Red Roses and Orange Juice: The Story of a Dress

As humans, we can all do with a little transcendence from time to time. Maybe that’s what motivated me to create the parties for Saffron and Scarlett, which took us out of our ordinariness and allowed us to dream, ‘travel’  and imagine other possibilities, as we transformed into Venetian gondoliers, Russian royalty or Scottish highlanders for the day.  As you can well imagine, the pandemic was  really crushing to all my party aspirations – and my kids ‘inconsiderately’ growing up was a further blow to my love of a good, kiddified bash. Missing out on social interactions these past two years has been tough.  In particular for our twelfth graders! With so much that had been canceled, they poured their hope and anticipation into the prospect of the end of year matric dance. And I guess,  being a girl with lots of party potential but not enough outlets for such celebrations in a pandemic, I TOO turned to the matric dance with a  lot of longing and aspiration, as a cure for all my party pangs.  Don’t get me wrong,  I wasn’t electing to rewrite matric so I could go to the ball –   my longing and excitement was for my daughter, Saffron.  I longed to help her  experience her matric dance as something that could really transport her from the drudgery of lockdown but that also wouldn’t just be the dress for the night. I wanted to her to have an heirloom, a story for her to carry beyond the one night at the ball. As it turned out, Saffron’s dress became part of a great story, a story that spanned hilltops, two continents, lost and found artists and excellent orange juice. From pandemic woes to enchanted optimism….here’s mine and Saffron’s dress story. 

Two years ago, before COVID was even a spectre on the horizon, my family and I made a ‘pilgrimage’ to the magical village of Saint Miguel d’Allende. To be honest, it was my pilgrimage,  but  my family has learned to trust me with their adventures as I am always right – at least in the travel department!  The background was this: when we celebrated Saffron and Scarlett’s Mexican birthday party, with the Day of the Dead, including skulls in all their edible varieties…even the dead wanted an invitation! Central to the party was always the cake which would tell a story. For this one, I  was inspired by one of the most beautiful villages in Mexico, Saint Miguel d’Allende. Saint Miguel d’Allende is an otherworldly village with historical  buildings, and an arty, old world charm. Its delightfulness would serve as the setting and scene for an edible Mexican story. In the name of cake and authenticity, I studied the village, its every nook and cranny, so as to convey its beauty, character and history.

This is our cake simulacrum of Saint Miguel. With the church Parroquia de Saint Miguel Arcangel at the centre, each group of people captures a different village scene. You can almost hear the different sounds, from the celebratory bashing of the pinyata, to the sounds of the Mariaci minstrels to the bustle of the market on the side.

Although we had visited Mexico in 2016, we had not made it as far as Saint-Miguel. But it had always been on my bucket-list and so in 2019 on another family trip to Mexico, we made the long drive through Mexico city to the beautiful, hill-top village.  Saint Miguel d’Allende is voted one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with good reason. It’s a city where  drinks and dinners take place to the backdrop of mariachi minstrels on rooftops, overlooking the beautiful ochre walls of the city  that change in tone from sunrise to sunset. The city is drenched in romance. Thronging with ex-pats, as you walk the cobblestoned streets, you feel as if everyone in Saint Miguel shares this collective secret, that Saint-Miguel is the most enchanted and delightful place to live in the world. It’s no wonder I had to be dragged away, eventually.

Me at my favourite rooftop bar at the Rosewood Hotel with Saint-Miguel in the background

Every cobblestoned street leads you to an adventure

Even a simple doorway offers so much beauty and charm
Falling in love with the local market

One evening, we rushed alongside throngs of Saint Miguelis to the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel church to experience a Christmas Mass. En route, we happened to walk through a beautiful courtyard housing an otherworldly artist’s boutique. As the church-goers continued to pass by, I lagged behind, pressed my nose up against the pane and was immediately mesmerised by an array of the most beautiful, unique, hand-painted dresses. The shop was closed for Christmas eve, but even as I rushed to catch up with my family, I knew I would be back.

The beautiful church Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel in the centre square of Saint Miguel had been a feature of our cake. As I approached the church. I could see the magnificent Christmas tree outside. I had spent a lot of time studying this church and I felt palpitations as I approached – not religious apprehension so much as the reverence of the sugar paste artist, seeing my church in its brick and mortar iteration. Just outside, on the steps of the church, my eyes were drawn to an old Otomi woman, who placed her wares, a colourful collection of Maria dolls, on the floor entreating us to purchase. We stopped to buy some of her beautiful, handcrafted dolls, while people hurried into church. And finally, we entered the church for Mass, surrounding ourselves with music, incense and halos.  Just a few minutes later, the doll-seller quietly took a seat in front of us, her colorful dolls gathered together and tied on her back in a blanket, her collection of babies.

VIew of the beautiful church spires from my dinner table on a rooftop


Even the dolls peek out to hear the Christmas Mass

Each day involved languid walks to a spot, a corner, a restaurant, a rooftop. The village is peopled by artists and dreamers. One night we went for a rooftop dinner and a mariachi minstrel serenaded our table. I have long harboured  a nostalgic love for La Cucaracha and so David, knowing what it would mean to me, asked the musician to play it for us. Suddenly it was our last day there. David and Scarlett wanted lunch and while they answered the call of their stomachs, I returned to the call of that boutique. Saffron kept me company as I headed for where I thought the boutique might be, meandering through the different streets and quarters, walking down one cobblestoned road after another until… we finally found the boutique in a charming hacienda style courtyard.

The vision on Christmas had been no holiday apparition: it was the most beautiful boutique I had ever seen. I walked through the shop mesmerised, touching each article of clothing, a living, breathing expression of creativity. Meanwhile Saffron, who was not really interested, hung back in the courtyard, happily entranced in a conversation with a friend on Whatsapp, while the attendants proffered her with freshly-squeezed orange juice, which she described as the very best orange juice she had ever drunk in her life. The afternoon was magical. Each dress was unique, painted in original styles by different artists, from bold to graceful, from modern to classic. Each dress revealed a story.  Was it the dresses, the orange-juice or was it that we were situated  in a courtyard that felt out of this world,  with the kindest people attending to us and love and romance in the air? I mean….  even  oranges were happier in Saint Miguel. It was that afternoon that I tried on a dress of pure, Mexican cotton on which were hand-painted the most beautiful, generous, red roses. They spoke to me of love, joy and femininity. The dress was an original, one-off, yet it fitted me like Cinderella’s shoe. I twirled around in this unique garment which was both beautiful and playful.

It was truly one of the most beautiful dresses I had ever seen and so I sashayed outside to show Saffron and excitedly said, ‘ Saffi, you could wear this to your matric dance one day.’ Saffron was nonplussed as matric was a long way away.  The dress came home with us.

Fast forward two years. We’ve had a global pandemic.  I haven’t been able to travel and my then sixteen year old Saffron is now in matric!  It’s a couple of weeks before her matric dance and like Cinderella, we are on the lookout for a dress.  Saffron comes to my wardrobe, which in general is the preferred ‘shop’ of choice for both Saffron and Scarlett, and tries on  a number of dresses I had acquired  in my years of trotting around the globe. And as we played ‘runway’ in my bedroom that night, Saffron walked out in one dress after another and we started to dream. Eventually,  she glided out in that Saint Miguel dress- the very one!  My heart skipped a couple of beats. My little girl looked like a young woman, a Latin beauty, stylish and classy… ready to step out into the world. ‘I like it mom,’ she said. Watching her, I felt weak at the knees. She continued,  ‘how about if we  changed it a little….and if we  tweaked it here and there’.  By changes, Saffron was referring to what I thought was a brilliant idea, that the names of her school friends would somehow be woven or embroidered into her matric dance dress. As she spoke about changes she would make to the dress, I realised that deep down this dress had always been mine but I owed it to her to recreate  this once-in-a- lifetime dress-  Saffron style! 

Creating this dress was no easy feat. I started by trying to  track down the original  Mexican artist who had hand-painted the roses on the original dress. Her name, as inscribed on the dress,  was Karla Elizondo  but I couldn’t seem to find her  – even with the help of multiple Google searches, and the Saint Miguel tourist bureau. I realized  it was me and the dress  and I focused on recreating it,  capturing the elusive Elizondo’s genius and inserting a whole lot of Saffron.  But, Karla if you ever end up reading this, thank you, the full credit for the beauty and vision of this dress is yours.

I then enlisted my friend and genius artist Jamie to be the rose painter. Jamie, who is the graphic designer for Ooh La La started with me as a university student  and after years of  witnessing her brilliance as an artist and illustrator on a day-to-day basis, I  knew  that between the two of us, we could make this happen. I entrusted the making of the dress to my special friend and dress-designer Vasselina and Saffron showed Vasselina  exactly how she wanted the dress to be.  Even emulating the pure, soft, double-muslin, Mexican cotton was part of the challenge.  Once I had sourced it,  Jamie started to paint. As the roses started to come into fruition,  my heart was in my throat. It was the memories of  Saint Miguel and the afternoon we had shared coming alive  for me and  Saffron. It was the return of our travel dreams and memories, somehow still alive and not eclipsed.  Saffron’s roses were the beginning of yet another story.

‘Saffi, you could wear this to your matric dance one day’…. ‘Mama, I am happy here in the courtyard, everyone is being so nice to me and this is the best orange juice I have ever tasted.’

Here we were, spinning, weaving, painting  through many late nights, and hoping, creating not just a dress, but memories of what was, and hopes for the future.

 The dress worked! Saffron has her own unique style and she envisaged some beautiful touches;  a slit at the front, a graceful lower back,  and her original vision, that the names of her school friends would be hand-painted into the dress. She even asked to include my name on the hem, as ‘mama.’ In the end, I suppose I did get to go the ball! The dress, Saffron-style, was perfect. It was still sophisticated but it had a youthful Saffronness. It was just right for my big, little girl.  It was her story.

Daughters and granddaughters with my loving dad
Saffron & Jamie
The Cuties!!

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