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It’s hats off to Windrush style

Angela Cobbinah highlights an exhibition celebrating sartorial elegance on Windrush Day

15 July, 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Lazare Sylvestre with his granddaughter Tihara. Photos: Tihara Smith

IN their stylish fedora hats and wide-legged Zoot suits, the passengers on board the Empire Windrush cut quite a dash as they walked down the gangplank to begin a new life in Britain more than 70 years ago.

Their sense of style and swagger was no one-off but an integral part of life here as a Caribbean migrant.

An online exhibition at the Museum of London marking this year’s Windrush Day offers an insight into this legacy through the story of one man, Lazare Sylvestre, as told by his fashion designer granddaughter Tihara Smith.

Lazare sailed to the UK from St Lucia in 1958 aged 19, arriving in London on a Friday evening and starting a new job at Boots in Piccadilly Circus the following Monday morning.

An amateur boxer and keen dancer, he had plenty of opportunity to indulge in his taste for Italian tailoring and clothes he made himself with the sewing skills he brought along with him. At first he purchased suits at West End stores like John Collier and Burton but later he preferred to have them made-to-measure.

“They nicknamed me ‘tailorman’ because I was so well dressed,” he recalls.

Lazare passed on his love of fashion and needlework to Tihara, who graduated from the University for the Creative Arts Epsom in 2018 with a final collection focusing on the Windrush generation.

Lazare Sylvestre in one of Winston Giscombe’s suits

It was at the height of the Windrush immigration scandal. Her evocative designs, drawing on traditional St Lucian craftwork and Caribbean style with a London twist, have been acquired by the museum to be showcased alongside recorded interviews she and her mother Lorna made with Lazare.

Aside from his interest in clothes, he talks about his first impressions of London and his dislike for fish and chips, 12-hour dance marathons at his favourite venues and the highlights of his boxing career.

Also on display is a suit made by Winston Giscombe, a Jamaican tailor who lived in Lazare’s neck of the woods, Camberwell.

The pair first met after Winston approached Lazare in a pub, saying he’d like to cut him a suit as he had a good shape for tailoring.

“I laughed at first, not knowing that he was a tailor, but I thought I’d give him a chance,” recalls Lazare.

“After Winston started making my suits, I didn’t want to buy from [stores] as they weren’t as good.”

“My grandfather has always been a stylish man with an interest in clothes and this has had a great influence on my work,” says Tihara.

“My vision for the collection was to put a positive spin on the negative Windrush coverage that dominated the news in 2018 and instead share the incredible contributions that people like my grandfather and Winston made to our city in a unique and personal way.”

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