Meiling: Intentional, Purposeful LivingSunday, June 06, 2021
Many would steadfastly argue that the multifarious nature of the Caribbean region's identity is hidden deep beneath the surface of the consciousness of its own people. We are a mix of many obvious and latent things and our abundance of creativity, it often seems, helps us to identify, express and face the historic trauma and triumph of lived experiences that have ultimately shaped the way we see and are seen. In that hidden fabric of reality, fashion has played a particularly important role in identifying meritocracy within the regional industry over time. Even in the hustle and bustle that the industry characteristically brings — where access sometimes overshadows talent — simple upbringings, simple living and simple style share a complex yet undeniable interconnectedness to fashion — and once in a while, the talent propels a powerful truth that sparks a bravery of intentions not often seen in this Caribbean space.
Undoubtedly, there is no other way to describe the iconic brand of award-winning fashion icon Meiling Esau.
Her eponymous label, Meiling, has long represented intentional, purposeful living to a global audience. With a reputation that has borne fruit of over 50 years from a conscientious work ethic, tenacity and creativity, she has sat proudly at the helm of her business by staying ahead of the curve creating timeless pieces and collections. Always keeping true to her mantra of producing high-quality products with an eye for design, craftsmanship, longevity and wearability, the glass ceiling seems to not exist for this beloved, talented designer from Trinidad and Tobago — whose global brand has worked with international organisations such as the Olympics and Miss Universe, as well as garbed celebrities such as Wolfgang Puck and Wendy Fitzwilliam.
In this Style Observer (SO) exclusive, Meiling speaks to Tenille Clarke about living life in 'black and white'; the essentiality of sustainable fashion in the midst of a pandemic; and the ways in which centring an attitude of gratitude has allowed her signature style of simplicity to stand the ultimate test of time.
Style Observer (SO): Meiling, how did you get your career start?
Meiling Esau (ME): I literally knew from a very early age that this is what I wanted my career path to be for the rest of my life, because my mother was one of Trinidad's top needlewomen, so I grew up in her sewing room which was at our home. I spent so much time with her, the machines, the buttons, the Vogue magazines, dressing my dolls. I was always fascinated by the fabrics that came in because she had a very special clientele, and she was also a very stylish woman. I grew up in St Augustine, moved to Port of Spain in the mid-70s because my parents felt that I needed my own hub in town. It was quite an adjustment for them, having to leave a quiet St Augustine to Woodbrook, which was busy and active. I've been living and working here ever since, surrounded by this community of creatives.
SO: You've dressed everyone from Wendy Fitzwilliam to Wolfgang Puck. Tell us about your fixed vision of the Meiling client.
ME: When I was patternmaker and a grader at my full-time job in the '60s I was a little frustrated because I felt my creativity was being limited — I had just moved back from the swinging London era of The Beatles and Mary Quant, and Trinidad's fashion radar was many years behind. After I left and finally opened my own boutique, I have to say it was because of all my peers who were returning from the UK and USA that wanted clothing like what they'd left behind, so I dressed those women. Women who were often seen, who wanted something new. I knew that I was talented, and I knew what I did was good, but I also came back at a pivotal time when Trinidad wanted a new vision for fashion — on the same timing and footing as the rest of the world. Through hard work, discipline and good service, my shop grew over time.
SO: What evolving traits do your clients represent in a COVID-19 era?
ME: I've seen it morph into so many things, and in this present moment it almost feels like déjà vu. When we opened after the first lockdown in 2020, clients just came in, and I was happy. I remember one client of mine — she's a real fashionista — she came in and I asked her, “Why are you shopping?” Her response was, “You know what I miss? I miss community and socialising and having coffee.” She missed that human connection. And then I saw clients morph into adapting to working from home — looking for easier clothes, stylish pyjamas. Their whole way of shopping changed, and what I found very heartening, although it wasn't very good for my business, they were becoming more conscious about sustainability. Gen Z shoppers and some millennials… they wanted garments that would last, that could take them out, to home, to dinner. Now, I am seeing Trinis shopping vintage, which is such a fabulous thing, because it means that they are being more conscious of how they consume fashion.
SO: Seventeenth-century French author Rochefoucauld said, “Affected simplicity is an elegant imposture”, meaning that simplicity is a delicate imposition. You posted that quote on your Instagram recently and that term still manages to represent who you are as a designer. As a tour de force in Caribbean fashion, how do you make your passion a mechanism of simplicity while having a lasting imprint on the industry?
ME: Absolutely, it resonates… and I think that I am very conscious of waste. We keep all of our remnants and at the shop, we believe in recycling and upcycling. Also, I just think that simplicity is the most elegant thing, so even when I do a collection, the most challenging element is editing… you always have to edit yourself. And because my designs are largely minimalist, people think it's easy. I remember doing a show in Colombia and we had to take our garments backstage to be seen by a fashion industry critic, and he saw that my work was inspired by Japanese culture. He said that it was a very minimal collection, but he noted that minimal is one of the most difficult things to do in design. There is so much beauty in simplicity.
SO: In a previous interview, you've intimated you live your life in black. While some people may pointedly note that the Caribbean aesthetic is often stereotypically associated with colour and print, others can counterargue that black is stereotypically representative of metropolitan living. What's your brand's fashion position on how the Caribbean is represented on the global fashion stage?
ME: For me, wearing black was about editing my life. I live a very simple life and I'm a creature of habit. At one time I did wear colour and I found that each day I would take something out that was colourful and end up not wearing it. Eventually I decided to simplify my life and wear black. I also think I wear black because my fitting room is very small and so I don't want to compete with the client that I'm fitting. On the global fashion stage and regionally, I'm known because I only wear black, but that doesn't negate the fact that I also work with colour — my “Unravel” collection was full of bright colour, hot pink and orange, etc. But when people think of Meiling as a Caribbean brand, they immediately think of the white shirt, an abundance of black, and that has worked for me.
SO: On reflection of your illustrious career, what would you have done differently?
ME: I don't think I would have done much differently. Maybe if I lived in this digital age, in this virtual world around us, it may have been a bit simpler. The years I would have put into my brand allowed me that time to develop the business into what it has really become. Sometimes I think about when I came back home, if I should have really made the move to be out there, rather than here — but then I say no, because this is where I grew up and living in the Caribbean is a great inspiration for my work. Maybe I would have tried to export earlier, but I'm really happy that I took that time to really develop into who I am and put in the work, as I still do, to make it into a brand that is recognised throughout the Caribbean.
SO: How has COVID-19 affected your life and livelihood?
ME: Standing in my garden after our most recent lockdown, I thought to myself “My God, we're almost exactly at the same period, doing exactly the same thing, facing exactly the same things as last year. I tell everyone that the only thing that COVID has really affected is my business — for example, from having my staff five days a week reduced to three or four days a week; financially it has affected me terribly. It has impacted my ability to travel to conduct business. But in terms of a social setting, I love staying at home and I love quiet time for meditation, so it did not affect me in that social way. Business-wise, I still have one of my client's wedding dresses hanging in my house, waiting to be worn. People weren't buying as much, there weren't as many made-to-measure wedding dresses.
I rarely came into my studio because it was almost depressing: everything was in limbo. So I spent a lot of time reading on my verandah, watching more birds and butterflies. I also took the time to do a course on sustainability from the London College of Fashion — I knew about and practised sustainable fashion, but I just wanted to educate myself a little bit more.
SO: You are the Caribbean designer that is the longstanding flag-bearer for slow fashion, and a huge cornerstone of continuing that legacy has been the art of taking a sustainable approach to your work — not just in the materials that you use such as your experiments with vegetable dyes and teas, but in the way you treat with your team.
ME: Wow, that's such an incredibly thoughtful thing to say! Because listen, I have been doing sustainability long before it became fashionable. We can't do anything else except slow fashion (in the Caribbean), but sustainable for me is about many things: using natural fibres — the maintenance of cottons, linens and silk — not overproducing, having staff that is respected and paid fair wages. Some members of my team have been with me since I started; they've become grandparents during their time here. It's very important for even emerging designers now with studios to understand how you take care of your staff, especially the young ones who don't have all of the knowledge. If you have a dressmaker with years of experience, you really have to respect them and take care of them. I had a wonderful call from the daughter of one of my longstanding clients in 2019, and she told me that when her mother died, she went through her wardrobe and kept four of her beautiful Meiling dresses. She brought in one of those dresses to wear for her son's wedding, and this beautiful bronze lace dress was in mint condition — I had very little work to do to tailor it. For me, service is also a part of sustainability — you can make amazing designs and beautiful garments, but quality service is what has allowed me to have this conversation here with you today.
SO: List three essential pieces that every woman and every man should have in their wardrobe.
ME: A white shirt is essential, one that you can dress up and down. My father always used to say that you must always have one good pair of shoes. And especially for a woman, a good undergarment: the success of any garment depends on what you wear underneath.
SO: You have not just consistently remained in the game, but you have flourished over time. Truth be told, many, not just in the region but globally, could take 'seams' of advice from you. What is the one quality you have held on to that has helped you weather storms throughout the decades?
ME: Meditation. I've held on to meditation and silence and it's necessary for me to have that time to myself… to think and work things out. Gratitude and humility are also important. I start every day with a gratitude journal, so whether things are good or bad, I am able to reflect on a career that I am totally passionate about, to be the captain of my own ship and the master of my own studio.
SO: If you had to unravel your most iconic piece of clothing, how would you reassemble it?
ME: This is such a great question. I'm always unravelling my iconic pieces. At least three or four times a year, I return to the one basic shirt and undo the sketch to come back with a reinvented version. So even my Kite Tunic became a Cropped Kite; my shirts always have a new twist, like a detail down the back or a funnel neck; my classic shirt now has an odd button. I'm always reinventing and unravelling as it were and incorporating my classic designs into little capsules (collections) throughout the year.
SO: When one looks at the work of designers like Aisling Camps and Adrian Foster, we absolutely see your influence. You were also a part of the “Mentoring by the Masters” programme hosted by the Ministry of Culture, which allows you to educate and guide emerging designers with your fashion excellence. What is it that makes you proudest of your legacy?
ME: I actually see Aisling's work being heavily influenced by her first career which is engineering… she's a fantastic design mind and we always do pop-ups when she visits (from the US). When I taught for a very short time at the University of Trinidad and Tobago, I would instruct the final class, so I became familiar with Adrian's talent. I always thought to myself that if there were succession, who I think could work here and carry on the Meiling line, I would say him. In terms of legacy, I'm most proud of the relevance and wanting of my work after 40+ years and being seen as an aspirational brand. That I've been able to produce new collections every single year and never stand still. Particularly in the last eight-10 years, I'm very proud of the mentoring I give to a lot of the young designers, such as Sanian Lewis, Shannon Alonzo, Anya Ayoung-Chee, and others. It brings me so much joy and I carry many of their works in my shop. This is not a one-way street: I am also learning from them, listening to what music they are listening to, the books they are reading, the art galleries they are visiting. It's a symbiotic relationship that I am very grateful for.
SO: Your collection launches are always so highly anticipated. Talk about your upcoming collection: what can we expect?
ME: I think collections must always have a narrative; it has to have a thread that runs through it. I have such an amazing team starting with Wendell Manwarren, Roger Roberts, Emma Forster-Hiscock — and besides being friends, they are so knowledgeable. I always feel like I can give them the seed of the collection, the concept; they will listen, and I will not tell them what to do. It's very important to have that (team) around you to mold you, get your vision and execute it. This pause is challenging for my business, but it gives me a little more time to refine the Meiling brand image and the next collection. Right now, I'm working on a capsule resort collection. I'm not going to give too much away, but it will launch to the global market in November 2021. With my virtual presence on the Papaiÿo website, my official website and the popular brick-and-mortar location at Island Magnolias in Jamaica, I have to be prepared and relevant for this very artisanal moment for Caribbean fashion.
SO: Many may argue that we are still wanting a seat at the table (of others) as opposed to creating our own. What would your message be to the world regarding the role the Caribbean designer has played and indeed can continue to play if allowed visibility?
ME: Well, I think if the world has paid attention, they would see that the Caribbean designer is as creative and sometimes more creative than international designers. When we look at designers like Melissa Simon-Hartman, who has worked with Beyoncé ( Black Is King), and Aisling Camps, to international fashion houses like Kenzo and Chanel who have done Caribbean perception… it's time that we create that seat. As a people, we have grown up in sustainable, slow fashion and the tradition of dressmaking… almost couture, bespoke. They can now look at us who have created a platform to take our artisanal work to the world. It's time we show them how we do it.
Meiling is located at 6 Carlos Street, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. While her shop is temporarily closed due to Trinidad and Tobago's current state of emergency, her regular hours of operation are Mondays to Fridays from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm and Saturdays from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm.
Clients may also shop at www.meilinginc.com.
— Tenille Clarke
Tenille Clarke is an avid storyteller, seasoned publicist and cultural enthusiast who often writes about her ongoing love affair with travel, entertainment and culture through a Caribbean lens. Follow her digital journey @tenilleclarke1 on Instagram and Twitter.
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