Lifestyle

Fashion Notes From King Street

Sunday, July 28, 2019

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My earliest recollection of King Street was in 1951. I was about to enter high school and had to choose between the sciences and the arts. My mother was the manager of the dress department of one of the stores on King Street, so it was an easy choice for me. Of course, I decided on the arts as there was a sewing component to that, and I had to learn to sew.

King Street was a fashion paradise, which my friends and I would walk up and down. We would start at the craft market, which was located below Port Royal Street, up to the Kingston Parish Church and down on the other side of the street. We would marvel at the array of fashions from every corner of the world. The windows of the stores were our windows to the world. The storeowners at that time would travel the world to introduce Jamaica to the finest and newest trends in the fashion industry. Switzerland, for the finest cottons, voiles, and lace edgings; France, for beautiful laces; China for the gorgeous silks; England for the cashmeres; Ireland for the linens; and India for the beautiful embroidered silks and the most alluring saris and stoles. It was a virtual tour of the world when stocks arrived.

The cruise ships would arrive at Victoria Pier and tourists would stroll up and down King Street as there were also stores catering to them with all the world's perfumes, angora and cashmere stoles and sweaters, beautiful suede and kid leather gloves, and an endless supply of Jamaican rum, as well as other known alcoholic brands.

On these days the merchants would provide rum punch on the sidewalk for the tourists to sample and there were also mento bands playing for their entertainment.

There were several dressmakers making clothing for the department stores, among them the late Flossie Thomas. She recreated dresses designed by the great French designers for all the socialites, as well as wedding dresses and evening gowns. She also designed and made dresses for the beauty contestants of the day. The beautiful fabrics were there, and dressmakers created magical garments from them.

It is impossible to forget some of the stores.

Abe Issa was always at the door of his Issa's department store and he greeted every person who walked through the door knowing most of them by name, and would ask for your name if he did not know it and then never forget it. Issa's was known for always having the latest fashions.

Then there was Nathan's Department Store at the corner of Barry and King streets. It was known for introducing the first escalator in Jamaica. The Chandirams operated an exotic store with beautiful imports from India as well as perfumes and other fashion accessories demanded by the tourists. There was Bardowell's where tourists would order cutwork embroidered garments. Measurements were taken, linens chosen, and these would be shipped to customers when completed.

There was also Times Store selling school supplies and everything that the department stores did not sell. And I cannot forget Kinkead's pharmacy. They had the first soda fountain, in my memory, serving the most delicious malts and ice cream.

Times Store would sponsor the float parade down King Street and especially at Christmas when they put on the Santa Claus Float Parade. Santa would come to King Street with fanfare, on a float, and be resident at Times Store for the Christmas period.

By 1960, we were introduced to Ammar's department store. The Kingston Parish Church built stores on their property and Ammar's became the one-stop shopping centre as it sold soft furnishings as well as fashion merchandise, which was a welcome addition to the merchandise being offered on King Street.

For her part, Ammar's family matriarch Phyllis Ammar tells SO that Ammar's King Street was in 1964 the first downtown retail store to add air-conditioning to the retail experience. “My husband [Michael] dressed in a tie and shirt. Everyone did. It was the way we received our customers who, by the way, were elegantly clad complete with stockings, heels and gloves as they strolled along King Street. There was LA Henriques for china, jewellery and perfume; Joseph's community store; Issa's had two stores; and Eddie Hanna had Hanna's; and Roy Morin was the go-to store for bespoke suits.

“This was our life,” she shares as she adds Kingston Bookshop [now run by Steadman Fuller] to the list. “Nathan's, Kinkead's and Times Store were popular haunts for their soda fountains, too,” she recalls.

Downtown was also home to Barclay's Bank, the iconic Myrtle Bank Hotel and Kingston Parish Church. “There was no uptown shopping until Lee Issa opened Tropical Plaza, so downtown was where everybody came to shop.” Downtown was also where the children of the storeowners like Michael Ammar Jr played. “We used to walk and play downtown... in every nook and cranny. At Christmas we would after church join the float parade and stay out until late enjoying the festivities.”

There were challenges but family patriarch Michael Gibran Ammar turned them into opportunities; his focus, long before it became a business adage, was “thinking outside the box”. When they found that their store was “on the wrong side of King Street for retailing, they launched an ad campaign that declared “Cross the street to Ammar's — better bargains by far.” And it worked! Ammar continued to buck tradition and offered a no-hastle return and refund policy.

Asked about their superlative achievements their eyes immediately lower. “We were driven by desperation and inspired by lack of funds!” He continues, “You had to be prepared to work hard to remain competitive and, by extension, in business.”

The Ammars have remained loyal to their downtown roots and with the third generation, Michael Ammar III, now occupying office space, it's safe to say that they will be part of King Street's third iteration. As Ammar Sr would say, “You only make progress if you stick out your neck.”

Although not located on King Street, Price Rite Bargains, owned and operated by 78-year old Sonia Henry, has been part of the fashion fibre of downtown for 31 years. Henry has been in business for six decades. Her father, Frederick Roland Henry, a pharmacist, operated a pharmacy and fabric store at 27 Spanish Town Road prior to relocating to 29 Oliver Place (next door to the City Central Police Station). Henry, after completing high school at Wolmer's, attended the College of Arts Science & Technology (CAST) now UTech (the University of Technology) where she studied business and also pursued a secretarial course.

Frequent buying trips to New York's fashion district exposed her to many Jewish families who supplied her with fabric. “They always gave excellent service and sourced the best quality. It was interesting to see their children over the years move away from the business, becoming lawyers and doctors.

I remained, however, sourcing not just fabric but also trimmings and wedding accessories for top designers of the day, notably Francis Keane and Mae Feurtado. These fashion icons are sadly, for the most part, forgotten. The store in its unique way continues their legacy; their names have been replaced by today's crop of designers like Uzuri and Dexter Huxtable. The shop is still frequented by dressmakers from as far away as St James and Sav-La-Mar.

Up until 1967, Swiss Stores was a division of the Rum Company of Jamaica. In 1934, on one of his trips by train from Zurich to Geneva, the then owner of the Rum Co Rudolph Waeckerlin met Hans Wilsdorf, the inventor of the Rolex watch. Wilsdorf convinced him to try and sell his watches in Jamaica and that is how Swiss Stores started. A few years later, some of the watches sold needed repairs and, as a result, a watchmaker was recruited from Switzerland.

He was replaced in 1958 when the retail location was moved from King Street to the present location on Harbour Street.

The Harbour Street location was the first retail store on the island to be fully air-conditioned. They were warned that nobody would want to push a door to go shopping. They were gravely mistaken.

Then managing director Peter Bangerter (now-deceased), in a 2018 interview with SO, shared, “We built up the most sophisticated service department, and in 1960, with a head jeweller from Switzerland joining us... we started manufacturing individually handcrafted items, which led to a natural progression into mass production, especially for the tourist business. This allowed us to employ over 20 locally trained goldsmiths. At that time we had branches at both airports, at CasaMontego in Montego Bay and Main Street, Ocho Rios.

Up until 1973, downtown Kingston was a very busy shopping area, with cruise ships in the harbour and over 100 customers inside Swiss Stores. Bangerter also told SO how they had to control the door, with persons lined up on the street. “Duty-free shopping was very popular also, with companies like Stanley Motta, English shop LA Henriques, and others. Sales were fantastic, and the total sales of watches alone could reach over 3, 500 annually! We had no security problems; no grilles on the windows or glass doors. We had 12 outside show windows and never locked up any items in the vault at nights.”

There was no Deiwght Peters, CEO of Saint International, back then but there were in-demand models like Adrienne Joan Duperly.

Paul Issa remembers as a child going to fashion shows on the fourth floor of Issa's of King Street. Cynthia Wilmot used to organise them.

“The models of the day were Rosie de Souza, and Joan Duperley, and later on, Barbara Blake Hannah, who modelled for my sister's line: Carole Issa Fashions.

“Afterwards, you could go and have a milk shake on the balcony of Nathan's, right next door, and look through LPs at their record department. Or walk up to Kinkead pharmacy and have an ice cream soda there.

“It was a different time...” It certainly was!

 

Former model Adrienne Joan Duperly takes us down memory lane...

“Still a teenager, I loved the excitement of fashion shows in-store, at the Women's Club and hotels. Awed by the models' confidence, poise and beauty, I wanted to be like them on the runway.

“In 1957, my parents sent me to the Coronet Modelling Academy in Miami. I became a professional runway, showroom and photographic model, an important experience which led me to a successful modelling career and later to the title of Miss Jamaica 1958. (I was, at 16 years old, the youngest-ever Miss Jamaica). My cousins, Betty and Dorothy Holtz, and best friends were regular models.”

Handling her career was her mum Doris Duperly (her dad was known as 'Buds' Armand Oswald Duperly.)

JTB photographic model assignments — Fred Wilmot

Runway Fashion Show's assignments — Cynthia Wilmot.

 

Internationally:

Coronet Modelling Academy in USA 1957- 1958

Lucy Clayton Modelling Agency in London, 1958-1959

 

Fashion Shows on King Street:

Back in the day, Issa's King Street promoted weekly fashion shows downtown, and occasionally Nathan's and Bata Shoe Store. Plus, there were a few extravaganza fashion shows presented at the Ward Theatre. Generally, models were paid one pound sixpence per live show. I remember shows usually held downtown on Saturdays, on a weekday for cruise ships; seasonal themes like Christmas and Easter could be weekday or evening.

It was great fun, modelling in those days. There was very little pressure about being unnaturally skinny as there is today. Models were young, beautiful Jamaican girls, some still in school, some at their first job. Duperly attended St Hugh's Preparatory and St Andrew's High School for Girls and The Jamaica School of Music.

 

What was modelled...

Formal wear, cut pearls, diamanté, embroidery and beading adorned gowns. Daytime outfits bright fabric and colourfully decorated most popular off-the-shoulder blouses, fitted or full skirts with starched crinolines, knee or ankle-length, cut-work linen or cotton, and hand-painted ones with Rhoda Jackson style figures and flowers. Strapless dresses with fitted bodices, straight-cut or flowing skirts. Wrap-around skirts and sari styles were popular and were worn with elasticised stretch tops and bandanas.

Modest one-piece, high-cut bathsuits or shorts, worn under see-through cover-ups for pool/beach. My personal favourite bathsuit was a black long-sleeved one-piece with lace trim at the neck; a cover-up cut from a piece of fisher- net.

Matching shoes, dress and hats and handbags of straw were all the rage. Accessorising 'jewellery was silver bangles, John Crow beads, beach shells, raffias, turtle shell and pieces of coral colour complementing each outfit (endangered now and illegal).


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