Meiling: the realm of style

Caribbean Beat editor Judy Raymond spent many arduous months following Trinidadian designer Meiling to document her career

Model Christiane Steel wears a caramel-coloured wedding dress from the 1970s. Photograph by Marlon Rouse

Meiling’s archive consists of a large cardboard box labelled “Meiling’s photos.” The contents date back as far as the 1960s, when startlingly short minis and voluminous bellbottoms were matched with Twiggy-style crops or flowing hippie manes, false eyelashes and thick black eyeliner.

Looking back at the photos, it’s hard not to judge the work of decades ago by the thinking of today. So the cute minis and wild flares of the 1960s appeal; the shoulder pads and heavy makeup of the 80s leave you cold. But what did it look like then?

Of all the arts, fashion plays perhaps the largest and most obvious role in the personal life of its audience, and one would expect reviewers to be able to respond directly and coherently to it. A distinguished exception to the unfortunate and prevalent woolliness of reviewers is a crisply precise piece on Meiling’s first show in 1969 by veteran Trinidadian fashion writer Rosemary Stone. Four decades later, you would still look stylish and very, very daring if you wore “one of the nudest outfits of the evening…a chocolate-coloured pair of hipster trousers made of moiré voile topped by a minute bolero of cream-coloured thread-covered rings simply joined together.”

The audience of 1969 was captured, though today’s probably wouldn’t be, by a pink crepe-backed satin ensemble involving “enormous elephant pants,” a belted tunic with leg-of-mutton sleeves, and a sash worn around the neck.

But some things haven’t changed. Meiling still loves black, still adds embroidery, still produces all-white sections, uses sari silks and Chinese brocades. Those constants are one reason why she says, as do her clients and fans, that her work is timeless.

Actually it’s not, and it wouldn’t be altogether a good thing if it were. It sounds like a very odd thing for a designer to say of her work, especially one who also remarks that “fashion is so transient,” who will tell you that that’s why she subscribes to every fashion magazine there is and monitors the Net too, to keep on top of international trends. The seasonal switches in style are one of the forces that keep the fashion industry booming; last season’s shapes and colours just don’t cut it any more, however chic they were a few months ago. The fickleness of fashion is notorious; it’s one of the reasons why it’s considered superficial.

And yet, conversely, fashion is taken seriously partly because it is believed to embody the spirit of the times as it changes, supposedly in response to social or sometimes economic forces, and the popular mood. One of Meiling’s idols, Yves Saint Laurent, declared in 1971, “Fashion is the reflection of our time, and if it does not express the atmosphere of its time, it means nothing.”

Yet one of St Laurent’s biographers also writes—in praise of him—that in 1968, “he left behind the idea of fashion as trend…he entered the realm of style.”

A comment by Jamaican jeweller Jasmine Girvan, who has worked as a stylist for Meiling, reflects the same contradictions in Meiling’s work. “The mark of a good designer is to be able to create something of beauty that functions on many levels: the visual, the tactile, its form and function, its longevity. To do that you have to be a skilled craftsman and you have to be aesthetically attuned to your time and place, and that’s what I think she combines.”
The clothes that are most characteristically Meiling are more sophisticated than they once were, because she has trimmed away any excess—she describes her work as being “almost discreet.” Her clothes aim for quality and comfort, and emphasise function as much as form. That in itself stops them from following any fad to ridiculous, soon-dated extremes. In them Meiling brings her skills and long experience to bear on the passing whims of the day.

Thus a woman as fashion-conscious as former Miss Universe Wendy Fitzwilliam still wears the first Meiling dress she ever bought, when she was 14, 20 years ago. “I had to save up for it,” she remembers (it cost what was then a huge amount for her—TT$340). “It’s a very simple A-line mini, sleeveless, with faggoting across the back, like a yoke, and it buttons up the front, but the buttons are covered by a flap of fabric, except the one at the top, a huge natural wood button. It’s simple and gorgeous.”

Meiling’s work isn’t timeless, but it increasingly observes timeless standards; she too has entered the realm of style.

This is an edited extract from the book Meiling: Fashion Designer, published in November 2007 by Robert & Christopher Publishers, Trinidad.