Merline Labissiere | When Design Meets Business
A familiar face on Project Runway, the super talented Merline has a good yearning for success. The designer has the disposition to navigate the intersection of architecture, fashion design, and business. It is why she’s the foremost expert in futurist and non-traditional fashion. In addition, Merline reconciles her work ethic with her Haitian heritage- she’s just resiliently ambitious. She longs to have the exact scale of influence as the great art and design movements: “Personally, I want to have the same impact, I don’t want to just design…”
Merline feels she has a responsibility to help in her capacity as a leading voice in the industry: “For me no matter how many awards I receive, no matter how many TV shows I’m in- it’s nothing more just to see the next generation dream and continue to grow”. As such, she launched Provoke Style Fashion Camp, a non-profit that offers fashion education to inner-city students.
The 36-year-old fashion entrepreneur has a habit of writing journals at her favorite coffee shop. She’s mostly free on weekends and she could take a whole day to be by herself at the beach.
I love to design! My brand is about designing for the modern woman in the business world. I design for her daily wear as she goes on to take the world through business, in meetings, and in her interaction with the world. I also design for her special days like her wedding day.
I started at a really young age. I’m Haitian-American; my first language is Haitian-Creole. I was always different. My parents will send me with church dress and tennis shoes and I’ll have huge ribbons in my hair. When I look at many pictures in the 80s from Haiti, those were so cool. There was one where I had the big berets. I’ll go to school and didn’t even speak English. At that time also, the kids that were born in America had Nike and all that. They were so cool. I stood out like a soft bum and they’ll pick on me then I’ll come home crying. It really impacts me. I’ll be in my room and say “if I had all the money in the world how will I dress?”
So I started designing in my head. It was in the 7th or 8th grade when my parents were giving me money to pick my clothes up that I was creative with my choices. Even with that, I got these shoes with different colors and the kids at school were calling it clown shoes and I was like “what?!” So I’m always sticking out like a soft bum**laughs** I think as a person and designer I’ve evolved over the years and been refined.
Right before Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) I self-taught myself how to sew wedding dresses and I was into prom dresses right before college. When I went to SCAD it refined me. I put in perspective what I was doing on my own and now I’m obsessed with fashion and I love it. I started my first company when I was into set and graphics design at 24-years-old and right after college in 2011, I started my brand, officially. I got incorporated and ever since it’s been baby steps to get to where I am. I think I’ve evolved and made it like a solid company right after college but I’m obsessed now with everything fashion- the brand and the visual of the brand. That’s how I got serious.Personal Style
My personal style is very different sometimes from the person I am actually designing for, in my head. My personal style is very cocky, vintage, colorful, and bright because it matches my personality. It influences my modern girl when I design for her. I love vintage stuff (pleated pockets, jackets that align et al) – I feel like they are classics. I’m obsessed with vintage. My personal style is fun, free, almost sliding to Bohemian. So I feel like going back and forth with a Bohemian girl; very like tiny hole movement, shipping container to like very sophisticated pencil dresses and pumps when I have to go to meetings. I try always to balance those two girls but I think my personal style is very Bohemian ish. **laughs**
I have always been a designer from a very early age. I started crushing in early on in middle and in high school where I actually started selling my crushing. I will make these purses and sell them. I remember one of my counselors actually found one and was like “hey remember the one I bought from you? I think it’s super cool”.
However, I haven’t always been a designer. I have been in drama, and done housing design for a couple of years in high school in my early 20s. It was in my first company where I did graphic design, branding, costume, self-design. So though fashion has really evolved over the years, designing has always been in my DNA. I have loved fashion since elementary school- I remember a girl who used to be next to me, she was drawing one time and I was curious about that. That was the first time I fell in love with fashion and I’ve never looked back.
Over the years, I have gotten better but right after high school, I really wanted to do fashion but I went to the direction of architecture because I grew up in a strict environment. They wanted something where I could make money to support myself, so I went to SCAD. That was the time I really pursued fashion. Before that, I did prom dresses- it was self-taught- for fashion design. Being a fashion designer and an architect, I see myself more as a designer than label myself a fashion designer.
Childhood and today’s success stories
I am the first generation and my Mum came here on a boat which is insane. To get on a boat from Haiti in the middle of the ocean and some make it some don’t to come to America. I think she’s the biggest entrepreneur ever. We’re first generation while growing up we didn’t really have much but my family worked super hard. This is why I’m a workaholic also partly because I love the American dream, as a first generation I look around and I see my friend and they’ll say they’re born in America and I’m like “you can accomplish anything you want because this is America”. So I think that drive is in me.
We didn’t really have much when I was a child so I strived to have a lot and I’m really different from a lot of people in my family. Being an artist, collected, outgoing, out there- I think my personal attributes inspire me and I think this is why I personally love to wear color. My Haitian culture just really impacts how I see color, how I view color, and I’m not really afraid to tackle prints, I even design my own prints which is insane. So I think a lot from my Haitian heritage impact me. Just working hard, you know, when you grow up you hear your Mum came here from a boat you’re just like, I have to work hard.
We accomplish so much with that mentality. Going to school with those church dresses, imagine 80s Tees, the bow tie in your hair, and being picked on for being different, I had to rise above all that. I think my childhood really impact me. My Mum was also serious about education, being successful, how that looks like and having that opportunity really had an impact on my story today.
I got accepted admitted to my favorite college, I graduated at the Associate of Arts in Architecture, Miami Dade College and I got admitted into my dream school which was Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) that was a huge accomplishment. It was a private art school in Savannah Georgia. Also, I went on to graduate. That was huge because a lot of people didn’t have the opportunity to graduate. That’s another milestone.
Another milestone is going self-employed- my first studio in downtown Savannah was huge. It was a leap of faith and a couple of months after that I featured in Savannah magazine. That was cool to be the cover girl and be honored by the magazine. And being on Project Runway and even having the opportunity to go back to Project Runway and fast forward to right now I feel like I’m at my biggest accomplishment. I say that because this is the first time my company is structured (business plan, cash flow sheet et al). I’m literally transitioning to 100% fashion designer and 100% businesswoman. For me having that business plan and understanding profit margins, knowing my products and five-year projection as a designer, I think I’m at my biggest accomplishment.
One of my biggest rewarding starting my non-profit, I teach fashion and it’s called Provoke Style Fashion Camp. Just seeing the next generation eye lit up when they know how to sew, when they see their work up for the first time, even at the fashion show watching their faces and their family’s eye lit up- For me no matter how many awards I receive, no matter how many TV shows I’m in- it’s nothing more just to see the next generation (those that never had the opportunity to sew) dream and continue to grow. Personally, that’s the most rewarding part of my journey so far.
On discovering new styles
As a designer new collections are all about discovering different styles and different ways of looking at fashion so that we incorporate it. One thing that I always do in my collection is to merge architecture and fashion and I also love to look at the 1900s especially men tailoring (I love it). So I’m always incorporating men tailoring or sport wear into new collections.
As an individual, finding the balance between being an entrepreneur, designer, and human (balance between work and life) is a goal for me. I want to make sure I’m enjoying life and I have time for my soul and do the things that I really love. What’s next for my company right now is structuring it. I’m obsessed with that. I’ll tell you I’m obsessed with my spreadsheet, my cash flow sheet, my business plan just making sure my finances and everything are in order so I can dream bigger and have more financial room to explore in the design field.
I think that will give my company a platform to grow and have a team where I bring the designers and we can grow the business together. That’s next for me and for my non-profit, I want to partner up with organizations where I can bring in the tools to teach the next generation all the things that I’ve learned.
Favorite style and fashion accessory
I’m obsessed with my hat. I made my first beaded hat recently so my hat is my signature look and I love it. I’m not a shoe person, I love accessories but my hat is like number 1.
Preferred area of expertise
As a fashion designer and a creative entrepreneur, I’m constantly juggling many hats. I don’t know if I’m an expert but I think as an entrepreneur fashion designer, I have to do it all but if I have to be an expert in an area I think it would be mass production. I want to be an expert in producing garments really fast. Can one be an expert in designing? **laughs** But I think manufacturing, I’m obsessed now with how things are been created and what speed they can be created in.
The first advice I’m going to tell you is to be you! Don’t compromise; don’t try to be something you’re not. The second thing is learning what’s good on your body. I do that and usually keep that template and just tweak it a little. So for a lot of us, we don’t look at ourselves and say “wow this jacket makes my hips look skinnier or this jacket makes me this”. We all have our favorite jacket, we all have our favorite pant but sometimes we need to ask why it is our favorite. It’s important we know our body and style. I think there’s a quote that says “fashion change but style is eternal”. So having your own swag is important. Perhaps you like purses or you’re a shoe person, having that look work set you apart from any other thing. Be you. Don’t change because fashion says you have to change. Be you and then do it in different seasons in different ways.
Understanding market demands
I went to fashion school and I felt the market was missing something. I felt fashion is supposed to be simple so I was like it had no style or simple clothes. I thought I didn’t see a lot of clothes that are really cool, dope, and different but still has that sophistication- I’m talking about amazing garments that are out of the box and creative. When I look in the market, I thought that was missing when it comes to my ready-to-wear style.
I design for the average woman like me, so sometimes even for my size, I think I’m a size 6 or 8, probably a 10 in the market **laughs** but I felt like there weren’t cool clothes for even my size. That pushed me to do ready-to-wear for body sizes like mine.
I started doing wedding (garments) the last couple year and a half now and I’ve been loving it. I didn’t think it was something I’ll love but I’m really in love with the wedding industry. For a while I also did custom and a lot of my customers will come and say “hey can you make me this? I’ve been looking for it in the market and I haven’t seen it”. So for me, over the last year and a half, I’ve got to talk to the clients one on one to see how the market is especially the wedding industry. When it comes to design and price point, the wedding industry is still catching up in terms of what they’re offering. I feel like I need to have a voice in there.Responses and Reactions
I’m super lucky that I always have feedback. I think feedback always helps me understand the market. From one of my studio at Savannah Georgia I’ll create garment and women will come into my studio and give me positive feedback. I remember when I first opened my pop up shop right before I auditioned for my Project Runway the third time, I had it where people could leave feedback in a big container. There was a lot of positivity. I feel OK as a designer because I think I’m always growing and changing. I’m always in the position where I invite feedback. I did a project, Scatter to the Air program where I had women come in. I’ll interview them and ask to bring their favorite things in their closet and ask them why. For me, I love that kind of connection with these women. And I’ll give cloth to them and tell them to give me feedback: “tell me what you like about it, did you want the arm bigger?”
Another thing I’ve also done is I started to wear all my collection because I need to know as a designer how comfortable the garment is (I’m so creative, I can really go out of the box) and sometimes it doesn’t make sense on the average woman on their day today. So I made a decision a couple of years ago to wear all that I design because I want to experience everything I’m putting out there in the market.
Project Runway experience and behind the scenes
It is really hard. Imagine school final every day. I think people don’t know that. We would wake up that morning we would go to mood and harp about 8 hours to put it all together but that’s literally it, like 8 hours! For me, it’ll blow my mind, whenever I create. Sometimes people get to see a glimpse of the show, it’s TV, they condense it to about 30 minutes to shop and 8 hours to make something. I think that’s insane. So sometimes I don’t think people understand how hard the show is and it is super stressing as its like finals every day.
Project Runway takeaway
I can genuinely do anything! If someone came up to me right now and they’re like ‘I need a wedding dress by Friday’ and I’ll be like OK, I got this! Project Runway made me fierce because it was the scariest thing to do- you leave home, you’re stressed, and scared. I doubted myself, I really wasn’t sure. I think I needed that. I knew the world was watching but I didn’t know they’ll like my work. There were competitions where I was in the bottom and I got criticized on social media but they never questioned my creativity and I feel that was pretty.
Project Runway story
Many people don’t know that was my third try to apply on the show. The first time was when I was doing my architecture at Miami Dade College and at that time I self-taught myself how to sew. I never even went to the school for fashion sewing but I will look at a garment and just sew it together. That’s how I was making a garment. I remember being in line, I think it was about 4 am, in downtown Miami. I remember interviewing with people. I think Tim Gunn was there at that time and they basically said I’m super talented and they love my personality but I won’t make it to the show because I don’t know what a pattern was. That got my feelings hurt **laughs**.
I actually went to college because of that, so I told myself I was going to be better because that was great feedback. So I went to college to learn fashion design and I graduated. At that time someone sent me a link to try it out and I did. I remember driving to Atlanta for a fashion show before my presentation and I felt it was a big mistake because I brought my fashion show clothes because it was so recent but they wanted to see my portfolio so I brought one dress from that- a new beaded garment collection. They gave me a maybe. S o I had to stay in Atlanta for the outcome but they said they love me but I needed to work on my craft. The third time, I longed for people to look at my work and just give me feedback, I was meeting with my teachers- that’s when I got my first studio in Savannah Georgia downtown and it was amazing. They still gave me a maybe but they wanted me. I think that was super cool because I wasn’t really into it the third time. I remember being at the audition and one of the designers on the panel was like “wow I love it and I think if you tweet this you’ll make a lot of money” and that’s how I got it! I just wanted feedback. Three is a charm. It was a great experience.
I want to have a successful company with a whole team in place. I also want to focus on ready-to-wear, the bridal wear, and also creating spaces because I have an architecture background I really love to transform spaces even if it’s a wedding or an installation where I’m all about redesigning spaces and not just creating garments but creating those spaces with the garments interacting with them. In the next five years, I’ll love to have those 3 elements in my company.