You are here

The journey of the cloth

Published: 
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Ronald Guy James inspects the finished outfit he made from West African cloth for T&T reporter, Joshua Surtees, to wear on Emancipation Day. PHOTO: SHIRLEY BAHADUR

This is the story of a piece of fabric and its long journey from a bustling market in Dakar, Senegal, across the Atlantic to the Lesser Antilles (via London) and into the hands of Trinidadian fashion designer, Ronald Guy James, who transformed into an African suit, worn by this reporter at the Emancipation Day parade.

Before visiting Senegal in 2010, I had travelled once before to sub-Saharan West Africa, to Ghana. 

In Kumasi—just 160 miles north of the capital, Accra, but a seven-hour coach ride on potholed highways—I scoured the huge sprawling open air Central Market (also known as Kejetia) where thousands of stalls displayed vibrantly coloured and patterned cloth, alongside other stalls selling everything from tobacco to goat skin to cinnamon.

The bustling market was full of smiling faces, laughter and the ceaseless chatter of the local tribal languages (of which there are more than 70 in Ghana, 11 of which are officially recognised by the state.) There in Kumasi, the former seat of the Ashanti Kingdom, the people have a worldly, metropolitan outlook.

The real stuff

The cloth I saw had “Manufactured in the Netherlands” printed on it. When I asked stallholders to show me the “real stuff,” they told me this was the real stuff. 

The centre of Ghana’s cotton weaving industry is in Holland. A legacy of the trade ties the Dutch formed early in Africa and maintained after their brief foray into empire building on the continent had ended.

I bought three types of cloth, each six yards long and learnt a little about the symbolism of colours and patterns (red and black together means mourning wear, for example.) But it was only later, talking to James at his studio in St James, where he showed me a book called African Textiles, that I realised almost every intricate pattern in African clothing has a meaning or symbolism.

The Ghanaian cloth sat in my wardrobe for years. 

In the meantime, I ventured to Dakar in Senegal—an eye-opening, indescribably exciting experience. 

Nowhere in the world have I seen such displays of couture of such high quality. 

The French African city, on the western most tip of Africa, the Cap-Vert peninsula, is populated by people so stylish they put to shame the fashion capitals of the world: London, Milan, Paris and New York. 

Royal style

The blend of cosmopolitan Paris, combined with traditional African material and cuts, results in chic elegance, almost regal in appearance. 

The night club, Thiossane is owned by legend of Senegalese popular music, Youssou N’Dour, who performs on Saturday nights with a stage time of 2 am and a backing band of six conga players, two drum kits, several guitarists, bass, full brass and horns section and six backing vocalists. 

The fans milling around outside the venue in their finery resembled an epic, dazzling fashion show. 

At Marche HLM, the fabric market where Dakarois obtain their material, the fabrics included fine Malian waxed and beaten cloth (pummeled with wooden clubs until it shines) imported from Bamako. The best material costs up to £80 for six metres for a man’s size suit. 

I was told the more waxy it was, the more expensive, and that waxiness was a visible social signifier of wealth or status.

Among the dazzling displays, I stumbled across an Arab-looking man, with different cloth to most stalls. It turned out he was Mauritanian (the large country bordering Senegal to the north, consisting largely of the Sahara desert). On my way to Senegal, my flight from London, via Casablanca, had been forced to turn around and land in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, where it waited for a thick fog to lift from Dakar. 

We waited on the cold tarmac at 4 am for an hour, with sand seemingly swirling outside, before completing our journey.

The material I bought from the man was claret coloured and medium waxy. I took it home with me back to London where, like the Ghanian stuff, it sat in my wardrobe for years.

Eventually, when I moved to Trinidad, I brought the cloth with me, determined that I would finally get it made. Over a year since I arrived I am finally doing that.

OUT OF AFRICA

Arriving here last July, I was perplexed to see African kings and queens walking around town. 

It was the build up to Emancipation Day where, on August 1, Angelique Kidjo played a concert at the Savannah. The outfits on display in the VIP area were outrageous. 

To my amusement, some people looked like King Jaffe Joffer and his wife the Queen of Zamunda, from the Eddie Murphy film Coming To America.

The interpretation of African clothes was flamboyant, showy and, in some instances, ostentatious. But impressive, nonetheless. And why shouldn't it be extravagant, given that it is a once a year celebration?

It was a new thing for me, as a Londoner, where Emancipation is not commemorated. 

Eager to be part of the occasion this time round, I took advice from my landlady and rang up Guy James, a designer of note, held in high esteem in fashion circles and a former collaborator and employee of Peter Minshall.

James' schedule was rammed, as it had been in Carnival when I first enquired after his services, but he kindly found space for me.

Arriving at his rather quaint studio and house in St James, I was not surprised to find it decorated in an unconventional style: Yellow painted walls, spools of thread, random dresses hanging up everywhere, mannequins, sketches, books, magazines, vintage objects, posters and a large hole in the ceiling.

James, with both his ears pierced, is an entertaining and intelligent man who clearly lives for his work. I had sent him some round collar designs I thought would suit me but, upon my arrival, he told me he had other ideas, which he proceeded to sketch.

"It's not always on paper," he says, when I ask if this is his usual method. "Sometimes it's just in my head."

He tells me he'd like to make me a suit (shirt and trousers) but in a less overtly "African" style than typical Emancipation outfits.

"My style is, I suppose, what you would call Afrocentric," he says, then pauses. "The reason is, you find that a lot of us do African stuff for Emancipation, and a lot of us don't. The ones who don't, if you put on something African during the year, say 'you feel it's Emancipation awah?' Because it's the only time, as Africans, that we do such a thing."

Continuing the theme, he says "I am encouraging us to wear more African, by not saying African. We are all hybrids, most of us. In other cultures one would say 'I am half, let's say, Indian, and my mother is half so and so…' We, on the other hand, say we are mixed, or 'I'm half white' but we never say what we are. We will never say 'I'm half African.

"As a matter of fact I'm thinking of coming out with a new line, based on these thoughts, I already have a name, it's called Centric. Purely made from African fabrics in a way that's non-African, not saying African all all, but obviously Afrocentric, so when you see it you see it's African. And hopefully, in time, we will get used to the "African" and like it enough to actually say what it is."

When I eventually get the finished two-piece suit—consisting of a long-sleeved, double-breasted shirt and close-cut long pants—I know exactly what he means.

Scroll to the bottom of the page to see photographs of the making of the suit.

He has produced masterly garments that could be worn on most occasions, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Europe or in North America.

"I designed it with you in mind," he said. "Which is why I wanted to see you and the fabric first."

"This can be worn comfortably, outside of Emancipation and you can still make the African statement without people saying 'It's not Emancipation' or, in other words, 'why are you doing this?' Because you can reply, 'because it's nice.' Or they might say, 'oh yes I like that,' and then it registers that it's African fabric."

CUT FROM THE SAME CLOTH

Guy James first worked with African designs at a wedding he did 30 years ago. He tells me the photographs of the event have just re-emerged after having been lost for years.

It appeared in the papers as the three top weddings of the year, along with Prince Charles and Lady Di's wedding, in 1981. He used Bele-style dress (a Martiniquan, flowing dress style.)

The entire wedding party wore alpagats (African leather-soled slippers), he says. When I look confused he brings out a vintage edition of Cote Ci Cote La and shows me the illustration.

He mentions dashikis (the long buttonless shirts) and agbadas (expansive overcoats) and brings one examples to show me.

“I would never wear that in London,” I tell him.

“That’s why my head is in this space,” he says, pointing again to the classic European sketch he did.

Then he begins measuring me from head to toe, a first for me.

Two days later I return and the finishing touches are being added. Annette, his seamstress of 23 years is using a Singer sewing machine to hem the trousers.

I try on the suit, pricking myself with pins and James takes me to the mirror where I am amazed at the magic he has weaved.

He dashes some of the romance I had built up in my head my telling me he researched the print on my fabric “F-ESBI Bazin Riche” and discovered online that it was most likely woven in China. He thinks most “African” fabric, outside of the Dutch market, comes from China.

He has changed his sketch, which has short sleeves, saying “whenever I have extra fabric I tend to use it.”

The versatility of the outfit is impressive, I can wear an undershirt or turtleneck beneath it, I can wear the trousers alone, or the shirt with jeans. 

The double row of buttons has an aristocratic feel but, overall, I am reminded of early images of Fela Kuti and other pan-African cultural and political figures. Dare I say it, I even think of the exquisitely dressed dandies and peacocks of La Sape movement (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People) which originated in Brazzavile, Congo.

I pay Guy James and head off with my suit, ready to parade. 

The journey of the fabric—encompassing China, Mauritania, Senegal, Morocco, England and Trinidad—is finally complete.