Friday, March 07, 2008

Fashionista to Watch: Diana Baird N'Diaye

Hi Darlings:

I decided that I should continue my conversation with Diana Baird N’Diaye not just because of her occupation but because within the first few minutes of speaking with her I was enthralled by her fashion familiarity and scholarship.

So, I set up a meeting with her because I felt there was a lot to learn and discuss more specifically, about diversity of fashion in DC.

Diana and I started our discussion with the pleasantries: her job – curator of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival; jobs prior to present – studied maroon communities and worked on a program in Senegal; lived in DC – 18 years, grew up between Bermuda and Brooklyn. Her mother and father were originally from Guyana and Barbados respectively. Great…after that was out of the way on to the business of fashion. After hearing all of this and realizing that she is a Doctor of Anthropology and Visual Studies I wanted to know if she had any fashion experience…out of curiosity.

Well it turns out Diana’s history as a fashionista is fantastic. In high school she discovered her passion for fashion and took a patternmaking and draping class. She also attended a workshop based program called “Haryou-Act” under the guidance of Zelda Wynn Valdes the well-known, African-American go to fashion designer and costumer for celebrities such as Ruby Dee, society mavens and eventually – designer of the now famous Play Boy playmate bunny suit…le gasp! She considered Ms. Valdes an “incredible teacher”. (Ms. Valdes clothing designs are currently on display at the Black Fashion Museum) Her training under Ms. Valdes led to a presentation at the 1967 World Fair in Montreal.

Diana was inspired after high school to start her own clothing line that she displayed in her mother's Brooklyn dry cleaning store Africaribia. She was approached by Macy’s to provide clothing for their stores but the idea of providing one-of-a kind designs per store (a mandate at the time) was overwhelming so she did an about face and went on to NYU instead to study anthropology and learn about world clothing. She stuck on this path which has led her to the Smithsonian.

I did not expect all of this when were started our conversation…I am even more impressed.

Diana and I continue our fashion discussion. We discuss how fashion plays a part in her work with the folklife festival. She notes that the merger of traditional fabrics and modern looks is a fascinating new trend that breathes life to the fabrics keeping them alive, in fashion and in commerce. Diana explains in 2002 Silk Road Folk Life festival how the Uzbekhastan display featured Ikat silk used in evening gowns and Kurdish hard silk wedding coats and vests.

Diana next discusses diversity in Washington DC. We finally get to the topic du jour but I am content at what we’ve spoken of so far. She goes on to say that Washington DC is unique because there is a huge population of African dressmakers specifically Ghanaian and Senegalese as well as Caribbean immigrants who have settled in the area. She notes that the long standing tradition of dressmaking in the Caribbean is a great addition to fashion in the city. Local fashion influences mentioned at Tony Anyiam who makes clothing out of traditional Mali Mud cloth; Senegalese dressmakers who import prints and tie dye fabrics from home. She urges that there is a need more U St.-type boutiques (small and supportive of independent designers) and boutiques like Toast and Strawberry (Rosemary Reed Miller’s now closed store). We should keep following the rebirth of crocheting and knitting and handmade and wearable art.

Advice to young designers: “People in DC are feeling a lot freer to experiment with clothing. [They need] designers of innovative clothes you can wear for work, at the office and afterwards at a cocktail party. The challenge will be to dress the baby boomer generation who are now in a position to pay. However, these designs need to be flattering and sensible and made with quality fabrics… A fashion incubator will stimulate Washington Dc fashion.”

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