One of the highlights of the last quarter of this year was a collaborative 2016 collection by Meiling Inc themed Night Women.
The designs showcased fresh modern fashion innovations while retaining the otherworldly mystique of the richly contextual 18th century universe of The Book of Night Women, a novel written by multiple award-winning Jamaican author Marlon James.
The event was held at the Big Black Box in Woodbrook, on November 24, and its creative collaborations included a dream team of artists: creative director Wendell Manwarren, visual artist Brianna McCarthy, accessories designer and artist Ashraph, stylists Anya Ayoung Chee and Kathryn Nurse, lighting designer Celia Wells.
In the novel, there are varied and complex female characters. The programme offered a quote from a book review by Kaiama L Glover describing the women as “a clandestine Jamaican slave sisterhood conspiring to stage an island-wide revolt.”
Excerpts were read in a short pre-show segment by the storyteller of the evening, elisha bartels. The mood of the pivotal scene where the women are plotting rebellion together was translated for the Big Black Box stage through narration, dramaturgy and dance.
The signature tailoring of the Meiling fashion label found itself threaded through the dark, roiling complexity of James’ characters. There seemed to be an attempt to marry the structure and clean lines of the classic Meiling aesthetic with a more organic and visceral artistic effect that would have been critical to translating the soul of James’ characters from the page to the fabric. The attempt to do this resulted in some very interesting looks.
Some pieces worked. These included asymmetrical shirt ruffles, all variations of the off-the-shoulder peasant-styled puff-sleeved blouses and the plunging back dresses with whimsical feather edged cords trailing along a deep V.
Cinched-waists were a sub-theme, with corset lacings along the spine providing just the right touch of modern and vintage in one. Some pieces were repeated on the runway with alterations–either with the addition or removal of a detail, which shifted the mood and context of the overall look. Those were interesting and transformative moments.
Additionally fascinating were the shocking accents of red that peaked through unexpectedly, a reminder, perhaps, of the hidden undercurrent of vitality and power carefully restrained and hidden within the parts these women and all women play in rebellions of varying contexts.
“I hope people made the connection with the book. (I) was inspired by the aprons of the slaves and the shawls that they wore and then for the ladies who owned… the owners of the slaves–the ruffles and the bustles. So I hope people got the connection,” explained Meiling.
Meiling confessed to have fallen in love with James’ novel, having met him in person. However, she had not the spark of inspiration to do a dedicated collection on the theme of the book until recently when she was moved by a J’Ouvert mask made by local artist Brianna McCarthy from McCarthy’s own 2015 exhibition, The Vetiver Night Women.
McCarthy felt completely at ease making the masks in partnership with Meiling and felt that the combination of artists coming together with all the different influences felt right.
“I was totally on board because I thought the Night Women was a theme worth exploring. Coming out of the magic that I felt with my show, and then with Meiling being touched by Marlon James’ book, it seemed to fit.”
McCarthy was even pulled out of her comfort zone and made a model on the runway in a spectacular all red, floor length design–the grand finale, strutting to the energetic strains of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man. She confessed that while she was very comfortable with making the art, she was incredibly anxious about doing the modelling.
Meiling then approached Wendell Manwarren for artistic input.
“I said, Wendell, you must read this book–because we share books. He read it, he fell in love with it and this crazy idea came with this fashion show that would start at my house and then we would walk and have a procession which would end up here (at the Big Black Box venue on lower Murray Street). He did the rest of the creative by coming up with the characters and the re-enactments and everything.”
In his programme notes, Manwarren further endorsed the evolution of fashion “where it is no longer sufficient to just present a collection of wearable garments, our designers are challenging themselves more and more to avail themselves of the many means at their disposal to help tell a story and make a statement that might resonate beyond the practicalities of making and selling garments.”
This potent collaboration was formed from a callaloo of influences incorporating literature, theatre, music, dance and fashion all stirred together. The Night Women fashion collection launch was a bold and memorable creative statement and a true testimony to the merits of meaningful intersection within the T&T creative sector.