Cherice Harrison-Nelson debuts West African-inspired fashion line – OffBeat Magazine

The brilliant shades, painstakingly placed plumage, ornate and personalized insignias—the beaded and feathered suits of Mardi Gras Indians are as dynamic as the performances members who wear them. The art of “masking” and the costume fabrication that accompanies it figure prominently in life of  Cherice “Queen Reesie” Harrison-Nelson. As a third-generation participant in the tradition and queen of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, Harrison-Nelson has cultivated a rich aesthetic sensibility that she’s articulated in a West African-themed fashion line debuted in April 2021.

Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson marked her 30th year as a Mardi Gras Indian in 2021. She works year-round on her suits. She models the dress for sale on Etsy. Photo by Noé Cugny.

Dubbed the Queen Reesie Collection, the line marks Harrison-Nelson’s first “official” foray into fashion as well as her first collaboration with Nigerian designer Ese Johnson whose London store, Tufafi Ng, boasts an international clientele. Regal and expressive, the collection eschews the ready-made, one-size-fits-all trend that afflicts fashion today. It instead features customized dresses favoring fuller figured women—with each one just as distinct as its customer. Even with its fuller focus, Harrison-Nelson assures up that her collection is meant to accommodate all sizes “[from the] curvaceous, [to the] not so curvaceous.”

The debut design holds both an aesthetic and spiritual significance for Harrison-Nelson. The piece, a full, dark blue dress, pays homage to Olokun, a Yoruba spirit said to tend to the souls lost in the oceans of the Middle Passage. Additionally, each garment will include a matching gélé, which includes a complimentary tutorial for tying the traditional West African headwrap. 

Though the Queen Reesie Collection remains a work in progress with only its inaugural piece available, Harrison-Nelson and Johnson are hard at work on new outfits, all of which will draw inspiration from Harrison-Nelson’s art and, of course, her next Carnival suit. “Right now, we’re developing a festival outfit…a dress and a jacket [with] a little play to it.”

While the pieces may be meticulously planned, the line itself arose from a moment of pure providence. Harrison-Nelson’s son had stumbled upon Johnson’s creations while browsing Etsy, a popular digital marketplace for handcrafted goods. Despite the happenstance of the collaboration’s conception, fashion itself felt like a natural progression from sewing suits for Carnival. Much like her Carnival costumes, the designs with Johnson reflect a desire to transcend mere aesthetic beauty to find meaning and ultimately herself.

“I’m an American African. Because of the atrocities that were perpetuated against us, we’re so disconnected…This tradition for me is a way for me to connect myself to my ancestral homeland—one bead, one stitch at a time.”

The Queen Reesie Collection by Tufafi Ng is available exclusively on Ese Johnson’s Etsy shop here, starting at $150.

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