Interviews

Off Duty with Sustainable Fashion Designer & Organizer Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs

Written By James Kicinski-McCoy

Photography by: The Bleu

As I flew into Laguardia last month, I checked the time and saw that I had a chill two hours until my first shoot. I mapped it out perfectly: I’d call my car, stop for a much needed cup of coffee and small pastry for breakfast, and arrive right on time for my shoot with 30-something Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs at her home in Brooklyn — easy. Turns out, that chill two hours was swallowed by an abnormal amount of stop and go traffic, I had to skip the coffee and cake, and I still arrived 15 minutes late (I hate being late!).

Knowing that I only had a short window of time with Tabitha — she’s a very busy woman leading partnerships and youth for The Women’s March full-time, as well as running two zero waste clothing lines Tabii Just and Livari— we got acquainted while I tested camera lighting and then it was straight down to business, so she could catch an important meeting at noon. My first impressions: Tabitha is a total powerhouse who gets shit done. Her demeanor is calm, collected, and confident. She’s stunning, and as a surprise to me, she was six months pregnant. I also learned that she was born in Arima, Trinidad and Tobago, which was very cool. I lived in Trinidad with my family as a little girl. We chatted a bit more about her work, her travels, family life, and living in NYC, and wrapped just in time for her next conference call. It was a pleasure to have met her, even briefly. I’m hoping to catch up with her again on a future visit to New York for a Trinidadian meal and good conversation. Let’s get into the interview.

Tabii Just Zero Waste Maxi Dress.
Tabii Just Zero Waste Maxi Dress.

How do you typically spend a day off when the work can wait?  “I typically spend my days off with my son and my husband. They bring me the most joy and peace.”

Do you sleep-in on your days off?  “One of the things I’m strict about in my life is getting enough sleep overall. My husband often lets me sleep in. I’m also six months pregnant, so I’ve been fully indulging in rest.”

What’s on your bedside table?  “I have a few books that my husband and I are reading. I also have some lavender oil, Vicks VapoRub, and some hair ties.”

What’s the story behind your home and how long have you lived there?  “I wanted to live in my neighborhood for a really long time, so I was hunting for apartments for months. When I saw our current apartment, I knew it was the one. I let my husband see a couple other apartments just to convince him, but I knew he would come back to this one. I love the open layout of our place. I love the fact that I can cook and see our son playing in the living room. I also love that we have lots of friends in the neighborhood, that there’s a green market, lots of great restaurants and things to do for kids, and that it’s easy to arrange playdates and stay close to home. We’ve lived here for two years.”

Tell us about the art in your home.  “My husband and I love to travel, so we have framed pictures we took while on vacation in Norway and Tobago. We also have some of my favorite, empowering art from the 2017 Women’s March. In my son’s room, he has a couple paintings from a street artist in Portugal. We also have our ketubah hung in a central place in our home, to center our love. In my office, I have some of my old drawings and a poster that all of us Women’s March organizers signed the day after the 2017 Women’s March.”

Where do you find / shop for home decor?  “We love picking up things that catch our eye when we travel. We love things that have meaning to us and bring back good memories.”

What are your favorite, must-read books?  “I’ve read all Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction works and I love all of them. I really feel seen through her writing, as a black woman and as a black immigrant. I also love What Is The What by Dave Eggers. I’m currently reading Unbecoming, A Memoir of Disobedience by Anuradha Bhagwati.”

What are your favorite Netflix series / shows / movies?  “All American — it’s light enough for me to enjoy after a long day, but also deals with issues of class, privilege, and race. I also love She’s Gotta Have It. I support the show because it’s carried by a strong black female lead. It also presents the lead character as someone who embraces her sexuality and tackles issues around it with such refreshing honesty. My husband loves Queer Eye, and I’ve gotten into it. When They See Us is a must-watch for everyone, especially white people. ”

Coffee table books or magazines you love?  “I was featured in the book 200 Women That Will Change The Way You See The World. Besides being featured, it’s such an amazing coffee table book and gift for young and older women.”

Favorite candles?  “My favorite scents are brown sugar and vanilla, so I have lots of those candles around my home.”

What are your hobbies?  “I love to paint, but don’t quite get to it as much as I’d like.”

Night in or night out? How do you spend it?  “All the nights in. I go to bed quite late, but I really value that time when my son is asleep and I get to spend some time with my hubby.”

Song on repeat?  “Anything by Buju Banton. He’s a reggae artist and I grew up listening to him. I am hoping that his new batch of music reflects an awareness of the LGTBQ+ community in the Caribbean, so fingers crossed. Reggae music brings back memories of Trinidad for me, so I turn it up when I’m home and want to feel homey. I also love anything by Machel Montano. He’s a Soca artist from Trinidad, and I’m determined to raise my son with an appreciation for his musical career, so we play it often at home. I’ve also gotten into Lizzo a bit. ”

Theory Dress from The Real Real.
Theory Dress from The Real Real.

Describe your personal style.  “I love bright prints and flowing silhouettes in the summer and all black in the winter. It’s a stark contrast.”

What’s the one thing in your closet you would save in a fire?  “My wedding dress. I bought it secondhand from Housing Works and had it fitted to me.”

Your womenswear labels, Tabii Just and Livari, are a zero-waste companies based in the U.S. What advice would you give to others looking to be more ethical and sustainable when purchasing clothing?  “I would suggest starting by looking at what’s already in your closet. Consider what needs mending or fitting to give it a second life. I also love consignment stores and thrift stores. If you must purchase new clothing, do research about how the brand makes the clothing, who makes it, where they make it, etc. Your dollar has lots of power, and I advise everyone to exercise that power wisely and use it to empower those you want to uplift.”

What do you wear when you’re spending the day comfortable, at home, and off duty?  “I wear sweatpants and a t-shirt most of the time now that I’m pregnant. Elastic waistbands are my friend.”

Who, what, where inspires your style the most?  “Comfort is key for me. I love clothes that look great, fit well, but also that I can spend the entire day in. I also come from Trinidad, which is a vibrant culture filled with colors and textures, so that inspires my wardrobe.”

What are three things on your want list?  “I am really lusting after a pair of Veja sneakers, but can’t justify spending that much on shoes when my shoe size may change in a few months. But, as soon as my body settles again, I’m getting a pair. I’m also in search of a sustainably made bag (maybe made from fish leather) that can hold my laptop, but is also small enough to use every day and not be too heavy.”

Your five wardrobe staples, go…  “My five wardrobe staples are comfy black sneakers, a breezy dress, black tank tops that fit over my belly, a belly band, and a great head scarf.”

Favorite designers / brands?  “I love Mara Hoffman. She really celebrates color and comfort. I love Veja because their sneakers are amazing and their story is incredible. I love my own brand, Tabii Just, because I love the vibrant silks and how versatile the dresses are. My other brand Livari is also amazing because it provides sustainable clothing with a bit more sexy and edge.”

Tell us about your jewelry collection.  “My best friend travels frequently and buys me jewelry from his travels, so I have a vast collection of jewelry from all over the world. When I travel, I also love to buy a locally made piece. I know that jewelry is the thing that I wear the most and will remind me of the wonderful times I spend abroad, so it’s the perfect momento, rather than a cheap souvenir. I also have some vintage pieces that my mother-in-law gave me from her mother. I wear her wedding band from her first marriage every day. I don’t take it off. I also wear her mother’s wedding band every day as well, with the band that my husband gave me when we got married.”

Breakfast / brunch of choice?  “Oatmeal and eggs when I have time.”

Coffee or tea? How do you take it?  “Decaf tea with honey, no milk.”

Favorite local cup?  “I make my own tea at home.”

Fave cookbooks?  “Naparima Girls High School Cookbook — it’s a legendary Trinidadian cookbook with all my favorites.”

What’s your go-to dinner recipe when at home?  “During the week, I love making long-grain rice with lentils and vegetarian meat. My husband is really good at cooking veggies, so he usually cooks up some delicious veggies to go with it.”

Favorite local restaurant and what is your go-to order?  “My hubby and I are obsessed with Bake N Tings. It’s a local Trinidadian hole-in-the-wall in Brooklyn that sells the most delicious local food. I usually order the veggie roti with roti on the side, not wrapped.”

Regular Postmates / takeout order?  “I get spicy Thai veggie fried rice with no onions or scallions.”

Any supplements you take / magic elixirs you make or swear by?  “I want to get into CBD when the baby is out of my body. I heard it’s great for mindfulness.”

How do you stay active?  “I walk quite a bit every day. I live far from the train, so I try to walk briskly.”

Tabii Just Starry Night Zero Waste Dress.
Tabii Just Starry Night Zero Waste Dress.

What does self-care look like for you when you’re off duty?  “I love good books by black female authors. I also meditate. Pre-pregnancy, I would indulge in a glass of wine.”

You decide to treat yourself, how do you indulge?  “I indulge with a good massage or a mani-pedi. I hardly get my nails done, so it’s a real treat for me.”

You’re career is so multifaceted. Tell us a bit about what you do, and the projects that currently have your attention.  “I work at the intersection of fashion and social justice. I lead partnerships and youth for the Women’s March, and I’m also involved in a number of fashion initiatives around sustainability and human rights. I also have a fashion line called Tabii Just and am a partner in another one called Livari. Right now, I’m excited about work that is focused on us winning in the 2020 elections. I want fashion brands to challenge their customers to become civically engaged in ways they haven’t before in 2020. We need everyone to do their part to change the leadership of our country. There’s no room for neutrality and comfort. And then after 2020, I’m excited to see people stay active and continue to challenge our leaders to protect our communities and to do the right thing.”

In addition to being an artist and designer, you’re a talented and passionate activist/organizer. What inspired you to start campaigning for the rights of others full-time?  “I’m a black immigrant woman living under the era of Trump. As an immigrant, I was so caught up in just surviving in this country that I often didn’t pay attention to the politics that governed my life. For a long time, it was a struggle for me to just make ends meet and get through my days. After Trump was elected, I was one of those people that was awakened to the impact of individual actions on systemic issues. Even though I didn’t vote for him, I felt a huge responsibility to play a part in creating a country that is safe for everyone. For me, as a black woman. For my son, as a mixed-race Jewish child. And, for every other marginalized community. After that, it seemed glib to spend my days only focused on fashion when I know that my energy is needed elsewhere. I’ve really enjoyed meshing my fashion world with the social justice space and being a part of initiatives that marry the two.”

Who / what / where has been your biggest inspiration?  “My son is my biggest inspiration. I want to build a world where he can be himself fully and authentically, where he can spend his privilege to make space for people who need it the most. I fight everyday for the future I want him to inherit.”

What does a typical work day look like?  “I wake up at 7:30 to help get my son ready for school. Once he’s out the door, I get ready for work myself and spend most days at our office working on different initiatives with our team. I lead partnerships for Women’s March, so I spend a ton of time on the phone, talking to partners. In the evenings, I usually have events, either related to fashion or my work at WM. My work days vary sometimes depending on the day, but this is the main flow.”

In addition to positivity and progress, there can be a lot of defeat and heartbreak in activism, what keeps you motivated to keep fighting?  “I try to focus on the people that are being directly impacted by the work I do. Sometimes that’s me and sometimes it’s others, but I focus on the individual and how we’re able to make real change, even if it’s not always the exact change we want to see.”

In your opinion, what are a few relevant movements (social / political / economic) that everyone should know more about? Any tips on where to learn more?  “Everyone should educate themselves on how the government works from the local level to the federal level. They should get involved in making their voices heard at town halls, marches, actions, lobbying, etc. I’ve been really invigorated by the upsurge of youth engagement in the last few years. I get emails all the time from young people who are waking up to their privilege and want to become more active in their communities.”

What are a few simple ways that all individuals can take to become more sustainable in their day-to-day lives?  “Carry a water bottle and don’t buy bottled water, carry reusable cutlery and say no to plastic cutlery, take public transportation where possible, buy from local green markets, and shop small and local.”

If you were to give advice to your younger self, what would you say?  “I would tell my younger self to love myself for everything I am. I would tell her that everything will be okay, that life is not defined by childhood or teen years. I would tell her to never apologize for standing up for what’s right, even when those in authority think it’s too idealistic or farfetched to believe in dignity, love, and respect for all. Lastly, I would tell her that she is an incredibly beautiful, impactful, joyous woman from the inside out and to never believe anyone who tells her differently.”

Any advice to others looking to get involved in organizations / movements that they’re passionate about?  “I would say to start in your own community. Start with your local organizations that need your volunteer hours the most and that need your dollars the most.”

Any exciting news or projects on the horizon?  “After the baby comes, I’m excited to get back into a new concept I’ve been working on for Tabii Just. So, look out for that. I’m also looking forward to the election season and seeing how we all find ways to get involved and mobilize around our candidate.”

Written by: James Kicinski-McCoy

James Kicinski-McCoy is the 30-something Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Bleu. She likes tequila, picks fights with her husband so she can have the bed to herself, and is trying to figure out that work / life balance.

1 Comment

  1. Chloe

    June 17, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    This one might be my favorite interview on The Bleu so far! Tabitha is inspiring and beautiful and strong and sincere. So many recent comments on political activism sound contrived, whereas Tabitha just sounds firm and matter of fact, like, this is just what it is, how you respond is yours. Can’t wait to read some of her favorite books.

    Reply

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