it feels like the staff is welcoming you into their home.”

Shima
Shima is a [Southeast Asian-style] restaurant in Island House, an exclusive hotel. When I do dinner here, my favorite things to get are the green papaya salad, the shrimp-fried rice, and barbecued salmon, served on a banana leaf. For brunch, try the avocado toast topped with snow peas.”

Sun & Ice
“It’s not often you find a Bahamian-owned company in a major resort like Atlantis. The flavors at this ice cream parlor are inspired by the Bahamas. Androsia is named after a Bahamian batik; the ice cream is a swirl of blueberry and burnt coconut.”
John Watling's Rum is located on the 1789 Buena Vista Estate. The rum is Bahamian handcrafted using a traditional English rum-making technique.

Baha Mar
“Each of the three hotels here is very distinct. The Rosewood is luxurious and sophisticated. The SLS is fun, vibrant, and youthful. The atmosphere at SLS’s Skybar is very New York, and its pool, Privilege, is always a party. The Grand Hyatt, meanwhile, has the most relaxing pools and bars. The Swimming Pig pub was named for the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs.”

Bahama Hand Prints
“The prints are inspired by the islands: a ripple on the ocean floor, palm leaves, a horse-and-carriage ride through the city of Nassau. The shop sells fabric by the bolt or the yard, as well as ready-to-wear pieces and handbags.”

National Art Gallery of the Bahamas
“I go whenever they have a show. Most recently, painters including the late Chan Pratt and Tessa Whitehead exhibited. Pratt is known for his iconic scenes of Bahamian family life and architecture. Whitehead’s pieces are darker and take you on an emotional journey. The property is pretty as well: beautiful British colonial architecture with a sculpture garden.”

John Watling’s Distillery
“The rum is very smooth, and drinking it is a prideful experience, because you know it’s made here. I also love the beauty of the landscaped grounds and the colonial architecture. And they have chickens!”
The Queen's Staircase, more commonly known at the 66 Steps, is one of the most well-known attractions in Nassau.

Love Beach
“A large stretch of Love Beach is easily accessible to the public, but look for the dirt road: It leads to a secluded area with the most crystal-clear waters you’ve ever seen. It’s good for swimming and snorkeling, or just putting your towel down and relaxing.”

The Queen’s Staircase
“These 66 steps are one of the big tourist attractions in Nassau. I’ve seen people do photo shoots there and once saw a young Bahamian couple stage their wedding on the staircase. Climb the stairs and then walk to Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant for chocolate-making and cigar-rolling tours.”

>>Next: A Pastry Chef Dishes About Her Favorite Spots and Sweets in Seoul

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