Trenton’s ‘one-hand sewing man’ showcases at exhibit
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Qaysean Williams is in full alter-ego mode: a hunter blaze orange House of High End cap with Bob Marley-like dreadlocks spilling out the sides, a white sleeveless MNK tank top — belly-button exposed — he designed himself, orange, yellow and brown camouflage print pants reminiscent of the Maryland Terrapins school colors and shiny black boots.
Meet Manikin, Trenton’s native celebrity designer. He’s flashy, zany and out there, boldly, proudly and loudly. Manikin doesn’t blend in; he sticks out in most places, especially Trenton, New Jersey, an urban city that hasn’t always embraced Qay/Manikin’s duality and differentness.
“I was always the black sheep anyway in my inner city community,” the 28-year-old Williams said during an interview Thursday inside the BSB Gallery, an old bank with an archaic walk-in vault that was transformed into the backdrop of the artist and fashion designer’s first solo exhibit “The Fantasy of a Manikin.”
The eclectic mix of hand-sewn dresses (some designed for Trenton prom-goers), jackets, shoes, sketches, photography and even a music video was so illustrative of the multi-dimensional Williams it drew a visit from Mayor Reed Gusciora.
But before he could draw admiration from politicians, Williams struggled to gain acceptance from his peers.
“It was hard to fit in,” he said of growing up in the capital city. “That was where I started getting into my own head.”
Williams hasn’t always been comfortable dressing like he is on this day. He used to shy away from sleeveless shirts, trying to hide his disability from the world.
Now the so-called “one-hand sewing man” embraces the Erb’s Palsy in his left arm, a condition impacting the nerves in his neck that allow Williams to control the motions in his extremity.
Williams had a quote on the wall paying homage to his disability, which he re-branded a “super ability” — a condition never formally diagnosed by a doctor that Williams spent most of his life telling people was simply a “broken arm.”
“You know how I found out what this was? I was contacted by an organization from the Netherlands because I did an interview with a France company called Brut, and they have an American leg here,” Williams explained. ”(My) story the ‘one-hand sewing man’ went viral; it has 3.7 million views right now. And so people started reaching out and I started finding out there were people all over the world that had their arms like mine was. This particular company, this Erb’s Palsy association, a member contacted me to do a write-up, and she was like, ‘Do you have Erb’s Palsy?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ She gave me a name, that was when I researched and was like, ‘Oh, my god. It looks just like my arm.’ I still haven’t went to a physician. Even the doctors I had, they didn’t say this is what it is.”
Williams, once a benefactor of Rider University’s Minding Our Own Business entrepreneurship program, has blossomed into a sought-after fashion designer since opening Manikin in 2009.
Williams is a bit Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka rolled into one, a wunderkind with an ethereal output, sometimes whipped up in 90 minutes, that is kind of like fizzy lifting drink. People say it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist, it won’t exist, until Williams wills it into existence.
He has designed boots worn in one of rapper Trina’s music videos and last year put together five outfits worn at the BET Awards by June’s Diary, a female group formed by Kelly Rowland as part of the reality TV show “Chasing Destiny.”
Williams said he got a call from one of the group members a couple days before the awards ceremony and sketched out and designed the outfits on a hard deadline.
Some of Williams’ pieces on display at Thursday’s exhibit were gaudy and galactic, like a pair of gold sequin boots that looked like a gold disco ball.
And then in his fall 2019 collection of “heavenly embellished” dresses, aptly titled “Dynasty,” it was clear Williams, who has queen Nefertiti tattooed on his rib cage, drew inspiration from the Byzantine and Egyptian empires.
The outfits were like status symbols for millennials, reminding Williams of ornate stained glass church windows.
“It’s about acting as your own king or queen,” he said. “We live in a time now where it’s hard to be great in the world. There’s many trials and tribulations of life.”
Williams knows all about those struggles growing up in hardscrabble Trenton.
He bounced between the north and west sides of the city. Earlier in his life, he struggled to gain acceptance. Classmates didn’t always understand him. To them, he liked weird things, like anime and X-Men comic books.
For part of his life, Williams’ left arm was in a brace. It hung down by his side until he got a plate put in. Still playing sports was out of the question, Williams said. Daily tasks, like putting on clothes, were that much harder for Williams, so he adopted his own strategies.
The artist wasn’t always proud of his disability. He used to wear long sleeve shirts in blazing hot weather because he didn’t want people to stare at him.
Then one day he decided he was tired of hiding. He spoke to himself in the mirror, convincing himself he was special.
“I had no choice as a kid but to think outside the box. It’s so easy to be trapped and sometimes the environment around you, it was hard to be inspired,” he said. “I literally had to create my own inspiration to deviate from the norm. I didn’t see anything for me as an outlet to wanna be a designer or any part of activities to be a part of that. I didn’t fit in, so I created my own space where I fit in. It pours into my designs every day. I went into my own world and researched things outside (of Trenton) like Harajuku. Once I was exposed to that, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s so much to the world.’”
When he turned 18, Williams traveled to Atlanta, Florida and California. Later, he earned an associate degree from Mercer County Community College, and just this May, a bachelor’s from Montclair State University.
“Everywhere I go, they say, ‘Where you from?’ And I’m like, ‘Trenton, New Jersey.’ They’re like, ‘No you’re not. You don’t even look like it,’” Williams said.
Williams doesn’t see it like that. On the outside, he may not look like Trenton. But he embodies the city’s spirit: gritty, tough and full of promise.
“My disability birthed all this,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my arm being the way it was, I would be a little bit different than I am now. As a kid, I had to build tough skin I had no choice but to love who I was.”
He tries to give back to the community that reared him into what he is today.
Williams has made more than two dozen prom gowns for Trenton high school graduates, some of the same girls he mentored during his working days at the Boys and Girls Club.
He dubbed a recent prom creation “Queen Star,” a black lace dress with intricate parts that took Williams 19 hours to hand sew named after the girl who wore it.
“They still call me Mr. Qay,” Williams said of the youth who now turn to him to help deck them out on one of their special days. ”
Williams said even he couldn’t have crafted a more perfect narrative for himself: with his dad, who often helps whenever he needs an extra hand pulling fabric, by his side at his first solo exhibit, in his hometown, surrounded by fellow Trentonians who supported and saw something in him when he didn’t see it in himself.
“I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” he said. “This is my community. They’ve seen the journey. . . . There’s no such thing as a perfect life. You have to separate yourself from everything being perfect. You have to stay encouraged when the storm comes. Because after the storm, there is a rainbow, and there is a sunshine on the other side. And you can either come out of it smiling or come out of it crying. You have the choice.”
Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/