Ivy Ralph the Original Diva, says daughter SherylSunday, October 07, 2018
Although it was a phone interview, there was no doubt that Sheryl Lee Ralph's face lit up when she started talking about her mother, Ivy Ralph.
The warmth and admiration that are due from a daughter to a good mother were evident in her tone. But equally so was a deep respect for the achievements of a woman who is regarded as a pioneer of Jamaica's fashion industry.
That the Jamaican Government saw it fit, in 1999, to invest Ivy Ralph with an Order of Distinction (OD) for outstanding contribution to the promotion of fashion for export was not surprising. After all, her creation of the Kareeba suit in the early 1970s started a fashion trend that spread globally.
“It was an idea I had as a child, a more comfortable style of dress for men. I wanted to help them get away from the jacket-and-tie routine, to something far more comfortably suited to the island's climate,” Ivy Ralph is quoted in her biography.
Jamaica's then Prime Minister Michael Manley, the bio explained, “saw the ensemble and immediately sought out Ralph. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. It took off like wildfire, everybody wanted a Kareeba and she was busy night and day just trying to keep up with the orders, exporting to Saks Fifth Ave, B Altman, and top boutiques across the USA and the Caribbean”.
The Kareeba, which was the subject of an article in the New York Times on March 24, 1976, was embraced by world leaders and celebrities, among them Barbados' Prime Minister Errol Barrow, Guyana's President Forbes Burnham, Tanzania President Julius Nyerere, the king of Swaziland, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammed Ali, and American pop star Michael Jackson in his young days.
“The Kareeba, the styled, open-neck, over-the-pants shirt and matching trousers suit has become the universally accepted dress for formal occasions, work and leisure wear,” New York Times reporter Ralph Blumenthal wrote in this 1976 article.
“When I hear my mother's name it's like they're talking about some queen,” Sheryl Lee Ralph told the Jamaica Observer last Wednesday.
She said that while the OD is one of the highest honours that the country can bestow on its citizens, the abbreviation, to her, means more than Order of Distinction. “For me, I say it's Original Diva, yes!” the accomplished stage, film and television actress, and HIV/AIDS activist explained.
“She is the original diva, divinely inspired, victoriously audacious,” she added. “I remember finding this huge, half-page article above the fold in the New York Times talking about this woman, Ivy Ralph, who was transforming men's wear throughout the Caribbean and I was like, wow! That's my mommy; wow!”
Before embarking on her stellar career as a fashion designer, Ivy — who was born in Chantilly, Manchester, in June 1928 — had travelled to the United States to become a nurse, her daughter told the Sunday Observer.
There, she met Dr Stanley Ralph at a hospital in Harlem and they got married, enjoying a loving and wonderful life, silencing those who had expressed doubts to the young Jamaican that the relationship would last.
“People were telling her he's an American and you know how Americans can be to West Indians, are you sure you want to do that. She said, 'you watch me',” Sheryl Lee Ralph told the Sunday Observer.
After living in the US for some time, the family moved back to Mandeville, Jamaica, where Sheryl Lee Ralph remembers participating in dance performances during Independence celebrations.
“Soon after that we went back to the States. Dad was out of grad school and we were there for another few years, and you know, mommy had this love for Jamaica — she was never going to be away from Jamaica. In fact, when she was there she said 'You know what, take me back to Jamaica because if I die in America I will never rest.' She said 'I cannot die here',” Sheryl Lee Ralph shared.
Her mother's decision meant that Sheryl had to commute between both countries as she balanced her career with maintaining her strong bond with her mother. That, though, was not a bother to the actress because, like her mother, she has an undying love for Jamaica.
“She always said if you're going to design for Jamaica you must design here. You can't buy up there and change the label,” Sheryl said.
“I remember when money was tight at one point, she said I must work with what is available to me, and she went and bought a whole bunch of old flour bags and turned them into these incredible shirts, which started a whole new trend because everybody was now taking crocus bags and flour bags, sugar bags... making hats out of them. She said you must support Jamaica and she was repurposing what was just pushed aside.”
“To this day we'll get calls from people from London, Australia, Paris, New York, asking if they can get the white blouse with the madras skirt, you know the bandana. Somebody will call every year asking if they can get one,” Sheryl Lee Ralph said.
Pointing to her mother's ability to create fashion items from material that most people would discard, she said Ivy Ralph would make cord from scraps and pieces of fabric.
“I have been wearing these necklaces and everybody asks where you get that from and I would say 'Miss Ivy, baby, Miss Ivy'; still tunning her han' mek fashion. I'll miss that,” added Sheryl, who said that her mother is not now in the best of health.
Ivy Ralph, graduate of the Fashion Institute of New York and founder of The House of Ivy, celebrated her 90th birthday in June this year. According to her biography, her friends had determined very early that the young woman, who could always be found with pins in her mouth while sewing, was destined to become a designer, “because she once swallowed a pin in sewing class and never stopped until the dress she was sewing was finished”.
Sheryl shares the view that their mother is “one of Jamaica's most influential women”.
But even more, the actress related, is that her mother is simply “a wonderful human being, devoted mother and wife, and a great Jamaican”.