The delighted designer: “I really like myself; If I didn’t know me, I’d want to know me.”
When I first met Lois Samuels, she was a carefree 21-year-old giddily dancing her way through fittings in Barbados for a Ruven Afanador photo shoot. A cavalcade of fashion to a jungle music soundtrack, the seemingly endless try-ons went into the wee hours with Lois remaining bright and cheery as the Bajan sun. Fast forward to 2011 and the ever-beautiful thirty-something remains upbeat, tempered with the wisdom of life experience. We met in her Upper West Side apartment to discuss her journey from model to mom to fashion designer of the sumptuously crafted the Vessel. by Lois.
We spoke of our love of Grace Coddington, the brilliant heart of Vogue fashion in the film, The September Issue, and our shared disdain of cigarette smoking. “I want a clean cough,” she says. We then got down to the business of viewing the collection: clean, simple silhouettes in lush fabrics: wool twill, baby camel, silk lurex and silk twill. She loves jumpsuits, “they’re like a one-pot meal,” and she enjoys the ease of both. She’ll always have a variation on the theme in each collection. Many of her looks have detachable details like modesty panels for cleavage, cuffs, collars even bustles to make each multi-functional. “I think a woman can have five looks for the month.” Her longing for simplicity has its roots in her schoolgirl days donning uniforms in her native Jamaica and has influenced her aesthetic. Those days also fostered a sense of respectful decorum that she “didn’t particularly like” as a student. “I appreciated it more when I got older and sought some sense of calm and structure in my life and my wardrobe. I saw how much structure it brought in the chaos of life. There is already so much to think of and plan. Clothing shouldn’t necessarily take so much of that thinking time.”
She speaks lovingly of her country upbringing. “I spent most of my younger years on my father’s farm in Manchester. It was a beautiful, old, wooden home in the mountains of St. Paul’s supposedly once owned by the English. At that time we harvested pimento, picked and dried coffee from the land on the barbecues before sending the products off to the various factories for export. There were always fruits: mangoes, tangerines, bananas, papayas and on any given day you could find me seated in an orange tree peeling up to a dozen sweet oranges at a time. I dreamed of becoming a farmer. Loved the smell of cows, the soil after a rainy day, the muskiness from the trees.” She has a particularly fond memory of “planting a small patch of carrots and pulling the little ones from the earth and consuming it with the dirt. What a lovely combination that was. I couldn’t imagine eating the dirt in America.”
Uniformity: the sweet-faced Lois (center) with her classmates from the Hampton High School for Girls in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica.
Eventually she and her older sister (they would learn of their older half brother as they grew older) went to live with their mother in the town of Santa Cruz. “It was more convenient for schooling for both ourselves and my Mom who was a school teacher.” She credits both parents for being “exceptionally supportive” as they co-parented. Her Mom, as primary parent, “was always present and stood by my sister and me…I always had great interest in the arts. From ensuring I was in ballet classes to making sure there was a piano when I expressed interest in music,” her Dad made it happen. “When I was scouted by the Jamaican agency, Pulse, to become a model, he strongly encouraged it.” There was a local competition and a delegation was taken to the USA and Europe. She signed in the US with Bethann Management where the sprightly Tyron Barrington nurtured her early career. She’s lived in both the US and Europe ripping the runways of Christian LaCroix, Issey Miyake and Thierry Mugler and alighting under the photographic gaze of the likes of Steven Meisel, Ellen Von Unwerth and fellow Jamaican, Walter Chin.
The Barbados shoot for Essence Magazine; one of the “hip kids” cast to launch the Calvin Klein fragrance ckOne.
Though she continues to model occasionally, Lois has over the years pursued other passions including writing (her model memoir, A Glow in the Dark was published in 1999) creating a family (she and former husband Mark became the ecstatic parents of son Malo in 2001) photography (Jamaica Through My Eyes, a photo homage to her homeland was published in 2007) painting and fashion design. In fact, her Fashion Week debut would be inspired by the paintings of Jacob Lawrence.
A collection of photography, Lois’ second published book.
After several years of living in London, she returned to the states and assisted bespoke designer Jussara Lee briefly before becoming Account Manager at menswear designer Thom Browne, both positions offering invaluable lessons about quality control in the production of high-end fashion. She’s wanted to design fashion since she was about 14-years-old, “But the journey took me in many different places until almost three years ago when I felt it was the time.” So in September 2009 she unveiled her new line, the Vessel. by lois, to critical acclaim during New York Fashion Week. The significance of the label’s name? “I see us all as vessels of life and love. I also see clothing as vessels that uplift and protect the wearer,” she says.
the Vessel. by lois Spring Summer 2010 collection. Video: Grand Central Videos
When asked about her inspirations she replies, “Life inspires me. I never follow trends.” She notes that she respects indie designer, Lola Faturoti and wishes expansive growth for her. She also is heartened by the success of African-American designer Tracy Reese. “I really admire Tracy Reese. She’s built an empire,” she says noting the growing brand umbrella. She’s unmoveable. She’s solid…I have great admiration for the individuals in fashion who carve a place for themselves and their creations. And maintain it in this industry. Like Donna Karan and Issey Miyake.”
“I’m playing a lot with capes,” Lois says of her latest collection from the floor-length, dramatic entrance-maker to the jaunty capelet. She smartly showcased the ebony and ivory pieces for Fall/Winter 2011 with larger-than-life black and white photographs by Joanna Totolici. Lois herself is the sole model, presenting a strong, modern, sexy woman, The Vessel woman.
A Vogue Italia feature; the Jacket, from Fall/Winter 2011 with removable bustle in wool twill.
She’s taking it back home to Jamaica for Spring 2012. “The vibrancy, the color, the flowers,” will be in full bloom. “Jamaica is a wonderful country and in all my travels I am yet to feel the energy that thrives there. From the topography of the land, it’s lushness … the flora and fauna… the vibration in the air and passion of the people, the flavor of our foods our music, beaches it’s endless.” She’ll continue to develop the Vessel., embrace the fact that her baby boy will be ten-years-old this fall and get to know the younger half sister she discovered via Facebook a few months ago. “It’s been an experience,” she says.
Her trove of favorites is largely experiential, have a look…
1. Motherhood. “I can’t imagine life without my son. He’s so supportive. I’m always working around him.” (and he will chime in if he thinks a look is too revealing) “Motherhood is a gift.”
Lois’ joy: glowing with the great love of her life, Malo.
2. Love. “Of the Divine, my son, family and friends.”
“Love” spelled out in American Sign Language. © All rights reserved by Mariahhh1.
3. Fruits and Foods of the Land. With farming in her DNA, she enjoys the bounty that the earth yields.
Coffee, sweet orange and tangerine, pimento and bananas.
4. Sunshine. Her own disposition seems to mimic the Sun’s rays.
Lois, like other heliotropic beings seeks it with great zeal.
5. Flowers. She delights in the beauty of color and fragrance which sprouts from the earth.
The flora of her homeland.
6. Travel. “All sunny places.”
No surprise that her beloved Jamaica makes the cut, but she also loves visiting Turkey. Her favorite cities are Paris and New York.
7. Photography. “I love to capture the spirit.”
8. Music. “Music brings joy and sadness, brings back memories and makes us escape…takes us away.” Her tastes are eclectic from reggae (Burning Spear, Ijahman Levi and Bob Marley) to pop (Stereo Lab and Daft Punk) to Rock, Rare Groove, Opera and Jazz. “Music is life!” she exclaims.
Burning Spear, “Marcus Garvey.”
9. Spur Tree Lounge. The Lower East Side boite has “lovely energy,” she says. With its Jamaican-Asian fusion, it gives her “a piece of home, great food, great music, and the owner Sean John is such a fantastic host as well!”
Photo: © All rights reserved SeBiArt.
10. Ties. Her favorite, must-have accessory, the necktie is the inspiration for her just launched Her-Tie.com, a collection of ties for women.