When Guyanese-born designer Tracey Holst first came to Key West in the mid ’80s, the journey was more return than arrival.
“It was so humid. I remember smelling guava and sapodilla; they were so ripe in the air. We turned on Frances Street, and I started to see the style of the houses. I got off the bike and burst into tears and thought, ‘I made it back home.’”
In the years since, Holst has left the island but always returned: once to earn a degree in marketing from NYU, a track she chose “because art history was full,” and again in the mid ’90s for a decade-long stint in Stuttgart, Germany with her husband, the photographer, Alex Holst. When the couple returned to the island in 2004, they anticipated a short stay, planning to move to Miami. But the island, as it does, swayed them. “Key West is a very demanding mistress. She holds onto your foot and makes you feel really good or really bad depending on her mood. She doesn’t let go,” said Holst. And sometimes, she demands a change.
A “soul screaming” moment at the half-century mark of life led Holst to establishing her clothing line, a career change she views as a creative culmination. “Everything I have done in my life, work-wise, has really prepared me for this because I understand fabrics, and structures, and prints, the look and feel and the emotions they invoke just by touching a piece of fabric.” Holst, a former fashion model, sharpened her aesthetic during her tenure in Europe, working as an art director and trend researcher. “A lot of times people know what they want, they can see it visually but can’t communicate it verbally.” Holst developed a visual language that continues to speak to the women she dresses. Her first trunk show, held at the Harrison Gallery, was a sold-out success. Holst followed suit with a succession of biannual shows, most recently at Stock Island’s Soul House. She plans to expand her shows to four a year and eventually bring her designs to a storefront.
Holst’s pieces are rooted in sustainability and timelessness. “I want these pieces that I create to accentuate whatever the look is that you have. I don’t want it to ever go out of style.” She demands a certain measure of swagger from her clients. “That’s a part of my line – you have to be strong and confident to wear it.”
Holst finds inspiration in African fabrics like those manufactured by Vlisco. “They’re bold, they’re in your face, they’re telling a story.” Part of that story is how the prints came to be; inspired by Africa and manufactured in the Netherlands using Indonesian techniques, the fabrics were sold throughout Africa by legendary saleswomen known as “Mama Benzes”. The prints made their way to the States, where they became a part of the fabric of the American Civil Rights movement and eventually to the Caribbean where leaders seeking independence from Colonial powers adopted the prints as declarations of autonomy. The historical significance and arresting look made an indelible impression on Holst. “Finally you had a choice in how bold you were, how feminine. The prints you wore could be you. You didn’t have to buy white cotton or polka dots. You could stand up and stand out.”
Standing up and standing out are heirloom qualities for Holst, whose maternal grandmother was Guyana’s first-ever female mayor, a member of parliament and one of the nation’s first divorcées. “When she walked and moved, you saw it, you felt it,” said Holst. Her grandmother was also an accomplished seamstress, a thread that further ties the two. “These women whose shoulders I directly stand on, the bloodline that’s within me that has allowed me to be here now living my dreams is pretty strong.”
Strength resonates for Holst, whose tagline is Cloth & Steel, a representation of the industrial elements of her husband’s work, which includes jewelry and furniture in addition to photography, and the feminine tactility of her own. Frequent collaborators, the couple is transitioning their home to facilitate a studio space for both. How have the two creatives made it work for over two and a half decades? “We have a deep admiration for each other. We like each other a lot, and we haven’t found anyone else we like more,” she said, laughing. Alex even collaborated here; he graciously offered his services for the impromptu photo shoot.
Holst, whose creative process includes daily meditation (“I have to pull all my forces together”), credits the Afro-Caribbean culture in which she was raised for her spiritual attitude toward creation. Among Holst’s favorite myths is that of the goddess Oshun, venerated by the Yoruba for delivering water and life to the world. ”She brought connectivity, the feminine, the creative,” she said. It might be said Holst continues that lineage with each stitch.
Full Name? Nickname? Tracey Sandra Alison Holst. ‘Sandi.’
What is your astrological sign and do you fit the general description? Aquarius and unfortunately for those around me, yes.
Do you have a life credo or motto? Do what you will but harm none.
Who or what are your design influences or inspirations? For women’s wear, definitely Vivienne Westwood and Jil Sander. For men’s wear: Kim Jones and Ozwald Boateng. Design aesthetics of Totokaelo and Droogs Designs.
What’s on your bucket list? A houseboat trip along the Loire; two days of Tokyo street food; Documenta 15 in 2022.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? My husband’s brown eyes when he smiles.
What is it that you most dislike? Unnecessary deceit and dramatic secrecy.
Which T.V., movie or superhero character is your alter ego? Cleopatra Jones, although I am feeling a bit Dominique Deveraux lately.
What would your last meal be and who would cook it? Curry and roti made by my momma, although it would probably kill her if I left this world before her.
Name 3 things you could not live without? Vitamin E and coconut oils, my Hackman pots, my phone.
If invisible what would you do? Ooohhh … wait, wait … thou shalt not kill.
On what occasion do you lie? To spare a vulnerable person’s sanity.
If you could dress anyone, for any event. whom and what would it be? Tilda Swinton for … her one-woman show on Broadway (Just take one moment to imagine that). Michelle Obama and anywhere she wants to go.
What is your greatest extravagance? Birthday dinner parties, although lately it’s been Blue Cross/Blue Shield
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, who or what would it be? A tall Afro-Caribbean woman who is the daughter of Billie Plummer.
Lunch with one famous person, whom would you choose, where would you go? Lunch with Michelle Obama at Azur, Key West.
Finish these sentences…
My most marked characteristic is … my hair.
My autobiography would be titled …’Yeah Baby … She Ready.’
I can never refuse … my husband and friends.
When I go, I will go … dancing to Ragga with a glass of El Dorado 12 in one hand and a Guyanese patty in the other.