My life: Brigitte Mitchell-Da Silva
The jazz singer and founder of clothing label Viniga talks to Kenny Hodgart about her journey from Cape Town to our town
Photo: David Wong
UNITED WE STAND I come from a multiracial family in Cape Town [in South Africa]. I don't like to play the apartheid card, but I'm from that era and it was hard. My parents didn't care about race - my mother is white, my father a Polynesian/Indian/Portuguese mix; and I looked like an islander, with curly hair. Anyone who wasn't pure was thrown together in a pigeonhole. I remember going to a water park once and my brother - who has blond hair and green eyes - was allowed to go in but I was stopped. It was always a fight not to be judged or pushed away. My dad had two jobs: one was singing in clubs; the other as an engineer, working on ships. My mum was a dressmaker. She was brilliant; very talented, but she was forced to stay home because she had six kids. She had worked in a clothing factory but she carried on sewing at home and began her own little line. It started doing really well so my dad quit his job to help her run the business, and they have been going ever since. They managed to put us all through school - schools were segregated but my dad didn't want that for us, so he worked hard to put us through private schools, which weren't segregated.
SEWING SEEDS I started singing at a young age in church - happy-clappy church music; and I did a lot of musical theatre growing up. I started making clothes when I was about 10 years old. The first item I made for myself was a white polka-dot bell-sleeve mid-riff top that I wore all the time. I should check if my mother has thrown it out! After school I got a degree in fashion and was a senior menswear designer by the time I was 23. I was really ambitious and I think I was too young for the job that I had. I kept getting offers to travel with singing and eventually I gave up the design job - there was always time to go back to fashion, so I went off and travelled, doing musical theatre. I did that for a while before receiving an offer to come to Hong Kong to sing at a VIP club called Green Spot (in Happy Valley), which was popular at the time with local celebrities. This was about 12 years ago and I've been here ever since.
THE RIGHT NOTE As time went on I was offered more and more gigs and residencies in hotels and clubs, and I ended up at Gecko Lounge, where I've been performing for the past eight years. That's where I started meeting more of the city's jazz people. I gathered a band around me and we gelled, playing straight-up traditional jazz but with a twist - I have an unusual voice, which you either love or hate. It's very emotional; jazz brings out my alter ego, a more extravagant side of me. My first album, Don't Explain, got a nomination for a South African Music Award, and I'm working on my second, which will be mainly original songs. I write songs for others but for some reason can't write for myself - instead I have four songwriters writing for my voice. And my husband, Gary, who's half-Chinese, half-Scottish, produces … as well as being the drummer. We've been recording with an orchestra in Guangzhou, and we're going to South Africa to record a song called Manenberg, with a choir. The song was written by Cape Town jazz legend Dollar Brand and is about Manenberg township. It's a sad place, but the song is a sort of apartheid anthem about hope and about how you don't need to remain poverty stricken: you can get out of the circumstances you're put in. Having said that, as someone who left the country, I have a love-hate relationship with South Africa; it's a beautiful country but the people running things are beyond pathetic. I wouldn't want to bring up my own daughter (five-year-old Hannah) there.
CLEAN CUTS I like to keep my music as real as I can, and it's the same when I'm designing clothes. I only design in black and grey; white and cream. I like clean, natural fibres and classic shapes. Simple but not boring. I source fabrics from Japan and Korea - silk, wool, cashmere; and I also like to incorporate a bit of leather into my dresses. Some of my items are peek-a-booish, so you can decide what you want to wear underneath depending on how risqué you want to be. I came up with the name Viniga and for as long as I can remember I've designed a collection every season - but I launched, softly at first, two years ago. Right now I only sell online (via website www.viniga.com and www.shopdescreateurs.com) and through private sales. My dresses sell for HK$5,000 to HK$7,000.
ONE WOMAN SHOW I use a factory in Sham Shui Po for small runs and a Japanese-owned one in Guangzhou for bigger runs; but, apart from that, I do everything myself: research, development, sketches, patterns, samples and creating the collection. My mum taught me everything you need to know about garments and fabrics, but it seems to me fashion schools these days don't teach students how to work machines or sew. I dress friends; they're my muses. I designed a dress for a girl who sings at the Four Seasons, and another one I named "Colette", after one of the owners of [the nightclub] Drop [Colette Koo], who died of cancer in 2010. Last year, I was approached to dress the hostesses at [recently opened private members' club] Boujis. The outfits are sexy but elegant and sophisticated. And they're in black - black is like jazz for me; you can have it as a base, then add personality to it.