Life comes full circle for veteran designer Walter Greene
By Linda Rutherford
July 14, 2002
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But back then, in the mid to late 60s, when girls like Rosanna Dac Bang, Collette Boyer, Faye Bostwick and newcomer, Esther Bissoo, ruled the local runways, it was guys like Lloyd Lawrence and George Morrison who, as the saying goes, ‘ran things’.
It was into this elitist milieu that Walter Greene ventured at the tender age of 13, eventually making it ‘big’ in 1968 when he designed the gown worn by the winner of that year’s ‘Miss Guyana’ title, 20-year-old Alexis Harris, who went on to place sixth at the Miss World contest.
Describing the garment for the benefit of those of her readers who hadn’t been able to make it to Queens College on the night of Saturday, August 17 to witness the pageant first hand, then ‘Petticoat Page’ editor and accomplished model, Sibille Hart wrote in the Monday edition of the Guiana Graphic: “The gown, designed by youthful Walter Greene, was the simplest I have ever seen on a beauty contest stage.”
“Cut along classic lines,” she wrote, “it featured a shirred cowled neckline which dipped low in the back where it was outlined by hanging silver jewels. A long side slit revealed a similar jewelled pattern in the skirt.”
But, for all this propriety, it seems that our Walter also had a wild streak to him, as excerpts from an article carried in the Friday October 4 edition of the Guyana Graphic would indicate.
Headlined ‘Walter’s Designs - quite glamorous’, the article began: “Designer Walter Greene showed off his latest designs at a mammoth fashion show at the National Exhibition at the Queen Elizabeth Park on Sunday night.
“As usual, Walter used colour as the basis of his latest fashions, and models displayed the bright, colourful collection to a large crowd.”
History would, however, prove that he was right on the ball where fashion was concerned, as it was a time when words like ‘psychedelic’ and ‘funky’ were just beginning to creep into our everyday lexicon.
Taking a trip back down memory lane with the Sunday Chronicle two Fridays ago, Greene said he’d always had an interest in art, since a child at school.
But it was from his late mother, Ivy, who was what the locals then referred to as a ‘dressmaker’, that he drew his inspiration to become one of the most sought-after designers of his time.
“I remember looking at her doing dresses, and always being fascinated by the marvelous garments she turned out. So my interest in fashion actually started from there,” he said.
As he entered his teens, the tiny flicker his mother had ignited had, by then, developed into a full-blown flame, seeking release for its abundance of invigorating energy in just about anything to do with the arts, from designing for school fashion shows, to subscribing “little sketches” to the weekly teen column, ‘Teen-Age Chronicle’, to being actively involved in the art society, the drama club, and dance.
A chance meeting, however, with Sara Lou Carter, the flambouyant wife of then Guyana’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Sir John Carter, whom he swears “must have seen some sort of potential” in him, soon put him on the right track, when she introduced him to Morisson, whom he confirmed “was the then top designer.”
This must have been somewhere between 1965 when Morrison made his debut into the local fashion scene to 1967 when he left for Canada.
Whatever the time-frame, it seems that Greene’s career as a fashion designer of note took off from this point on, until he, too, departed for the United States in 1970.
Besides Harris, he recalled having designed for a number of other Miss Guyana contestants that year, though for the life of him, he cannot remember who.
He lists among what he terms “my other Miss Guyana connections,” the likes of Hazel Figueira, whom he knew from way back when he did a lot of work with the Miss Mackenzie Fashion Show, and Pratima Nauth.
The last ‘Miss Guyana’ pageant in which he was involved was in 1970, just before he left for the States, when Lindener, Jennifer Evan-Wong, took the title.
It was the year he also decided to call it a day with the realm of fashion and become involved with something more grounded. “I didn’t want to see designing any more; I wanted a change. I’d done all the beauty pageants; designed for diplomats’ wives; I wanted to do something else.”
At the time, he recalled, he hadn’t yet decided what he wanted to be specifically. All he knew was that he wanted to study; to do broadcasting, and that’s exactly what he set out to do, pursuing his studies at City College, in New York, and at announcers’ training studios and the RCA radio and television institute.
“But the weird thing,” he said, “is that after I graduated, I started being pulled back into broadcasting and commentating fashion shows. So it was like…this whole full circle”.
It’s what he’s been doing even to this day, working primarily with the Caribbean community in Brooklyn “doing a lot of their local beauty pageants,” both at home in New York and in the Caribbean.
Deciding, perhaps, that since he was back on the fashion circuit he might as well go all the way, he started a line of wraps called ‘Walter’s Wraps’.
That’s how he got to meet people like former supermodel, Iman, who herself is into the business end of fashion these days having launched her own line of makeup some years ago.
He’s also into fashion and entertainment writing and consultancy, which latter has to do primarily with the imaging of artistes of the various record companies with which he has a working arrangement.
He’s done work, too, with two ‘Miss America’ pageants, in terms of selecting the delegates’ wardrobes and has been appointed judge on several occasions on the international best-dressed circuit.
He is currently fashion host of a cable television show called ‘InStyle’, which he describes as a “very fast-paced programme” that basically involves talking to celebrities and models and designers and necessitates his “staying on the pulse of what’s going on.” He also travels extensively.
Which brings us to the question of what he thinks about fashion these days. Predictably, his response was: “Fashion is a big cycle; everything comes back around again, but with a new twist.”
The focus these days, however, is on ethnic mixes.
“They’re throwing a lot of influences from all over the world,” he said, adding that fashion has now become so “individualistic” it’s not just the designer dictating to people what is in vogue.
“I think a lot of the young people,” he said, “have learnt to pull looks together that you may not think may work,” like throwing a jacket over a chiffon shirt, or pairing off a pair of faded jeans with heaps of rich jewellery. This is especially true, he said, of those of the young people from the ‘hip-hop’ community and the ones who are in touch with street-fashion.
Impact of Black models
Another new trend we’re seeing, though this fact is not being widely publicised, he says, is the huge impact Black models are having these days on the fashion industry.
He’s recently had first-hand experience of this while covering the annual ‘Face of Africa’ beauty contest, now into its fourth year, which, he says, scours the entire African continent, even its vast and dense jungles, for the most beautiful among its women to vie for this coveted title.
The winner of this contest, which is jointly sponsored by South African television superstation, M-Net, and the Johannesburg-based firm, AngloGold, reputed to be the world’s largest gold producer, Greene said, are awarded rather lucrative contracts with international modelling agencies, many of which are located in the USA or Europe.
According to South African journalist, Marang Setshwaelo, last year’s pageant saw 18-year-old Ramatoulaye Diallo of Senegal taking the title from a field of 24 and winning herself a four-year $200,000 contract with Ford Models Inc into the bargain.
She quotes ‘Face of Africa’ Manager, Heidi Pretorius, as saying: “We began to see that by reflecting a fresh and positive aspect of Africa, fashion modelling could contribute towards changing the negative image of the continent not only among Africans themselves, but in America and Europe as well.”
Greene said whereas at first, people just didn’t understand what these ‘Face of Africa’ talent scouts were up to and went so far as to chase them out of their villages in the misguided belief that they were trying to lure their women into prostitution, they have now come to accept and even welcome them.
Asked what exactly it is these talent scouts are looking for in these women, Greene said this was a bit difficult even for him to pin down, experienced though he is.
“We come in so many different colours and features,” he said, “that even the mainstream media is still a little confused about us; ‘cause we’re so different.”
Take Alek Wek for instance, he said. “She’s so beautiful and flawless, she practically has the world eating out of her hands.”
And the beauty of it all, he said, “is that here’s somebody who has not been exposed to the couturiers and fashion magazines as a kid and she took something which is totally not in her culture and makes it work. I think that’s what everybody’s so crazy about Alek Wek for.”
As to where does he see Guyana going in the hosting of pageants and what he thought about last Miss Guyana/Universe pageant, for which he was asked to act as commentator/moderator, Greene said: “I was very happy to be invited to comment and was rather impressed with the effort made. I was surprised, however, at the reactions from the general public.
“I thought it was a very well put together idea, given it was a new franchise holder and all. I think everybody did a splendid job. Sure, there were some flaws…but, in totality, I like how it was done; I quite liked the idea of having it in different segments.
He is also in total agreement with the judges’ decision.
“I had no problems with the judges decision whatsoever; I totally agreed with them. People in the public don’t know what goes on behind the scenes; they’re not there at rehearsals nights before the pageant to look at these girls and ascertain what is going on with them.”
He is of the view, however, that the selection committee ought to be a bit more prudent in terms of the number of girls it selects to contest the pageant.
“Yes! The numbers look great! But you have to really ascertain who is going to be the one to best represent the country, and I thought they picked the best girl”.
Opining that talent spotting should be an ongoing process, Greene said: “I think that as we speak, they should be scouting for contestants. I believe they should be going into the regions; the Essequibo; all the way down to Berbice. This is a vast country, and to get the essence of Guyana’s beauty, you have to have a representation from all over; you can’t just focus on Georgetown or the East Coast or the West Coast.”
He is also of the view that grooming is another key area on which the committee needs to work. “You have to train these girls; we need more time,” he said, noting that Miss Guyana/Universe, Mia Rahaman was rather lucky to have had people ready to work with her quickly when she arrived in Washington.
“Once you scout your contestants,” he said, “I think six months is a good enough time in which to start training and grooming and molding them. So by the time the contest comes up, any one of the girls you have could pop up there. It shouldn’t just be one girl that’s outstanding. I think the judges would have a fairer perspective if everybody is more or less on the same level; it’s almost impossible, but I’ve seen it done before.”
Both Mpule Kwelagobe and Wendy Fitzwilliam kept on harping about, ‘that certain look’ the judges at international beauty pageants are looking for. “Can you define it for us?” we asked Walter.
He chuckles. It is clear that even he is stumped. “Linda,” he said, taking me into his confidence. “It’s something that you really can’t…I know it sounds really…but you can’t pin it down; you cannot describe it. It’s a spark; it’s an energy; it’s something in the eyes that tell you.”
On second thought, he said: “No! It’s more than just a look. Beauty plays a very important part, but it is the kind of beauty that has something else going on; you can look and tell that there’s something else going on in that person’s life apart from being beautiful. That’s like probably the best that I can describe it.”
Still not satisfied with the explanation he gave, he said: “Even to selecting a model, it’s an attitude; it’s somebody that can walk into a room and everybody else turns around and exclaim: `Oh, my good God! Who’s that girl?’ It’s a flair; it’s… just that look.
“But then again, the look can change ever so often.”
At this juncture, I decided I’d just rest my case.