Known as the first British designer of African descent to earn an international reputation, Althea McNish would peruse the showrooms, dressed head to toe in the bright, bold, and sensuous fabrics she designed. She would be a critic of anything fabric.
McNish would say her designing “is functional but free, you can wear it, sit on it, lie on it, stand on it”. Quickly, she quickly became known as much for her technical acuity and understanding of the commercial side of design as for her painterly approach.
At the time of her arrival in the UK in November 1950, McNish was already a well-established painter from Trinidad and Tobago. She enrolled at the Royal College of Art in 1954 to study textile design. At that time, few black women attended this prestigious institution.
McNish presented her portfolio at Liberty’s after graduating from the RCA in 1958. She created a collection immediately.
In addition to her significant contributions to the industry, she collaborated closely with designers from the beginning of the creative process in order to fit her textiles to their needs. Most of her fabrics were inspired by her Trinidadian roots. Her designs were inspired by everything.
McNish’s interest in nature and in decorative arts was also influenced by a strong social and political current. She emphasized the importance of British artists of color through her involvement with the Caribbean Artists Movement, a group of artists, writers, and musicians from the Caribbean active from 1966 to 1972.
McNish was also emphatic about who she had in mind when she was designing. In 1966, she created a “Bachelor Girls Room” at the Ideal Home Show. The same year, the Queen wore dresses made with fabrics designed by McNish on her Royal Tour of the Caribbean.
Many of McNish’s contributions to the shape of British design and culture have been overlooked. Hopefully, the first major exhibition on McNish at the William Morris Gallery, Colour Is Mine will open new audiences’ eyes and minds to her achievements.