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Live, Fly, ’til you die!

Erin Paviour-Smith meets Deborah Reynolds, Managing Director of UMI Fashions - Doyenne of our fashion industry, businesswoman, community patron and an indomitable voice for women in the Virgin Islands.

Deborah is the eighth child of the late Geneva Harrigan-Reynolds, lovingly known throughout the community as Ms G and Carlton Reynolds, who died when Deborah was just over two years old. “Mum cooked, cleaned and worked multiple jobs to provide for us, so my siblings helped to raise me” says Deborah. The family lived in a two-bedroom home in Huntum’s Ghut, near Road Town.

The children’s clothes were of course handed down and by the time they reached little Deb (as she was known) she would protest “These are not my style, Mum!”. As early as she can remember, the youngster would kick-up her collar and roll up her sleeves to reinvent her look.

Deborah’s pieces are vibrant, a reflection of her vivacious personality

Older sister, Honourable Lorna Smith, OBE was the boss when it came to fashion in the early years. But the two had very different styles. “I wanted to wear my hair out, but Lorna said I should pull it back to look more refined” says Deborah with a smile. “But she said I had a good eye for fashion” and eventually the sisters switched roles.

“When Lorna became Permanent Secretary to late Premier Honourable H. Lavity Stoutt, I would buy all her clothes and style her” says Deborah, at the time studying at Howard University in Washington D.C.

Deborah met Everett O’Neal and the couple welcomed two daughters Safrika and Zharia O’Neal. Every semester break while studying, Deborah traveled back and forth between the US and BVI, and each time she returned with suitcases filled with clothes for family and friends.

 

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The late, great Ms G.

“Everyone would gather at the family home to pick up their pieces” she remembers fondly. “I always had a deep love for fashion and I wanted something different to what was available here at the time” she continues.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Based Information Systems, she returned home and launched the BVI’s first computer school – Computer Services International. But anytime she traveled, she would pick up pieces and keep them on racks in a dedicated room at the computer school known as ‘the back room’.

Soon it became clear ‘the back room’ had to be more. The name UMI meaning ever-lasting-life in Swahili felt right and UMI Fashions was born in April 1994 with its first store-front at the Akara Building on DeCastro Street in Road Town.

UMI’s first fashion show to launch the brand was held at Prospect Reef. Deborah’s vision was clear – her range was attainable and wearable for everybody. So, who better to model the pieces than people within the community from all walks of life.

“The show was a hit and it just grew from there” says Deborah. “I wanted to create events that would bring people to town, something fun and vibrant. So we launched UMI Funky Fashion Friday” she continues.

“We built a wooden stage at the front of the building and every week there was a show with a DJ and the whole community would come from far and wide to watch. I can still remember my little daughter Safrika hiding under the stage” says Deborah.

A passion for bringing people together through fashion and fun continued with UMI Battle of the Corps. Teams from corporate companies such as Harneys, BVI Social Security Board, FirstBank and others, selected clothing from the store based on a theme, then strutted their pieces on the catwalk. “We are planning to bring this event back – so watch this space” says Deborah.

The UMI Super Mums & Models show held every Mother’s Day was particularly special as Deborah’s beloved Mum, Ms G would come out each year to model, along with her children and grandchildren. Family is very important to Deborah and she is proud of her two daughters, Safrika who’s career is in the Tourism industry and Zharia who is a playwright.

In 2010 UMI Fashions moved to its current location on Waterfront Drive and in 2014 Deborah opened her second store Passions by UMI at the Cyril B. Romney Tortola Pier Park. For both stores, Deborah curates every look from her suppliers in person, usually with an existing or future client in mind.

“The pandemic was tough because I couldn’t travel to source the pieces – I don’t do cut and paste. I call my clients on FaceTime and show them my idea for their latest look, right there in person. I will always be little Deb the stylist” she laughs. 

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