Sadie Soas — The mother of design

All Woman

MERCEDES 'Sadie' Jackson Soas will turn 82 tomorrow, and she is looking forward to nothing more than sleeping in late and waking up when she feels like it. After mothering four children and watching them become adults, and working hard for several decades as a pioneering fashion designer representing Jamaica on the global stage, the woman is now content to just relax and enjoy her golden years.

“I am looking forward to doing nothing,” she said, laughing, as she spoke with All Woman ahead of Mother's Day. “For many years, I didn't have the privilege of waking up late. Sometimes I didn't even know I could get out of the bed, but I had to get up. Now I'm glad to just wake up late and do my own thing.”

And no one can deny that the beloved 'Sadie' Soas is not deserving of her birthday and Mother's Day wish, since she has lived such an adventurous life and blazed an illustrious trail in the world of fashion for Jamaica.

Becoming a designer, for her, was never something she had to consider doing. She just always was.

“I never thought about it. It just happened. Even as a little girl, my parents couldn't pin me down. I was always working and doing something. Because my grandmother used to make children's clothing and sell them in the Cross Roads market, I usually just picked up fabric. I would dress up the dolls and change their clothes,” she reminisced.

Soas was born and raised in the Corporate Area. Her first home was in the community of Marverly on Molynes Road, and she attended Mico Training School, and then Excelsior High. While she had a colourful childhood and was very ambitious, she was thrust into the deep end of adulthood when she became a mother at 17 years old.

“I then migrated to Canada, where I spent five years. There was a project for domestic workers to go to Montreal and go to university for free. So I went to Sir George Williams University and worked as a domestic worker. That experience changed my entire life.”

Montreal was Soas' gateway to the world, as she soon began globe trotting in the fashionable cities of Paris, Italy, London and finally, New York, where she completed a Master of Arts degree.

After gaining work experience with some of the top fashion houses around the world, Soas returned to Jamaica and set up shop in 1973.

“I started with two sewing machines at home on one side of the house. I just started putting designs together, and it grew rapidly,” she recalled of the beginning of the internationally acclaimed Sadie Soas label.

The woman would go on to open Sadie Soas boutiques at the Montego Bay Racquet Club and Miranda Ridge Shopping Arcade in western Jamaica. The Poinciana Hotel in Negril also carried her designs in their boutique. In 1988, Sadie opened Fine Bouche, a boutique which operated in the New Kingston Shopping Centre.

“It's like my days never ended,” she said frantically. “I would work right back to 1:00 in the morning, to get up again at 6:00 clock. In spite of all that, I had my children to go to school, and I wanted to see them off. It was very tiring, but it was very important to me that they grew up educated and went to school.”

By this time she had met and married her late husband Fenton Soas, and was mother to three daughters and one son.

“I am from a business family and everybody in our family did their own thing,” she explained, noting that her parents were among the first black business owners in Jamaica and her grandfather, Thomas Theophelus 'TT' Jackson, was the first local furniture supplier to Courts Jamaica. “So for me it was just natural to own my business. I didn't know any other way.”

Soas soon became a representative of not just her family, but of her country. Her designs have been showcased on runways all over the world, and she has dressed many notable figures, including the Queen.

“The honourable Edward Seaga was my neighbour, and whenever he was travelling to England, he would always want to take something for Queen Elizabeth, and he would come and ask me to make something for her,” the old lady said, smiling sweetly at the memory. “He would always come back with a thank you letter, and questions about how I knew her size despite not having her measurements.”

Soas also stitched one-of-a-kind pieces for beauty queens Lisa Hanna, Sandra Cunningham and Cindy Breakspeare and top models such as Nancy Martin and Audrey Barakat, and other prominent figures.

“I was offering something that they had never seen before, and the beauty of it was that it was Jamaican. I used Jamaican textiles, I did hand paintings on the fabrics, and created my own look in everything. To me, it was brand Jamaica, even though it fitted the world,” she said proudly.

But even as she helped beautiful women to look even better, Soas has always been extremely passionate about making her country better as well. She has spent a lot of time in recent years working with at-risk youth in communities such as Trench Town.

“They wanted me to help with the aesthetics, for me to fix up here and there, but I was more for the children there,” she said knowingly. “Yes it's nice to fix up the space, that is fine, but it's the mentality that I wanted to change. It's encouragement that I wanted to give. I'm still very passionate about that.”

The industrious woman is very healthy and independent at 82, with a perfectly clean bill of health. She snickered that she has never been to a hospital except to have her babies or visit friends. She shared her secret with us:

“I love and I don't hate. I think it's very important to love people. I just do me. I don't question anybody and I'm not jealous of anybody, because I am God's favourite child.”

Every now and then she still jumps on her sewing machine and stitches up a storm, and she enjoys gardening and beautifying her home and community. She is pleased with the work she has done in raising four children to become professionals and great parents, and helping to build Jamaica.

“I don't want a job. I don't want to chase money. I just want to live in love and encourage the next generation and bring about change,” she said. “There is only one thing… if the country could make a conscious effort to deal with our young men and try harder to develop them, we'd be way ahead. That's the only thing that could take me back to work.”

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