Layne – High Priestess of Fashion

Honour guard for Layne

Mrs. Elaine ‘Layne’ Witter, diva designer, was laid to rest on Thursday, August 4.  She gave me a message to be delivered at her funeral: “I wanted to make more beautiful clothes.”  The restless creativity of the artist has finally been stilled.  But Layne has left a legacy of classic designs that confirm her enduring reputation as one of Jamaica’s grand icons of style.

Dogon Creation Dance

The Dogon people of Mali in West Africa have collectively fabricated an evocative creation story which I’ve adapted to celebrate the life of Layne, high priestess of fashion. I know that all fashionistas will understand the essence of this story of origins:  In the beginning, an ancient spirit spat thread out between her teeth, moved her tongue, and opened and shut her jaws to create weaving in much the same way that another god went about creating the word.

Weaving is conceived as a divine act of verbal creativity.  Cloth contains words, so to speak.  Layne told many tales in the beautiful garments she lovingly created for so many of us.  The life cycles of birth, graduation, marriage, divorce, remarriage and death provided many opportunities for Layne to weave her magic, designing beautiful garments that spoke eloquently about our trials and tribulations and triumphs.

Layne at work

I can’t remember exactly when I met Layne.  It was some time in the 80’s.  It was my friend Velma Pollard who introduced me to the temple of high fashion at the Twin Gates Plaza.  And it was Kathryn Shields, now Brodber, who discovered Layne and shared the good news with Velma.  Kathryn had gone to the dentist, Dr. Andre Foote, whose office was next door to Layne’s boutique, and had just wandered into the world of haute couture by accident.  Or design, as I prefer to think.  Kathryn was warmly greeted by Layne who announced, “You are my very first customer.”

Cost per wear

Before meeting Layne, Velma used to shop at the Sensation and Climax boutiques. Layne didn’t have to depend on a sensational, orgasmic name to seduce clients into her temple of high fashion.  Her name was the only signature she needed.

The first time I went to Layne’s I was spellbound by the magnificent designs and the precision of the finishing.  Every garment was a gem.  In a daze, I took a look at the price tags and decided that these garments were much too expensive for my poor pocket as a junior lecturer at the University of the West Indies. But I went back regularly to feast my eyes.

Then I discovered the principle of ‘cost per wear’ and had my Eureka moment.  A supposedly expensive garment is much cheaper in the long run than a cheap garment that has only a short run in your wardrobe.  If you buy a blouse for $500 and wear it only a couple of times  (alright, say 5 times) because it falls apart so quickly, that blouse costs you $100 per wear.  If you buy a blouse for $1,500 and wear it on and on and on – ‘til Layne has to ask you, as she would, ‘yu not tired of wearing that? –each wear is far less costly than the price tag would, at first, suggest.

Layne design; fabric from Ghana; Peter Ferguson photo

      I remember quite vividly the many occasions on which I’ve gotten so many compliments all over the world on the custom-made clothes Layne designed just for me.  I would always catch her with the extraordinary fabrics I brought home from my travels, especially from Africa.  As I would tell her all the time, ‘the only thing dem haute couture Parisian designers have over you is the cloth.’  And I would try my best to find beautiful cloth that excited Layne’s imagination.  And she would laugh and tell me about the people she would have to ‘run’ with their insubstantial cloth that was not worth her talent.

Made in Jamaica

There is so much philosophy woven into African textiles and garments.  Threads of Time:  African Textiles from the Traditional to the Contemporary was the theme of a 2007 exhibition at Long Island University’s Hillwood Art Museum.  The exhibition catalogue recorded the fact that “cloth in Africa functions as a kind of language, and facilitator of speech. In Africa, where oral traditions often take precedence over written ones, cloth plays an important role in this communication.”

A beautiful expression of the language of cloth was the conversation I had with a colleague at an academic conference at Kent University in England over twenty years ago. It was 1989 at the annual meeting of the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies. The third morning I stepped out in my third linen dress designed by Layne, a woman came up to me and introduced herself in this way: “I’m Italian.”

I guess she wanted to establish her credentials as a fashion connoisseur.  Then she continued.  Not her exact words. It’s the spirit of what she said that matters; and I don’t mean the ‘duppy’ airline:   “I’ve noticed you every morning and I just have to tell you that your clothes are absolutely beautiful”.  I thanked her for the compliment and with great pride said, “All made in Jamaica.”

In Ghana, on the occasion of a funeral the women say, “We are here with you!  We are here!  Tie your cloth to my cloth.  Forget everything.  We are here!  We will carry this sorrow with you!”  This lovely image of consolation comes from the book Indigo written by Catherine McKinley.  As we mourn the passing of our beloved Layne, let us tie together the beautiful cloths that she has made into long-lasting garments.  Let us not only mourn but also celebrate the life and legacy of our high priestess of style and fashion.