UK designer with Trini roots connects with Africa through her costumes
Anike. Photo Fiona Compton
Melissa Simon-Hartman first experienced Carnival at the age of two in Trinidad and Tobago.
At the age of seven, she had her first experience as a masquerade at Notting Hill Carnival where she spent many Carnivals before sitting atop her father’s shoulder absorbing what has now become her life’s work.
Simon-Hartman is a British designer who creates wearable art and designs costumes for individuals and bands for London’s annual Carnival.
Some of her designs will be featured in Beyonce’s Black is King visual album scheduled for exclusive release on Disney Plus on July 31.
Daughter of a Trinidadian mother and Ghanaian father, Simon-Hartman said she knew from early that costume design was something she wanted to do.
“Growing up in Carnival I was introduced to the creations of the true mas men of the day like Wayne Berkeley, Peter Minshall and Brian MacFarlane and was instantly taken with their artistry. They created theatre for the road, and I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do,” she told Loop via email.
“For me, that is what makes Carnival so special. It is our form of theatre; a living, breathing performance that takes place on the roads of our community. It is an art form that expresses freedom and culture and I very much wanted to be part of it,” said Simon-Hartman who
She honed her skills with a mas camp called Elimu, who became her extended family after her father’s death.
“From a young age I would shadow the head designer Meilin Sancho, she noticed my love for art and trusted me with her glitter work. I was encouraged to create my own designs not long after. Before I knew it, I was designing sections and entering the Gala competitions as a performer, each year winning an award in my category which gave a great sense of achievement.
“I took a lot of pride in my work and I am sure as a junior designer I annoyed some of the adults at the mas camp who volunteered their time to help me. I was a perfectionist. I appreciated the help but if the finish on the costumes were not right, I would spend all night redoing the work (laugh). The experience taught me self-discipline. Up to now I still have issues with fully relying on others to get a task done properly which can often be to my own detriment,” she said.
Asase Yaa Ghana. Photo James Bell
For the designer, costumes are more than just a pretty adornment to a perfect body. For her, it’s a chance to transform, to assume another persona. So emotionally attached was she to Carnival and what it represented that she spent a lot of her childhood in Carnival tabanca, shedding long tears for weeks when it was all over.
“I fell in love with having the opportunity to become someone else. From an early age, I would draw fantasy characters, it was my form of playing and escapism as an only child. Playing Monday mas offered the opportunity to be instantly transformed into something or someone else. Proudly parading in my costume amidst the admiring glares of spectators gave me a sense of empowerment and that has been infused into the costume work I do today as my clients often tell me they feel empowered as soon as they wear one of my pieces,” she said.
The main theme connecting all of her work is Africa. Celebrating her blackness and highlighting the richness of African culture is something she has always done through her art before ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Supporting Black Businesses’ became a trend, she said.
“African history and folklore are such rich grounds for cultivating creativity that there is an endless bounty of inspiration. I firmly believe that it is our duty to explore our heritage and present it to the rest of the world so that they can see the beauty and art that comes from our culture, well to be completely honest see how EVERYTHING comes from our culture. Our history is amazing and did not start with slavery. Black artists have an opportunity to tell that story through their work. Designs take on a whole different aesthetic as artists discover more about the African experience.”
“Africa influences all my work. Regardless of the theme, there is always something that is connected aesthetically to African art. Classic movies I used to watch religiously with my mother, every Sunday also has an influence on my creations and the study of other cultures which is something that will continue throughout my creative journey,” she said.
Othello. Photo Roger Charles
When it comes to creating her costumes, Simon-Hartman loves to play with textures and fabrics. Confident in her vision, she does not follow the popular trends when it comes to her use of materials.
“I do not have a preference for any particular materials, I am addicted to texture and try to create my own textured fabrics through experimentation. Some have described me as anti-feathers which is not the case. I have used feathers in my work on the odd occasion but prefer to be more experimental with the treatment and placement of feathers rather than basing the costume design around what feathers will be used.
Although she has a carnival label called Legion Mas which emerged in 2017 as the first cosplay mas brand sponsored by MCM Comic Con, Simon-Hartman decided since 2019 to offer an exclusive service for individual mas players playing with different bands.
“Running a band takes a lot of time and commitment and a fully committed team, it is not something that I can deliver at present and prefer the creative freedom of designing and producing Individual mas for a specific clientele,” she explained.
Outside of the Carnival space, Simon-Hartman designs costumes for events and productions. Her work included appearances in Shanghai, on the WBFF competition stage, theatrical productions in Martinique, various music videos and on the red carpet for the London premiere of the movie, ‘I AM BOLT’ in 2016.
“I noticed that my work was attracting clients outside of the carnival community and acted upon it. My client base varies as I have made costumes for theatrical productions, music videos, dance competitions, fitness competitions and editorial shoots. What I enjoy most about this is the freedom and variety it offers,” she said.
“I love the opportunity to tell stories through my work and there are times when the stories are not pretty. Carnival clients want to look pretty, they love colour and sparkle so there are creative limitations with restricting my work to carnival only. There is nothing wrong with choosing to specialise solely in the carnival arts, but I am drawn to dark fantasy, folklore, and historical pieces so work within a broader landscape.”
As a nod to her Trini heritage, in 2015 she produced mas for Notting Hill Carnival that portrayed folklore characters like Papa Bois and La Diablesse and she has also produced costumes for a theatre production in Martinique based on the La Diablesse.
Her penchant for historical, fantasy pieces and especially her connection to Africa put her on the radar for Beyonce’s team.
Simon-Hartwell was contacted last year via Instagram about providing costumes for a project.
“I paused to read the message only to see that it was from Beyonce’s stylist, Zerina Akers asking if I would be interested. I mean . . . ‘HELLO’ (laugh). Obviously, without hesitation, I said ‘yes’. It is a moment I will never forget because last year was a very challenging year so the acknowledgment of my work from Beyonce’s creative team reassured me to keep pressing on despite the hurdles. Whether this opportunity leads to something else or not I shall remain grateful for that special moment.”
Sea Flower. Photo James Bell
Costumes are just one aspect of Simon-Hartwell’s business.
The Simon-Hartman London label consists of three categories: Couture, which is the high-end avant-garde pieces, Boutique, which offers handmade accessories and Urban, which is her new premium streetwear brand called A.F.I.A, the acronym for ‘AfroFuture Is Alive’ that will offer clothing and footwear.
Simon-Hartman worked with shoe manufacturers in Asia, Brazil, the UK and Italy when her label first started as a shoe brand years ago.
“This has equipped me with the experience of knowing what to look for in quality shoe production. The A.F.I.A. footwear will be handcrafted to order in Italy with a choice of leather and vegan leather fabrics. Many of the designs will be unisex.”
The A.F.I.A line will be launched this month.