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.

Flying on the ‘Duppy’ Airline

Once upon a time, our national airline was branded as ‘the little piece of Jamaica that flies’. These days, it’s the piece of Jamaica that has flown into the eager arms of Caribbean Airlines. Yes, I know we’re supposed to be celebrating the merger as a happy marriage. This is regional integration at its best, we’re told.

But I can’t help feeling that this arranged marriage is not an act of pure love. Air Jamaica appears to have been sold off as an unattractive, pauperised bride. And her father – not ‘Butch’ Stewart, but all of us taxpayers – have had to fork over a rather high dowry to Caribbean Airlines for the privilege of taking her off our hands.

I used to be a devoted Air Jamaica customer. The airline completely understood the Jamaican psyche. It accommodated all of our bag and baggage. Air Jamaica is the only airline I know that took head luggage and finger luggage. I once saw a woman on a flight with about five hats on her head. And so many of us took on-board so many more bags than the regulation one piece of hand luggage! We obviously had decided that these extra bags were quite legitimate finger luggage.

My loyalty to Air Jamaica didn’t blind me to the many failures of the carrier – though I must say straight off that the airline’s safety record has been impeccable. That’s the most important thing. And no other pilot in the world can land a plane more gently than an Air Jamaica aviator.  The recent crash of the Caribbean Airlines plane in Guyana is instructive:

It was the hauling and pulling, particularly during peak holiday seasons, that taxed the loyalty of even the most faithful Air Jamaica passenger. One Christmas, after being ‘batter-bruised’ by excruciatingly long delays, my sister, Donnette, came up with a wicked analogy to vent her frustration.

Flying with Air Jamaica was like being in a relationship with an abusive man. You stay because you are so committed to the idea of commitment. You become a co-dependent. Now that Air Jamaica no longer flies to Baltimore/Washington, my sister has been unwillingly emancipated.

‘Dig-out-eye’ season

Last month, as I tried to get a flight to DC, I was forced to consider the alternative carriers. My first ‘choice’ was American Airlines. They now have the monopoly on the best routes out of Kingston.  But they do not have a monopoly on safety.  Like that Caribbean Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane that overshot the runway, an American Airlines Boeing 737-800 crash-landed in Kingston almost two years ago in similar rainy circumstances:

Because I was booking late, the American Airlines fares were extortionate. I hadn’t realised that summer is ‘dig-out-eye’ season and I was not prepared to pay over US$1,200 for an economy-class ticket. So I was forced to contemplate the brave new world of ‘cheap’ air travel.

I first tried AirTran and got a quite decent fare from MoBay to DC and back to Miami. But I couldn’t understand why the fare from Miami to MoBay was almost double that of the entire outward route. Guess why? The return flight was via Chicago! So that was the end of that.

I next checked out Spirit, the notoriously cheap airline. I had never flown with them, but I knew their reputation. One of my friends, who owns a nursing agency in Maryland, tried to get a Jamaican employee to take a flight on Spirit. The woman turned up her nose and imperiously declared, “Mi naa fly pon no duppy airline.” The casual wit of so-called ‘ordinary’ Jamaican people is remarkable.

I decided to take my chance on the ‘duppy’ airline. I was going to DC for several reasons. Indigo, a seductive book written by one of my former students, Catherine McKinley, was going to be launched at the Smithsonian and I wanted to be there to celebrate the occasion. Catherine had come to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, in 1987 as an exchange student from Sarah Lawrence College and her talent was obvious even then. Catherine lovingly documents the meandering story of one of the world’s most valued pigments, the bluest of blues.

My friend Beverley East, who offers creative-writing workshops in her ‘Writer’s Lounge’ in DC, was hosting a book party for Catherine and asked me to introduce her. Beverley is a much-in-demand graphologist who wrote the best-selling Finding Mr Write: A New Slant on Selecting the Perfect Mate. She’s also the author of Reaper of Souls, a novel based on the Kendal crash in which several members of her family perished.

Discovering Rastafari

I was also going to participate in a round-table discussion on ‘Discovering Rastafari!’, an exhibition which has been mounted at the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum for the last four years.

Curated by resident anthropologist Jake Homiak, the Discovering Rastafari! exhibition has attracted huge crowds. Dr Jahlani Niaah, a UWI colleague who is on a fellowship at the Smithsonian, completing his book on Rastafari masculinities, had invited me to the round table.

Quite frankly, I was one of the naysayers who had objected to the curator’s use of the exclamatory ‘discovering’. It imaged that presumptuous fiction of finding the peoples of the Americas who were not lost, like Columbus. It also turned Rastafari into exotic creatures on display. We didn’t manage to have the formal conversation Jahlani had planned; but I did revisit the exhibition.

I also wanted to stop over in Fort Lauderdale for a family reunion. My paternal grandmother was a Dowdie, and the clan was gathering there. So I needed to make a multi-city booking. But because Spirit doesn’t offer that option online, I had to speak to an agent. I discovered that some of them specialise in misinformation. And that’s just the start of a rather long tale of woe. Suffice it to say, I took my maiden voyage on the ‘duppy’ airline and the spirits rode me all night.