From Paper Dolls To Haute Couture
I was six years old when I became aware of sewing. I had accompanied my mother to her dressmaker and picked up fabric scraps from the floor and took them home. My mother's fear that I'd swallow a sewing needle prevented me from executing my first stitch. I was determined, however, to fulfil my dream and got hold of a pin, tied the thread to it and patiently manoeuvred the threaded pin through the holes I had created. This was how I began sewing dresses for my dolls.
As a result of my parents' migration to the US in 1945, my two sisters and I went to live with our teacher from St George's Girls school, Mrs Enid M Holding, at 29 Dunrobin Avenue. We soon became friends with our neighbour's children and Patsie Bell became my heroine. Why? It was simple, really: she had a collection of the most beautiful paper dolls and allowed me to trace the dolls. Soon they'd be dressed in my designs. I became obsessed, and no longer went outdoors to play unless forced out of the house. I did nothing else but create styles for my paper dolls.
I joined my mother in 1952 and my new address became Montclair, NJ. I was by then designing and making my own clothes. We were at Montclair High and required to take gym classes. Not liking the gym suits bought by the other girls, I designed and made my own. I immediately became the school's fashionista. The schools' guidance instructor heard of my talent in designing and sewing and recommended me for a design scholarship at a fashion school of my choice in NYC. I chose The McDowell School of Fashion.
I had no idea until then that there was such a field as dress designing. I had been taking courses to become a registered nurse!
My first real position as a designer in New York's fashion district came in 1957.
Whilst working at Ce Bon Fashions at 1375 Broadway, I'd see my designs featured every Sunday in the New York Times, in show windows in department stores on Fifth Ave, or worn by stars in film and TV. The Sixties were the best years of my life... Jazz singer Carmen McRae wore one of my jumpsuits. I was the first designer to create jumpsuits, which became the biggest fashion trend. The actress Jane Rusell, considered at that time Hollywood's leading sex symbol, wore one of my designs, and Frank Sinatra called for an evening dress for his mum.
I moved to Italy to get away from it all; my marriage had failed and I needed to get away. I lived in and out of Italy for 36 years from 1958-1996 and worked with designers to the stars Sorelle Fontana, Fernanda Gattinoni (credited with reviving the high-waisted empire style) and tailor to the stars Emilio Federico Schuberth.
I designed wedding gowns for Marisa Boutique in Via dei Condotti (Rome's smartest shopping strip). I even had my own sartoria in Messina, Sicily with the wife of the local senator, Nina Germana, and in Rome with another partner, Kay Marelle.
My most demanding designs were draped garments in silk chiffon and silk jersey.
My most horrific were 'dickies', which were worn inside V-neck sweaters or jumpers. They had to have a set number of buttons. The allotted sew time was a mere five minutes and each had to be perfect.
On Working Globally...
I was the first Jamaican woman hired by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.
I worked with Jones of New York for 15 years as their quality control technician. This required me travelling to some 50 of the 90 countries in which they operate. Three years were spent in South Korea.
Working globally means QUALITY assurance. No other requirement is as important as quality. My job required teaching operators, supervisors and management in shipping from their factories. Only 100 per cent quality garments are accepted. Each garment must meet specific measurements. There is little or no tolerance in size and measurements. Fit is a must, otherwise factories are charged at retail price for every garment not meeting these standards. It's all about quality workmanship and fit.
-- As told to SO
Special thanks to Dr Sara Lawrence.
E-mail Kay Davitian @firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photos: Marlon Reid)