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My Grandmother Is My Favourite Fashion Designer

Written by Sameen Ayub.

When I accepted my offer to study fashion at a degree level, I had accepted to simultaneously tackle a small betrayal in being brown. Our family had only previously marvelled at academic degrees, sciences, or maths, and here I was moving 4 hours and 200 miles away in the pursuit of creativity. If the gap year wasn’t insult enough, I was convinced this was the disgraceful cherry on top. If not asked, I wouldn’t reveal my shameful desires and if I was, it was a mumble of words tumbling frantically out of my mouth lacking coherence and pride. 

However, where I lacked the latter, my mum stepped in (as mothers often do) to identify where it resided. “Ami Gee would be so proud of you”.

Image Source: Photograph of Sameen's Grandmother.

It was 1963 when my Ami Gee grounded her feet in unknown land. With the echoing promises of a brighter, British future and not a map but a newborn baby boy in her arms, she joined her husband, Nana Abu, in what was then the British textile capital, Bradford. Now, as a rowdy Northerner, I will not be tolerating unoriginal slander here. The stereotypes persistently exist and the hilariously mocking term “Bradistan” coined, but if we started the conversation on Mirpuri displacement, the Mangla Dam’s construction in the 60’s and wholly unfair governments, we’d be here far too long. To cut a long story short, when you are told to leave your home, you shouldn’t be laughed at for finding a new one. The booming textile industry in Bradford acted as reassurance for Nana Abu and Ami Gee. West Yorkshire spoke to them in a language in which only one word was translatable: work. 

This trope is not reserved for my grandparents of course, it is a story we could each recite from memory. However, it is this comfortable familiarity that acts as the primary reason as to why I tell this well-known anecdote again. The concepts of uprooting and disruption. To leave with so little luggage space that the guarantee of abundance now belongs to chance, and the reassurances you once owned are to be left behind. Calling the unknown home, to trust-fall into its alien arms that unbeknownst to you are waiting to smother with demanding and hateful rhetoric. These very real and rigorous experiences shouldn’t be normalised to the point that the efforts involved become just another South Asian story.

This South Asian story is one of an unyielding matriarch. She was as stubborn as a turmeric stain, she giggled at her own fragmentary English, she was fiercely intelligent. And when the aforementioned, normalised trope limited her personality to just another timid migrant, Ami Gee threaded a needle and stitched her own status.

My mother recounts memories of Ami Gee’s at-home set up to hold similarities to how a factory operated. With now five children, my mother being the third born, the possibility of leaving every morning to work was soon diminished. However, the need was not, so in her true trail-blazing style, Ami Gee began being greeted at her front door by black bin liners full of clothing, delivered by the factory she couldn’t reach and ready to be stitched at home. The deadline for collection was no match for Ami Gee’s swift stitch and industrial machine. Thus, the stay-at-home mother became the stay-at-home machinist.

Mum oversaw the less visible belts, Ami Gee the more testing hems and seam details. The sheer volume of garments was enough to make my mum wince even now at the remembrance, describing the belts as snakes and convinced they were breeding.

 But there were perks, a staff discount of its own kind. An afternoon Ami Gee spent visiting friends meant an afternoon for Mum raiding for any particularly fashionable fabric. Although she couldn’t stitch quite as swiftly, by the time Ami Gee returned, she had a new, swishing skirt to show off and a quiet giggle to herself when her sneaky sleight of hand went unnoticed. 

It wasn’t until the 80’s that Siddique Textiles was officially established. Ami Gee and her children, a relentless troop armed with a sewing machine and material from Bombay Stores, set up shop.

Siddique Textiles was a fashion designer’s heaven on Earth. Walls stacked with endless kaleidoscopic rolls of fabric with their indescribable yet unmistakable smell. Measuring their yards so knowingly favouring an arm’s length over a traditional tape (nose to fingertip was a metre, but never forget to leave extra material). Adornments, embellishments, buttons. The whirring white noise of the sewing machine. The trinkets and childish gifts we gave hung above it. Ami Gee’s living room was connected to her shop and failed to be empty of vibrant, smiling women. Cups of tea in hand, laughter in the stories they shared. Fashion brands today would envy the community she so naturally housed.

 Isn’t this what fashion is supposedly all about? Buzzwords from my PR lectures come to mind. Authenticity. Storytelling. Reputation. Culture. Innovation. And I find it difficult to not see Siddique Textiles, to not see my Ami Gee sat behind her sewing machine. To not feel the numerous affectionate embraces, you’d receive when you entered her home, from women who barely knew you but cherished the togetherness. To not feel as if the most established and talented creative I ever knew sharpened her practice in front of my very eyes. 

On the corner of a humble street in Bradford, South Asian creativity flourished. 

The shame for not acknowledging her sooner is prominent. Maybe because her practice was refined out of necessity, maybe because my conscious bias told me that my brown grandmother wasn’t possibly capable of being an artisan. Maybe it was my own feelings of impostor that allowed me to discredit her. The miles I moved are minute compared. I feared using my words when she fearlessly lived amidst foreign dialects. Yes, it was out of necessity, but does that make the boundless blouses and skirts she so intricately and perfectly stitched any less beautiful?

South Asian talent, South Asian creatives. They are not new. They have existed for as long as South Asians themselves have. They have persisted. It is not out of the ordinary for me to pursue creativity. My degree is not surprising nor is it a source of humiliation. After all, we might not be the Versaces, but I come from a fashion family. And when I am in these institutions, of the knowledge that I would not be anywhere near them if it wasn’t for the selfless sacrifices of my grandmother, and I am asked who my favourite designer is, she is standing next to me and she reminds me that we belong here. That South Asians belong here. That she could out-sew any pompous, entitled and out-of-touch design student by a mile. 

My favourite fashion designer is Ami Gee. Bradford massive. 

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