The seed for what would become Diotima, an emerging New York City-based brand rooted in Jamaican craftsmanship founded in the spring of 2021, was planted in Rachel Scott's brain two decades earlier.
Scott left the island nation, where she was born and raised, in the early 2000s. Around that time, a family friend who had been involved in Jamaica's fashion industry in the '70s helped her get an internship at Vogue U.S. when she was a college student. "I remember very clearly him saying to me, 'This is really great, but you can't just take this opportunity and not bring it back,'" she says says. "There's this ongoing thing about the youth of Jamaica leaving for whatever reason — for opportunity, for education — and never coming back. They excel wherever they go, and then they never contribute or participate in the local industry and community."
Ever since, Scott has had a thought in the back of her mind: Someway, somehow, she'd find a way to connect her work back to Jamaica, where her family still lives and where she was first exposed to the beauty of fine craftsmanship. She just didn't know what that would look like.
Scott continued to ruminate on this idea when she got her graduate degree in desgn at Milan's Istituto Marangoni and started her career at Costume National, then when she moved to the U.S. to work at J. Mendel, before transitioning into the nascent — and growing — contemporary market, first at Elizabeth and James, then at Rachel Comey, where she's now VP of Design.
There wasn't a timeline. Scott was happy to absorb as she could from working at different companies, "because there's so much to it, not just in making the clothes: the business, the relationships, the market, what have you," she says. "You can easily be super creative and launch something fantastic, but then end up in difficult situations."
Still, she'd come back to Jamaica's manufacturing capabilities, and the possibilities that lied therein.
"I knew that crocheters make crafts for the tourist industry — little red, yellow, and green beach cover-ups and things like that — and for the local clientele, doilies and things for the house," she says. "I knew that there was a skill set, but I didn't really know how to work with it."
A turning point came when she was working at Costume National and learned about a group of women based on the island's northern coast who make eyelet embroideries using a thread work technique that dates back many years and that only they know how to craft. "When I came home for the holidays, I dragged my mother to the north coast to go find them on some crazy road that was falling apart," she says. They met, and stayed in touch in the years that followed.
Fast-forward to 2020: The Covid-19 pandemic shut down entire supply chains and forced people across the globe to stay at home. Scott felt called to do something.
"These ladies, most of them have their own little shops in craft fairs; with the border closing, everything had shut down, so I was like, 'There's nothing going on for them. I'm stuck at home. What can we talk about over WhatsApp and get started?,'" she says. "It was somewhat reactive. I was seeing these huge retailers cancel orders with small designers, and the small designers then have to cancel orders with the manufacturers, and it all falling down on the laborer. They were the ones losing the most. I was thinking, 'I need to find a way to create a better relationship with labor.' It was less apprehension and more, 'Something has to be done.'"
What started as casual, one-off orders Scott commissioned from the Bonnygate Women's Group via WhatsApp over the summer continued to develop in the months that followed. That idea in her head was now crystalizing. By April 2021, Diotima was born.
The name of the brand draws from Scott's love of philosophy. "Diotima is this figure in the 'Symposium' who explains to Socrates what love is," she says. "It's unclear whether she's real or not, but she teaches about love in a very open and transformative way. At the same time, she's been taken up by people, philosophers in particular, like Marcuse. I like that she's this mythical, real/not real, very smart idea of a figure from the past that I also see in women in Jamaica, in images from 200 years ago. On a conceptual level, this transhistorical figure that's very smart and has this relationship with love and freedom is important."
That persona encapsulates who Scott imagines is the brand's audience. "In terms of the actual customer," she says, it's "bad bitches — anyone that wants to just feel empowered in how they dress."
The designer reads a lot of philosophy, and cites a few texts as being foundational not only for how she's conceptualizing Diotima, but how she sees herself building a business and her views on labor as a whole. She comes back to Herbert Marcuse's "Eros in Civilization," for one: "He talks about this transformative, libidinal form of the work that's non-repressive — I'm always thinking about this idea of labor and what forms of liberation we can find in whatever we're doing... I want my practice to be something that's truly a labor of love, that I can build connections with people and build something collaboratively and in as creative a way as possible."
Recently, Scott's also been revisiting Aimé Césaire's "Discourse on Colonialism," thinking about the ways she can help decolonize Jamaican fashion and extend that work to its Caribbean neighbors. "For example, I'm working with an artist from St. Vincent for the third collection, which is exciting, to make these connections and be able to do this collaborative work," she says. "She works on this idea of archives, making an archive of the terrain because it doesn't exist, because there was never any value placed on that, but then also so they come from her and not from a colonizer. That's important, and that's been super, super influential on my work."
For a long time, Scott says she felt she couldn't or shouldn't be the one to reinterpret Jamaican culture through fashion, even as she saw it exported constantly and repeatedly cited by others, especially in fashion. "It's great to see how much influence it has had, but I felt like it was important to add to that, from someone who’s actually from Jamaica," she says. "I'd been working in the industry for over 15 years and had seen other people do it and thought, 'Well, if someone has already kind of spoken about this, then there's not really more room for this. Last year, I had a change of perspective and thought, 'Well, no, this is important to add to the conversation.'"
Diotima is a cumulation of Scott's professional experience up to this point, plus this long-held desire to build something that connects back to her home. "I didn't really have the form [this would take] — I think I was always searching for who I would be making clothes for. And I still don't know," she says. "That's part of the project: making something for someone that maybe I don't know yet or doesn't yet exist. I want to create this possibility."
It's an endeavor that's ongoing and evolving, always rooted in collaboration with the craftspeople on the ground creating the brand's pieces. Scott will go back and forth with them on concepts, textiles and the techniques. Sometimes it's smooth, sometimes it's not — case in point: "I sent them some designs that I had developed, with a finer yarn I had here… When we got to the production, they complained so much about the thing that I had designed and the yarn that I had sent," Scott says. "The motifs were really, really small — they like motifs, not that small. I had a lot of black, which I already knew that they don't like, because oftentimes they'll be crocheting at nighttime, watching television or whatever, so you can't see the yarn. It was literally me begging them."
Every exchange, though, serves as a building block, continuing to fine-tune this partnership and push forward what Diotima can be.
"Now that I know them so much more intimately, what they're good at and what they like, I've been more open," Scott says. "I'm making new things within the framework of their capabilities, and they really like it. I always wait for the feedback from my mom or through a text message — she's the person on the ground during the production, which is really great — and I've gotten a sense of their style of crochet, which is very different from the crochet that I've seen elsewhere."
One of the marquee designs in Diotima's sophomore offering — a series of crochet hearts seen throughout the Pre-Spring collection (coming this November) — is a result of this kind of back-and-forth.
"It was a heart doily that one of the ladies made and was super proud of. I was like, 'I'm going to take this and make something out of it,'" she says. "There was this one lady who's in her seventies and had a double mastectomy, and she wants to show me this sexy beach cover-up that's totally open — she puts it on and she's like, 'Yeah, this is sexy. Maybe you'll make this.' So I took her heart, made a harness, and ended up developing it into a few more styles."
Originally, Scott wanted to stick with a direct to consumer business model for Diotima, to allow for fair pricing on the pieces and compensation for the artisans. (Pricing for Summer 2021 starts at $295 for the Web Top and caps out at $995 for the Marchande Dress.) That's still the focus, but she has brought on a select handful of wholesale partners — all of which specialize in a highly curated assortment of mostly-up-and-coming talent: Mr. Larkin, McMullen and soon, Ssense.
"There's a real limitation to how much you can do with crochet — it's made by hand, it's limited to the amount of people and how much capacity they have," Scott says. "I had good advice and support to find the right wholesale partners that were going to be able to present the collection in a way that felt true to what I was trying to present... I will always keep it as a selective group. My idea of the business' growth needs to be measured. I don't want the Silicon Valley model of huge expansion not based on reality. I have a very pragmatic approach to the business, that slow growth is actually good and can sustain the ideas and the principles that I want to build on."
Next up for Diotima is the release of Pre-Spring 2022 next month. Scott is designing other upcoming collections, and dreaming up more possibilities to showcase Jamaica's incredible craftsmanship in ways we haven't seen it before.
"There's definitely a 'now plan' and a 'later plan,'" she says. "Later, I would love to do other categories, like footwear and bags. For now, I just want to expand — I've been mixing tailoring and crochet, which I find really fun, and I want to be able to expand on that. And then, more collaboration, more presenting of Caribbean arts culture, in whatever way I can, from a different point of view. We always see the Caribbean as beaches and resorts. I want to give a different aspect to that."