Meiling: “Dressing is about feeling special”

Trinidadian fashion designer Meiling on finding “the human touch” in the details; as told to Dylan Kerrigan

Trinidadian fashion designer Meiling

People think, because I’m a Caribbean designer, everything that comes out of me must be bright and tie-dyed. I say, no, I’m just a designer who happens to be in the Caribbean. I always say it’s not about who I dress or what I dress, the main thing is that I’m still here and it’s sheer hard work.

I remember writing an essay at 11, you know, the “what’s your ambition?” one, and saying then that I wanted to be a fashion designer. It’s something I always wanted.

My mother was one of Trinidad’s leading dressmakers. I grew up in her sewing room. The girls who sewed with her surrounded me. I played with the fabrics, touching them, feeling them, wanting to know more. I dressed my dolls constantly, making things for them out of any scraps that were on the ground.

My mother was a very hard taskmaster. I think that is where I got my attention for detail and finish of garments. She was the strictest quality controller, and felt you should be able to wear a garment on the wrong side. It had to be beautiful on both sides.

My father, an academic at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, couldn’t understand what I wanted to do. Trinidad had no fashion designers then. When I said I wanted to do fashion design he couldn’t understand it. He was scared whether I could really earn a living by it. My mother, though, was there rooting for me, because I was going to live her dream.

My father said my training had to be done in England. I left with a fair understanding of the rudiments of dressmaking. When I got there I was a step ahead of my class.

London [in the 1960s] was a very exciting place, it was swinging London, fashion suddenly changed, it was all very revolutionary. There was Mary Quant, there were parades, white boots, mini skirts, there was the Beatles, the Stones, it was the place to be at the time. I was a flower child. I was exposed to street fashion, to the change of the times. When I came back to Trinidad it was difficult fitting in; where would I go, how would I really practise what I learned?

The industry then had many more factories, but not many designers. I got a job with a manufacturer, I was really just a factory girl, a grader, which was different to what I had imagined. I came back thinking I was this trendy girl from London.

One day I made a design — it was a very classic dress, and they took a chance. It sold, and they produced thousands. About six months later I just said, “Listen, I want to go out on my own.” I think part of my success was the timing, because when I decided to open my boutique there was one other boutique in Trinidad.

Early on in life, I wanted a uniform for myself. I used to wear colours a lot, but then I’d get up and always go back to the black t-shirt, and I thought, You know what? Let me have a uniform, so I don’t have to think. I have to think too much about what other people have to wear, so let me just not think too much about myself! I wear something in which I disappear and can see what I’m working on. I mean, I’m surrounded by fashion, and I work in colour every day; obviously I don’t think everyone should wear black, but I gravitate towards it.

Some people might say, because my style is very clean and minimal, it reflects a Chinese cultural influence, but I wouldn’t say so. My signature is my attention to detail. It is a very human touch. It makes my garments stand out. Today, with so much machinery, hand-embroiderers are almost non-existent in the industry, but it’s been a constant in my life, and something I continue to pass on. I am very proud of working by hand, bead by bead, stitch by stitch.

After my mother, [Trinidadian Carnival designer] Peter Minshall was my greatest teacher. I had a friend who grew up with him, and every time he came to do a band I would come in and do the queen with him. But I never really got into it too much. Then when he came to do River [a 1983 Trinidad Carnival band] he stayed in this house to design it, and we became very close friends.

I’ve worked with him a lot since, and I’ve learned a lot — I mean, you have to have a lot of patience, you have to be able to listen, and you have to be able to take criticism. He would bring the design and I would execute the prototype. I remember times I would go with a prototype and he’d pull it totally apart, because, remember, I’m not a costumer, I’m a fashion designer. I would have to go back and start again, but when I did I saw exactly what he was teaching me and why. I think he is a very important part of my life.

For my latest show [The Magician’s Sleeves, Trinidad, December 3, 2003], I said, “I don’t know if I can do the Magician,” and I said to Minshall, who loved the show, “What did you think of the Magician?” and he said, “You did it with much more restraint than I would have done it with, but you did it well.”

And I said, “Well, I am one of the people who graduated from the university of the Callaloo Company [Minshall’s production company]!”

The Magician’s Sleeves was my first couture show, haute couture — you know people say “couture”, but it really was. I pulled out every stop: 85 models, costume changes, and all the styling, because it wasn’t just clothing. It was about the make-up, the hair, the different ethnic groups. We, [artist] Sarah Beckett and myself, worked on the show since January, and without the collaboration it would not have been so big.

Some of my collections are very influenced by what other designers are doing. There are so many creative people, and we should feed off each other. I’m always happy to bring other people on board with me, and to share with them what we have and take from them, and at the same time give to them. I admire Armani, I love his work — I think he is a master in the world of fashion, and of course I look at everything he is doing and every other designer is doing.

For me, it’s not just about dressing women, or people buying my clothing. Dressing is about a sense of occasion, about feeling special. The relationship between personality and garment is very important. I love dressing women who are confident, who have spirit, who can laugh at themselves. The Caribbean woman has more curves, she has a “bumsie”, the Caribbean woman has a certain joie de vivre. They put on my garments and the garment doesn’t wear them, they wear the garment. Their personality shines. I think in some ways my work is almost discreet — I’m not sure if that is the right word — but it allows the personality to shine. Dressing a Caribbean woman with spirit satisfies a great part of me.