Nestled above the historic cane fields and factories of western Jamaica, is a small town called Grange Hill, which has produced one of the emerging fashion giants in Jamaica. She is what some would call a renegade and others a bellwether. A visionary, in more ways than one, Gillian Francis aka Minka, is one of Jamaica’s premiere designers with a promising future in world fashion domination. She is the true meaning of “likkle but tallawah”. A staunch idealist and positivist, Minka is a package of pure positive vibes. She is crocheting her way to international notoriety and is writing, volunteering, singing and chanting down Babylon as she goes. She is a savvy businesswoman, with her hands on the needle, her heart at home, and her eyes on success.
I sat down for a very delightful conversation with Minka about her life, her passion, and her plans for the future. The conversation was a reunion of sorts, since we had spent many of our younger days together in the same class at Manning’s School in Savanna-la-Mar.
Q: I know you as Gillian but you’re now “Minka.” What does the name mean?
Justice! One day, I realized that Gillian means curly hair and it’s a Latin name and I said to myself “but I’m not Latin!”
I got the name from Muta Baruka. I used to listen to him on the radio. One night, he said, Minka, justice, and I said, “That’s me! That’s what I represent.” That was in high school and although I’ve changed my name several times, that’s the one that stuck the most. It has other meanings in other places but this is the meaning I most identify with, since it’s the first one I heard.
Q: So tell me about the first time you started crocheting.
I learned to crochet when I was about 10. I was staying with my stepmom and she started with some of her friends and I got interested and I made a pineapple. Then my aunt Aileen did it on the side so I insisted and begged her to teach me the basics. They taught me the basics: How to make a chain, how to make the pattern. They used to use the fine needle and thread and it took me forever to make stuff; I had no patience. It was very frustrating. Then one time, I stayed in Washington, DC and a friend gave me some crochet clothes—blouses—and I was amazed that I could make clothes out of thread because all I knew about crocheting was doilies and such things.
In the same time period, I met some other girls who used big needles to crochet. They used the acrylic thread with the bigger needles and they were done in like two days so that’s when I said “aha!” that’s the way to go.
I like cotton so I do cotton. I double or triple the cotton to create the thick thread that creates the worsted weight yarn so that way I can use a bigger needle. I started just making one and two items for myself. I was about seventeen or eighteen, just fresh out of school, hanging out at the studios and I didn’t have the money to look a certain way( because I wanted to do music and acting and you know you have to look a certain way to be an artiste).
I started working as a graphic artist and people would want to buy the clothes off my back so I started saying I needed to start making stuff. I had two suitcases full of stuff and someone introduced me to Dwight Peters from Saints International and he put me in my first fashion show. I did the show and it just blew up from there!
Q: So tell me more about the journey to Caribbean Fashion Week from a small rural town like Grange Hill.
Well, I left Manning’s School at sixteen to chase my music career. You remember how I used to walk around school with my song book, writing songs all the time? I still even use some of those songs today. Anyway, I was cotching at people yard and I was determined to chase my dream because I locked my hair and ting and I had to prove everyone wrong. When I left school, I wasn’ doing anyting really. Mi neva waan goh back ah school. I started hanging out in Negril on the beach. Mi did have frens with couple yachts ah jump affa cliff and living like a little rich girl and then I started seeing the yout dem ah hustle the jewelry and mi learn likkle tricks and trades from them about how to string up beads real fast. And you know mi love hustle and so I decided that I wanted to sell beads and stuff. Dat neva work out too tough. I’m not the type of person to approach people and look business. People always run me down for my stuff. Honestly, anytime I have to convince people to buy tings from me, mi help run the customer. In my business, it’s not all the time the customer right.
I moved back home when I was seventeen and I was there until I was nineteen and then I met this guy, Michael Coley and he had a business called Imagic and he hired me as a graphic artist. He trusted me to manage his businesses in Ochi and Kingston at nineteen, so that kinda mek mi grow up and learn a lot. Because of this, I met a lot of people. I got to multitask. I was a make-up artist, I was printing, I was doing graphic art, and I was managing accounts, planning shows — kind of acting as a producer. I eventually went to UWI for production. I have a certificate of production. Everyting happen fi a reason because I met a lot of people from that business.
Q: So tell me about the Minka brand. What is it?
Pretty much all of my stuff is made from natural fibres. I use cotton, wool, soy thread, bamboo thread, 99% all natural. There was a time when I started thinking to myself, because I’m a spiritual person, that I wasn’t doing anything for other people. Here I was, making clothes, instead of doing something to help humanity. But then, I realized that I crochet from natural fibres. I make jewelry too. Most of my jewelry is semiprecious stones, freshwater pearls, and stuff like that. My aunt Shiena gave me my first $2000 and a set of beads and told me to figure out something to do with it. I make women feel beautiful. My jewelry is pretty, my designs are couture and unique but they serve another purpose. I’d like to feel that I’m making people feel good about themselves. Apart the fact that I make pretty clothes, I always try to be practical. I don’t just make clothes just to make money. I turn people down; I am not in it just for the money. They must feel comfortable and like a million dollars or more! Let’s say, priceless. I want them to know what they’re worth. I took so long to recognize my worth and now that I have, I’m just like “wake up Black women!” My clothes are for different body types. That’s why one of my logos is “any shape any size” because a lot of women think that because it’s crochet if they’re a particular size, they can’t wear it. I have made up to size 16, size 18 clothes. They go crazy when they get them; a lot of people think it’s for skinny people but it’s not.
Q: I vividly recall your desire to one day meet Buju Banton. In fact, in school, didn’t we used to call you Baby Buju? How was the first encounter with Gargamel?
(She shyly asserts that it seems that she’ll never escape that name, although that was so long ago)
I don’t remember my first encounter with him. I used to go to every single Buju show that was kept and I think we made some eye contact. I would hang out at his studio for years without talking to him. The first time I made something for him was weird because I went to a Stone Love dance to advertise my stuff and I came up with this brilliant idea. I got all my friends together and told them that I’m treating them and all they had to do was wear something from my line ( a hat , blouse, something). They were happy. There were like six of us and everybody had on a Minka. Buju was there and he was on stage wearing a crochet hat that I didn’t make. He talked about the hat and the girl who made it and everybody thought I was that girl and they were calling me to get one. The marketing idea worked kinda because they thought it was me! I sold like 14 of those hats. So to thank him now, I made a hat for him and he said “dis ah come from u heart?” Of course it was, and he said, “yo my girl, yuh aggo crochet til yuh hand dem bun yuh. Cause everybaddy aggo waan inna yuh tings” and it’s been like that ever since. I’ve made a couple hats from him since then. But yeah, I never forgot that he said that.
Q: Who is your inspiration?
In life? My mothers, Glenna Williams and Carol Reid. Carol Reid is a make-up artist who took me in and her family has treated me as their own. A few years ago she told me I needed to come and stay with her for a while and calm ma likkle self. She’s a blessing in disguise because my mother never really had it to leave me anything to inherit, but Carol Reid and her family took me in, so she’s allowing me to build my own inheritance, you know? My mother now, no matta what anybody always said, as long as it wasn’t any criminal thing, anything I’ve wanted to do, my mother’s support has always been there. She never pushed me to do anything I never wanted to do. She has been so understanding.
In fashion? Kimora, Beyonce, and JLO. They are good businesswomen. I don’t have to be gaudy like them but I want to be the richest Black woman in the Caribbean under 40. I want to show things but I don’t want to show off. I used to always look the worst when I went out and ever since I started wearing and valuing my own Minka stuff, that’s when people started treating me good. It really pays to be put together because people take note and then your outfit becomes a conversation piece and you can hand them a card. I got my Minka outfit but I mix it up with other famous designers. What I like about Beyonce is that she has the money to spend on a lot of crap but she doesn’t. She enriches the video, EGO, with her talent. I enrich my stuff with my talent, not with riches.
Me neva use to have nutten. Back in the days, when I used to pay my rent I neva have money to buy a bulla or a jelly. I neva have di money to look nice. But guess what, I came up with an idea. Instead of being stoosh and wanting to take a taxi everywhere, I took the bus. The money from the taxi, I would use and buy two balls of thread and that could make me a top that I can sell. Nuff people want things readymade but you have to spend the time and enrich yourself and then your potential, it’s limitless.
Q: So coming from where you have, how would you inspire young girls to chase their dreams?
Know that we are in control. I am a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist and I chant to stay balanced. We seek to create value through peace within ourselves and support others. I’m a youth leader in Jamaica. I have kids reading poems and writing songs in children’s homes. I go into the homes and work with the girls who have been put out, abused, or abandoned. I would tell them that when certain things happen in your life, everything that happens will basically add up. The people that you meet, you should be nice and help them. Be compassionate.
One of the reasons for my success, is that I never say no to people if I can help. It’s good to focus on your goals. Write down your goals because the universe will know but don’t plan a specific path to those goals, go with the flow and on that path enjoy the journey. Be the best to people, but don’t let people take you for granted.
Q: What’s the secret to your success?
What I love about my business is that I employ other people. The first law of success is that you gotta be making money for other people. Because of my business, people want me to use machines but I say no, too many people out there who don’t have no work for me to be using machines. A lot of them my workers are mothers who want to stay at home with their children and young schoolers who need some work. The business that I do is mostly hand-crafted stuff. So I want to use up all ah dem people who nah do nutten. My ideas, but they will do the work for me. I’ve had the fortune of attracting efficient workers who support my vision. Yeah, mi haffi big up mi workas dem.
I support Jamaican-owned businesses for most of my products, unless I really can’t get the stuff out there. And even if I have a hookup somewhere else that’s telling me where I can get a discount, I recommend it to the businesses out here and I buy it from them so they can make a decent profit.
Coming from Grange Hill, and when I was younger, people used to tell me that I was gonna be wutless, since I wasn’t going to be a lawyer or a banker. I am really catered to in my life. When I travel people take care of me. I feel really proud of myself. I made the front of the Cayman newspaper when I was there. Fortune follows me. I always tell myself, “I know what I want and I have my destiny cut out for me”. So to the young girls, follow your heart, and follow your dreams.
Q: Are you involved with any other charitable organizations?
I have started a charity called the “Love of Life foundation.” It’s not registered yet but when I have thread I donate to this girls ‘home in Kingston that the Marleys are associated with. Rita Marley’s assistant, Miss Lorna, had asked me to do workshops for the girls and I ended up liking it. I do various projects with the girls, who have been put out by their parents. When I’m overwhelmed with my own life, I go out and visit and help people. I have a lot of appreciation for life. I think self-hatred is a disease that’s worse than AIDS and a lot of people have it. That’s why I created this foundation. I don’t wanna focus on diabetes, AIDs, none of that. I wanna focus on LIFE. I also go into schools and work with some programs that the children do, like doing booths, planning productions, etc.
Q: What’s the future of Minka’s empire?
I’m working on my website because right now I just operate on http://www.myspace.com/gominka. Then I’m coming out with my shoes line (it’ll be wicked and very unique). I’ve been working on my music and I have a voice trainer (Pat Gooden), and my jewelry line. I want to write a book. I wanna do a mini-series of memoirs. I also want to do a cookbook. I’m a vegan and I’m a very good cook and a lot of people have been asking me to write easy, inexpensive recipes. Of course, the obvious is that I also want to do a pattern book and finally, I want to be in some international fashion shows (Miami Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week).
Do you use patterns or signature stitches?
What patterns? I just make them from my head but I can write them down and make a book! I don’t have signature stitches; I just combine the ones that already exist
Minka is currently working with a couple producers on sing-jaying. She actually buss ah tune for me that supports women. She begins the song saying,“I ah big up all ah di princess”. She sings about abuse and about women not getting credit for good things that we do. I couldn’t help but smile and nod to Minka’s lyrics as she stated, “yuh used to deh ah back yuh betta come ah front mi fren”. She wrote that particular song when she was just a young girl, going to Manning’s School and it’s as if the lyrics were prophetic for her.
She is very committed to the uplift of women. In her own words:
“Men are not taking care of us. The domestic violence, the killing of little children? Men just aren’t doing their jobs. A lot of women stay in abusive relationships. I want to empower them before they even reach that stage. It’s all about starting with the tree before it even bends. It’s important for me. Women always protected me and we need to protect ourselves because our Black men can do a better job. I want a man that’s just for me. I won’t settle. When I was younger, this teacher told me I was a sinner and the very next day she asked a Bible knowledge question and I was the only one in the class with the answer. I’ve always been a spiritual person and although she did hurt mi feelings di day before until I was crying, she same one turn round two days later and said to me ‘if it was one to save Israel, it would be you.’ When I chant and keep a rhythm, things are smooth. When I’m not chanting, things happen and tings don’t work out. I love my chanting. I am happy, my life is very idyllic, it’s beyond my expectations. Yeah.”