Barrier Reef Designs is a fashion first, using the exotic graphics and brilliant colors of real tropical reef fish to create unique prints for resort and summer apparel for women. This “New Take on Tropical” had its inception when I was snorkeling over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and was struck with a desire to WEAR the fabulous fish darting about below.
Barrier Reef Designs
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Barrier Reef Designs: A New Take on Tropical
Had Debbie Seaman not snorkeled in the waters over Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the former journalist may never have dared a foray into the fashion business. Yet, the minute her snorkeling mask hit the water, she was so overcome by the colors and graphics on the creatures darting amidst the coral below that she had an underwater epiphany: “I suddenly was struck with the notion that I wanted to WEAR these fish,” she recalls of the riotously-colored wrasses and parrot fish in the Australian waters.
Seaman had seen and liked plenty of resort wear that used fabrics printed with outlines of colorful fish, but that was not what she had in mind. “I wanted to proceed as if the skin of a particular tropical fish was being projected onto fabric for clothes, Seaman explains. “So women could slip into what are surely the sea’s most splendid designs.”
Barrier Reef Designs did not come into fruition directly after the Great Barrier Reef inspiration. As it turned out, Seaman, who was working as a free-lance journalist based in Paris, fell in love during that trip to Australia and later moved to Sydney, married, and had fraternal twin boys. The family moved to New Canaan, CT, in 1997, and Seaman free-lanced for People magazine for10 years, but she never forgot her dream of a line of clothes based on tropical fish. “I waited for some clothing company to do it,” she remembers, noting the popularity of animal prints such as leopard and zebra. “But no one, to my knowledge, ever did.”
In 2008, having been inspired by a book by Sara Davidson called “Leap: What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?” about starting second careers, Seaman dove into developing her visual creativity rather than the verbal. She was further motivated by a coffee table book called,“Oceanic Wilderness,” full of stunning, color-saturated images of undersea creatures and corals by Roger Steene, the Australian marine photographer. Steene, as it turned out, had also thought that the colors and patterns on the stunning fish he photographed around the world’s coral reef would look beautiful on fabrics for a new look in tropical clothing. (“Fashion Designers need look no further than the inspiring patterns offered by nature’s exquisite creatures,” he wrote in “Oceanic Wilderness.”) When contacted, he encouraged Seaman’s piscine enterprise, and his photos have appeared on some of the Barrier Reef Designs hang tags, such as that of the Juvenile Emperor Angel Fish.
Seaman, who had adored bright color combinations since her childhood in the 1960s when Lily Pulitzer’s colorful prints hit the stores in her native Locust Valley, N.Y., started with four very different tropical fish that she thought were remarkable. Working with cutouts from fish photos to create images of potential fabrics, Seaman enlisted artist Steve Black of The Style Council in New York City to execute the prints in a repeat. Black also made the Barrier Reef hang tags, which feature pictures and names (in English and Latin!) of the fish correlating with the prints. “So that the customer will know what fish she is ‘wearing,’” Seaman explains, adding that the tags also declare that the company donates to Reef Check International to help preserve the world’s coral reefs.
Those first fish to become prints included a royal blue and lime green Fivestripe Wrasse, the predominantly bright pink-and-turquoise Linecheek Wrasse; the mint green Psychedelic Mandarin Fish, which is dappled with black spots ringed with yellow; and the exotic bright yellow, black and rust Japanese Pinecone Fish. With the help of Lanarex, a New York-based company that works with factories and mills in China, Seaman had the designs printed on crepe de chine and chose as her first styles a halter gown, a kimono-style beach cover-up, a one-shoulder top, and a large fringed scarf.
While Seaman still has some silk inventory, the slump in the economy convinced her that resort customers were looking for a lower price point and more casual resort wear. “Everyone, to a person, said how beautiful these prints were,” she remembers. “But they balked at the price and seemed to prefer cotton, so I realized that Barrier Reef Designs needed a more fun and casual look rather than elegant.” This 2012 collection is Barrier Reef’s second to be made in India, with coordination by Mallika Thomas of the Haute Latitude clothing line, based in Wellington, FL.
Seaman feels that bathing suits are a natural for Barrier Reef Designs to go into next, and she sees no end to the designs the creatures of the coral reefs offer. “Even the sea slugs are gorgeous,” she exclaims.