Clary Salandy presses strips of tinsel-like material over the body of a giant goldfish. 'Don't anyone remove any of these scales,' she warns, gesturing at the pile beside her. 'Or we'll end up with a goldfish with a bald patch.' Her colleagues look up from their stitching and decorating. One is threading shimmering plastic circles on to a series of glass-fibre rods.
It's just one week to carnival and Clary, 33, and her mas-band (costume band) Mahogany Arts, are making some of the spectacular costumes that will be dancing their way through Notting Hill this weekend. For months they have been designing, building and decorating more than 200 costumes.
For most of the crowds crammed into Notting Hill's narrow streets, the dazzling costumes that dance and bump their way along the route are just a small part of the sound and spectacle of carnival, but for the competing costume-makers, elation mixes with nail-biting tension as the judges decide which mas-band will take this year's awards.
The major costume competition is divided into three sections - king, queen and individual costume, with similar competitions for children. The costumes are elaborate structures, like vast mobile wedding cakes. They tower 15ft high (almost as tall as a
double-decker bus) and stretch across the whole street, dwarfing their
wearer in a shimmering haze of glitter, cloth and fluorescent colour.
Mahogany have won the king competition for three years running and are aiming for a fourth win with 'Fantail', a giant goldfish. They have high hopes too of their individual male costume, 'Redemption Song'. Both are based on sequences from Disney's Fantasia.
This year the band's overall theme is Rio Fantasia (given a boost by Brazil's World Cup victory). 'I went to Rio's carnival this year but I also wanted to look at the place of fantasy in films and music as well as in carnival,' says Clary, a 4ft 11in bundle of energy whose delicate features belie a constitution Linford Christie would be proud of. 'I am influenced not only by my experience but what's going on - films, music, current affairs. The year of Tiananmen Square our costumes reflected the events in China.'
The competition is tough. Nearly 50 bands compete for individual titles. Some, such as Masquerade 2000, already have a posse of victories to their name. 'It's hard to try to beat yourself, knowing that everyone is gunning for you,' says Clary. 'As soon as the carnival is over, I start looking for inspiration for next year - for new materials and ways to make a costume move differently. It's a continual
This year she has more on her plate than usual. As well as the Notting Hill carnival, the band are making a special costume for a 'king of kings' competition in Trinidad. Clary and her husband Michael 'Speedy' Ramdeen, 43, form the backbone of the band. She designs the costumes, he builds the structures. Both grew up in Trinidad.
'My first memory is of winning a carnival competition in a gorgeous little fairy costume,' Clary recalls. 'I still have the cup from it.' Speedy's parents, on the other hand, were bitterly opposed to carnival. 'My father was a local politician and he disapproved. I was always sneaking out to play mas. One time, I ended up making 400 costumes overnight. That's how I got my nickname.'
Speedy studied structural engineering at college, a skill he now puts to good effect, ensuring that the more elaborate costumes don't topple over and move as they are meant to - a strong wind can play havoc with a 15ft costume. The wearers may look as if they are carrying the world on their shoulders, but Speedy assures me that they aren't going to end up with a hernia. 'It's all about calculating the stresses and strains,' he explains. 'Next year I'm getting a computer program to help me. The way I build costumes, they hardly guess that they are carrying 70lb.'
Speedy also learnt a lot when he worked as a chauffeur, driving such luminaries as Michael Caine. 'He'd go up to Elstree or Pinewood and I'd take a look around the sets, picking up the latest tricks.'
He met Clary at a mas-camp. She had just finished a degree in theatre design (she is now a freelance theatre designer and lecturer in art). Soon they branched out and formed Mahogany Arts. Like many mas-bands, it meets all year round for events in places as diverse as Paris and Newcastle.
The work for carnival starts about two months beforehand, when the year's designs are unveiled and the mas-camp (workshop) set up.
Mahogany's mas-camp is on an industrial estate in Park Royal, with the grimy North Circular roaring a few feet away. From the outside, this former printers' factory is singularly unglamorous. Inside, however, is a cavalcade of colour, shapes and fabrics. Last year's winning king, 'Tribute to an Indian Dancer', resplendent in batiks and topped by a demonic white and green mask, looms like a gaudy sentry. The mas-camp is like stepping into Roger Rabbit's 'Toon Town'.
Six weeks before carnival, only the most dedicated team members are mas-making and the atmosphere is serious. The volunteers work in the sort of reverential hush normally reserved for public libraries. Although all are unpaid, the building and materials are sponsored by Harlesden City Challenge.
At this point it is difficult to imagine the assorted paint pots, moulds, foam and fishing rods scattered about the place coming together to form magnificent 3-D costumes.
'Every year we say to ourselves that we'll start work earlier so we don't end up putting bits on an hour before,' says Carl Morris, who this year forsakes his accountant pinstripes for the gaudy rainment of Mahog-any's king. 'And every year, we end up doing things last minute. I guess that's what gives us the buzz.'
A week before carnival, the atmosphere is electric. The mas-camp swarms with people scurrying among the half-completed costumes. These lie randomly around the hall like objects in a Dali painting, not quite making sense yet. Supermarket trolleys stuffed to the brim with fluorescent cloths are parked in corners. Arrows tipped with turquoise glitter lie next to plastic shields as large as satellite dishes and embossed with lighting gels to create a stained-glass effect.
There are about 20 people in the workshop at any one time and although all work individually, the team spirit is palpable - helped along by the heady beat of soca - that booms over the sound system.
During the day, teenagers from Brent Council's holiday schemes, along with a few pensioners, make up the bulk of the team. Their calculated boredom turns to enthusiasm as they work on the costumes. The groups are multi-racial and for some it is their first experience of joining in carnival. Clary bustles among them, bossy and maternal. 'You don't need to be an artist to take part,' she stresses. 'There's always glitter on my costumes, so that even my three-year-old can put a bit on and join in.'
Chantelle Fisher, 15, has been coming nearly every day. 'It's really fun seeing the costumes take shape and feeling, yeah, I did that. The company's good and I feel I'm doing something, not just hanging around.'
By late afternoon, most of the teenagers have departed and the atmo-sphere becomes more laid-back as people drop in after work. Some stay just long enough to add a few touches and exchange jokes.
Others - like Adlyn Adams, the chief seamstress - will be there till 2am. An elegant woman in a spray-on cat suit, Adlyn, 28, has the sort of figure even Claudia Schiffer would die for. Making costumes, she says, adds a touch of glamour to her daily life working in an import business. 'It's hard work,' she says. 'But it gives me a real creative fizz. It's good to feel part of a team making it happen.'
The king costume is almost up - and tempers are fraying. Speedy and Clary are bickering over whether the fantail can move without draping its tail around itself. Finally they decide to take the costume outside to see. Speedy puts it on and the once-static costume takes on a life of its own as its huge tail billows like a sail, rippling around the body of the fish. Workmen on a neighbouring site stop unloading their lorries to stare. Clary and Speedy agree a few minor changes and grin. They know Carl will love it.
'When I come home after work and put my briefcase down, I do feel tired,' says Carl. 'But once I get to the mas-camp, see the costumes, hear the music, I can keep going. It's like that at carnival. When you're in the costume dancing it, you don't even feel the weight or worry about your balance. You just feel the movement. You think you could keep going for ever.'
THE MAKING OF A COSTUME
Stage 1: Clary draws the sketches for the costume
Stage 2: Each costume is mounted
on a back-pack. The back-pack is individually made (generally from aluminium and steel) to ensure that the wearer carries the weight of the costume as easily as possible. The
costume is also made to measure: the wearer lies on the floor and the
costume is drawn around him or her to scale.
Stage 3: Glass fibre or fishing rods are mounted on the backpack and the main design run between them, in much the same way as a peacock's tail. The basic material is then decorated with a variety of materials such as lace, glitter, plastic, strips of cloth.
Stage 4: If the costume also requires a body, a steel cage is constructed and foam or plastic overlaid. The body is then decorated or painted. If the
costume requires a skirt, the structure is made of glass fibre overlaid with cloth, in much the same way as a
wedding-dress hoop. It is vital that materials are as light as possible, so that the wearer can dance without feeling restricted.
Stage 5: If the costume requires a mask, this is made by carving layers
of wood into the shape of the mask, with the top carving containing the features of the mask. The mould is then overlaid with plastic.
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