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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Of Pigeon's Blood and Rose Gold

I write about most lifestyle and arts topics, including travel, fashion, art and culture but they don't always connect to each other. Occasionally, they relate in ways that are mind-boggling. I was assigned to write a designer profile for the jeweler's trade publication, JQ International. When I cover fashion, I expect to focus on the designer's artistic process and inspiration. For Miami-based designer J.R. deBellard, travel, art and culture turned out to be all a part of his process. Born in Venezuela and raised in Paris, J.R. mixes fascinating elements of his interests and background into his jewelry. His Ghana collection, featuring Adinkra symbols, sharks teeth, bear claws and rubies, blew me away. I studied the necklaces for a long time, trying to figure them out but I never did.

J.R. had to break it down for me. He only designs in yellow or rose gold because that's what he remembers elegant ladies wearing on the French and Italian Riviera when he was growing up. He has followed African politics for a long time so he chose Adinkra symbols, which are ancient Ashanti designs from Ghana, to adorn each piece. J.R. also loves English Victorian history and how aristocrats would bring back mounts and animal pieces like bear claws and sharks teeth and wear them engraved with flowers. Finally, he's also interested in the Brazilian candomble religion, which uses talismans like the figa, a clenched fist image, to ward off the evil eye. You'll see the fist all over Brazil but it's usually carved from dark wood. He dangles the pieces from black leather and often highlights his favorite stone, the Pigeon's Blood ruby.

So you have representation's from three continents and three different culture's --Ghanaian, Victorian and Brazilian, all in a striking and unlikely mix. It's sensual and deep jewelry that goes way beyond pretty. "I try not to design for a simple mind," I'm making jewelry with meaning," says J.R.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Orixa Chic

It's often said that there's no line between the sacred and the profane in Brazilian culture and I really witnessed that when I shopped there. It didn't matter if I was perusing a beach side vendor's cart, a stylish Rio boutique or a cluttered airport shop, there were always kitschy examples of the candomble religion. Most of the T-shirts, magnets, statues and paintings that I saw were splashed with images of the candomble orixas, or deities. Iemanja's mermaid tail waved on dozens of blue t-shirts and tiny sculptures of Oxossi brandishing his bow filled the shelves of many stores. I suppose this is similar to crosses and rosaries flaunted as fashion statements in the U.S. but it threw me off balance. These trinkets are clearly designed for tourists but was it crass or disrespectful to buy souvenirs that display a religion that you don't belong to? I've seen lunchboxes decorated with Krishna, the Hindu deity and hoodies embroidered with Tibetan prayer flags and I thought they were both in poor taste. Would I be any better with a shirt outlining the 12 main orixas?

I pondered this until Claudia, an expert on candomble and Bahia culture, presented me with a gift as I left a Bahia cafe. It was a sunny yellow, hand-painted shirt that displayed Oxum, deity of beauty and fresh water. She told me that candomble followers would never wear something that blatantly announced their personal orixa but that it was okay for visitors to buy an item that revealed their love of Brazilian culture. Taken from that perspective, I felt more comfortable. After Claudia explained some of the orixa associations, I bought two doll magnets outfitted in bright pink and purple, symbolizing Iansa, deity of the wind and Nana, deity of swamps and unfathomable wisdom. In the Mercado Modelo, I discovered small, glittering paintings of Oxum and Xango, deity of thunder and lightening. I think these souvenirs do represent the complex nature of Brazilian culture--the beauty, nature and spirit that seem to dwell in all that's significant to it.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Senegalese Style Goddesses

Strumming along on my fashion riff, New York Fashion Week attracted lots of scrutiny because of the recently discovered scarcity of models of color. Italian Vogue published an "all black" issue that sold out globally. Naomi Campbell displayed her dissatisfaction with the industry's inequality by starring in a violently fierce video on the topic. Of course, none of this is new, the fashion industry has flashed a suspiciously pale facade since its inception. This fresh awareness has reaped some benefits by exposing the problem and flooding the spotlight on any model of color that manages to hurdle over the industry obstacles. Two new-comers are grabbing lots of the attention and it didn't surprise me at all to discover that they are both Senegalese. Senegal is noted throughout the African continent for expert tailors, tall, slim citizens and a stunningly fly fashion sense. You see it in beautifully constructed gran boubous that flow over the men like water and the expertly cut gowns that drape just so on the women. Aminata Niaria and Kinee Diouf carry on that tradition. They stirred up NY fashion week strutting for European designers Cavalli, Lanvin and Westwood with a style goddess attitude that's totally Senegalese. There's an innate, non-chalant quality to Senegalese style that pops up in the streets of Dakaar as hoodies and jeans embroidered with African prints and in Paris, with French berets worn over intricately braided hair styles. A great example of this style blending is British singer Estelle. She may be a West London girl but her Senegalese heritage speaks eloquently through her casually eclectic ensembles and her fashion ease.

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fashion Journeys

You don't need to tackle the airlines to travel the world, just head to your nearest boutique. Fashions for 2008 and 2009 continue to be dominated by ethnic inspirations. The runways are awash in African prints, Caribbean colors and head wraps of every design. I love it all, I've never met a dramatic ethnic staple that I didn't like, whether it's a sumptuous Indian sari, an embroidered Mexican sundress or a woven Ethiopian gown. All of these garments are stuffed into my crowded closet because although the current fashion interpretations are great, there's nothing like the real thing. So, I'm spotlighting a designer that represents true global fashion. Trinidad & Tobago's Zadd & Eastman creates flowing ensembles that reflect Trinidad & Tobago's African and Asian cultural mix. They rocked Caribbbean fashion week in Jamaica and provide an elegant escort into Trini style territory.

Images courtesy of Fashion Over Style.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Fly Obama Mamas

Blending fierce African flavor with sophisticated French flair, Les Nubians personify global style. Crooning their signature mix of soaring harmonies, jazz melodies and African beats, the sister duo appeared at Chicago's African Festival of the Arts over Labor Day weekend. I covered the sizzling show and was struck by just how well they reflect the connections between Africa and the Western world. Slinking out in curve-skimming halter dresses inlaid with African print fabric at the top and embellished with beads and cowrie shells, Celia rocked a curly 'fro and Helene an afro puff. They sang in French and shimmied their hips in traditional African dance. They rapped in English and announced the African concept for audience participation: "You can't shake it with your brain. You shake it with your yaunch. That means your ass. The original Africanology is very simple. If you don't dance, we don't dance!" Les Nubians connected it all together when they explained their hit "Demain" from their debut album. "Demain means tomorrow in French," said Helene. "There are so many things we are foreseeing for tomorrow, like, the new president of the United Sates! The whole world is watching you! They used to mark time with before Christ, after Christ. Now it will be before Obama, after Obama! " Giving a nod to the ultimate symbol joining Africa and the West, Les Nubians repped Obama in true fly girl style.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Bahia Style

Flaunting flawless skin, a vibrant spirit and colorful fashion sense, Brazilian women are famous for their beauty. On my recent trip to Northern and Southern regions of Brazil, I wasn't shocked to discover that Brazilian women mostly rock 3-4 inch stilettos in sand, over cobblestones and through airports. Nor was I amazed that most wear very little make-up and exude a natural beauty that's eternally kissed by the sun. What grabbed my attention was the realization that it wasn't the glammed up cariocas that strut down Copacabana and Ipanema who captured my memory. It was the baianas, the striking women from Bahia that wear traditional white dresses, fly headwraps and ritual beads, who really rule.

Baianas represent the cultural symbol of the state of Bahia. Located in the Northern region of this huge country, Bahia is considered the cradle of Brazilian culture and Baianas personify it. Brazil claims the largest population of African descendents outside of Africa and Bahia is where the culture and the people are centered. Like all African art forms, there is more to Baiana fashion than just the superficial. The Baiana tradition of fabric and design was brought from West African Fon and Yoruba cultures. The weave, embroidery and placement of the fabric reflects social position and family background. The beads that all Baianas wear represent orixas or deities from the prevalent candomble religion, which mixes traditional African rituals with Catholicism. The way a baiana wraps her head, sashays down Salvador streets and smiles graciously, all reveal innate style that can't be duplicated.

Outside of Brazil, Carmen Miranda's appropriation of baiana style with fruit laden hats and exaggerated hip-swaying is the most familar image of a Bahian woman. But the true image can be found in the Baianas de acaraje, the women who sell the famed black-eyed pea fritters on Salvador streets. They work hard to earn a living, frying the fritters in sizzling palm oil, ladling peppers and onions over them in the hot sun and jostling for visibilty among Salvador's hundreds of peddlers. And yet, I never saw a splash of palm oil on any white dress. Never caught a headwrap skewed out of place or face that didn't beam invitingly. To me, that's the true essence of style; maintaining who you are whatever the situation.

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