The legacy of Olga Francis Keane is more than cutwork embroidery, wedding dresses, and fashion shows; it's the legacy of a trailblazer, pioneer, devoted wife, mother, loyal friend and risk-taker. Like the nation she was born and raised in, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, Francis Keane was small in size but enormous in stature and impact on the world.
Her impact continues on September 10, at a private by-invitation-only red carpet event at the Terra Nova All-Suite hotel. Her family, through its soon-to-be-launched fashion foundation, a first of its kind, is celebrating the life, fashion and legacy of the venerable designer with the award of a scholarship to a non-traditional student in fashion design at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. The foundation will also be launching a book titled Francis Keane: Her Life, Fashion & Legacy.
Francis Keane's ingenious spirit defined her nearly 50 years as "Jamaica's 'First Lady of Fashion." She started her fashion business two years after Jamaica gained its Independence. In 1988, Francis Keane was honoured by the Government of Jamaica with the conferment of an Order of Distinction in the Rank of Officer for her outstanding services to the fashion industry. She considered this a crowning achievement.
This phenomenal Jamaican woman saw the utility of fashion for more than just vanity. She honed her craft to help women build confidence in themselves and their abilities. Success enabled her to deepen the causes she loved and elevate Jamaica to the world stage. Her life has impacted her beloved family, country, and the world.
Francis Keane's name is synonymous with class, style and originality. She was a creative and imaginative designer who understood the power of originality, said Elaine Wint, broadcaster and communication specialist, in response to a burlap gown trimmed with green satin leaves which Francis Keane made for a contestant in the 1974 Miss Jamaica World contest. The contestant refused to wear the dress, which Wint wore barefooted, to broadcast the event on JBC TV. "She was willing to take risks with her designs even though she became prominently known for her cutwork embroidery," added Wint.
Francis Keane has the distinction of being the only Jamaican designer to show her design at the Ebony Fashion Fair showcase in Jamaica in the nineties. The renowned Madame Carven specially invited her to a spring/summer showing of her fashions at the House of Carven in Paris, France.
Signature Cutwork Embroidery
Francis Keane's signature style was cutwork embroidery, which she elevated to the level of haute couture and eventually made her own. It is one of the most difficult skills a seamstress can master. Her couture cutwork embroidery involved freestyle sketching unique patterns directly onto fabric. As a mason cuts away stone to reveal a sculpture, Francis Keane would carefully hand-cut and embroider her designs leaving beautiful patterns.
Designs imagined by her were brought to life through hours of intricate hand-cutting and needlework. Hence cutwork embroidery was destined to become her signature style and would form the staple of Francis Keane's collections throughout her career.
One of the designer's signature pieces for a show in Côte d'Ivoire, Africa, in 1993, was a wedding dress made entirely of cutwork embroidery. Everyone was in awe of the dress and thought it was lace; they didn't know it was handmade. Francis Keane was one of six Caribbean designers representing the African Diaspora around the world participating in the fashion event, titled "Voyageurs of Aventurier."
World acclaim came to Francis Keane for her exquisite wedding gowns, many of them incorporating popular cutwork embroidery. For years, brides would come from places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, which are all known for their bridal houses, to have their gowns made in Jamaica by Francis Keane.
She also designed the unforgettable dress for former Prime Minister, Portia Simpson Miller, both of whom have been friends for over 45 years. The masterpiece was 10 ½ yards of guipure lace with fitted sleeves and keyholes around the neckline. The dress boasted a detachable cathedral train trimmed with satin baskets and open outstretched hands representing her politics and her constituents.
Under the 809 trade agreement between the United States and countries of the Caribbean, Olga Francis Keane supplied bridal gowns for the US-based label Eve of Milady. She also exported clothes bearing her own label to England, Scotland, Wales, Canada and other Caribbean countries.
Dressing for success
Francis Keane was the official wardrobe provider for Miss Jamaica World to the Miss World contests over many years. Records show that she dressed Miss Jamaica World 1973 Patsy Yuen for the Miss World Pageant, in which Yuen was second runner-up to the winner, Marjorie Wallace, the pageant's first American winner.
Miss World 1993 Lisa Hanna and Miss Jamaica Universe 1989 and Miss Jamaica World 1991 Sandra Foster, who placed 4th in the Miss World Contest were both dressed by Francis Keane. Mickey Haughton-James, founder, Spartan Health Club and former franchise holder of the Miss Jamaica World Pageant, said: "Francis Keane was an invaluable part of the pageant during these many years."
Francis Keane advocated the importance of dressing well and appropriately, creating a value of style, and being dignified and self-aware about one's appearance, regardless of financial status. She always said, "Dressing for success should begin every morning of your life." This was the message she imparted to university students and to graduates of the Francis Keane Grooming and Finishing School and her Graduates' Fashion Parade.
In the execution of her art, she travelled the world, visited world-class fashion houses, supped with internationally known designers, and participated in trade and fashion shows. As she was always learning, the information gleaned was used to transform her clientele, local and overseas, into fashionable, elegant, and yes, enviable women.
She used her fashion shows to raise thousands of dollars for her philanthropic ventures, especially for the Bustamante Hospital for Children, which the foundation will continue to fund, as well as the Victoria Jubilee and Kingston Public hospitals.
Notwithstanding her career in fashion, Francis Keane and her husband Dudley raised five children. He was supportive of his "Dolly" for the 57 years they were married until his transition in 2009, Olga Francis Keane, transited in 2020, in Miami, Florida, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.
Francis Keane made her mark and many will tell you they are the better for it. In her soon-to-be-released book, on her life, legacy and fashion, many will come to a deeper appreciation of her tremendous contribution. "Her vision and generosity of spirit are what took her rungs above her contemporaries," said Lennie Little-White, executive producer, director, Royal Palm Estate.
— Christene King, veteran journalist