You can’t utter the phrase ‘passion for fashion’ and not think of Kelly Abrahams. Abrahams had an early interest in the arts, she would go on to put her soul in sewing, hemming her blessing as the owner and principal for Ka-Juh Dressmaking and Fashion Designing Institute.
This style pioneer recalled sewing her first dress at nine years old. Having a mother who was a dressmaker helped to nourish both her interest and her God-given talent. She went on to study art at the York Castle High School and later pursued fashion designing at the Dallas Fashion Institute in Texas, United States.
When Abrahams returned home in the late 1960s, she embarked on an exciting career as a dressmaker and fashion designer. “I used to design bush jackets for D&G, and during that time, I needed some assistance with the projects, but I was unable to find skilled persons who were able to assist with the workload. It was then that I decided to provide formal training and start the institute,” she told Flair. She also recognised that young people seeking a career in dressmaking and fashion design could not find an institution to provide knowledge and certification in areas like freehand cutting.
Ka-Juh Dressmaking and Fashion Designing Institute officially opened its doors on October 5, 1987, and is registered under the Ministry of Education as an independent school. It has also been accredited and certified by the HEART Trust/NSTA’s National Council on Technical and Vocational Education and Training programme.
The school was designed for young people who desire a career in dressmaking and fashion design, but could not find an institution that taught freehand cutting. The programmes offered bridged the style gap by allowing students to achieve their goals of becoming expert dressmakers. The courses added aimed to expand artistic horizons and fuel creative expansion in areas such as drapery, quilting, soft upholstery, blinds and shades (interior décor), fabric painting, lingerie and floral arrangement.
“The mission is to make a positive difference in the lives of people who wish to acquire a skill, primarily through a professionally supported one-on-one relationship with a caring instructor who is there to assist them in achieving their highest potential as they grow to become self-reliant individuals,” Abrahams said.
One’s socio-economic standing is never questioned; all students are accepted and warmly welcomed. Since its inception, several students have gone on to be successful owners of boutiques both locally and overseas. “Jamaican designer Andre Shirley is a past student of Ka-Juh. He participated in Mission Catwalk on Television Jamaica (TVJ) a few years ago and is an established designer who continues to excel in his field,” the proud principal revealed.
With the explosion of online shopping, Abraham declared that it has not affected the institute adversely since the demand is still great for unique or customised pieces. Clients continue to request pieces with their flair, and they also welcome the opportunity to communicate their specific needs during the process. What has created the most financial struggle is the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 has changed the game as our enrolments dropped significantly. Some students expressed their fear of the virus, and rightly so. I was therefore forced to close the original location due to high overhead cost and reduced income. Luckily, I had unused space at my home, which I converted into classroom space with the help of my husband.” The upside came with even more one-on-one sessions with students who became family. They were smaller in number and followed the necessary safety protocols.
Naming her biggest accomplishment to date as keeping the doors of this institution open for over 30 years, she is still excited about transferring knowledge through the teaching process to her many students. “My ability to greatly impact the lives of others through my fashion is what continues to keep me motivated. I am humbled by the opportunity to help others realise their true potential and pursue their passion. Not to mention when my students create bold and unique pieces and express themselves through the arts. It is very fulfilling.”
As it relates to sewing, her first love is still alive and thriving. “I love the ability to express myself through fashion. I enjoy dressing up, and it is also a stress relief for me as I will sew all day. I feel fulfilled when I complete pieces and see the smile on the faces of my clients or even look back at my pictures,” she said. Abrahams is looking forward to continued sessions with students currently enrolled and hopes to have another fashion showcase by Christmas of this year. Kah-Juh’s annual fashion showcase, displaying students’ designs runway style, is usually strutted on a local programme, TVJ’s Smile Jamaica, in conjunction with the Black History Month feature. But because of the global pandemic, the school decided to scale down the festivities and transform a section of Abrahams’ residence to facilitate a photoshoot. It’s just another way Abrahams and the institution she founded are pivoting and creating a new pattern for operation.