Unfussed dressing with maximum impact is a tough formula to crack, but Brooklyn-based designer with a Lebanese heritage Marina Cortbawi might be onto something.
She launched her own label Merlette after stints working for Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera and focuses on contemporary collection of airy and fluid silhouettes. But don’t be too quick to use a word like minimalism as her designs elevated with details like ruched sleeves on blouses, off-the-shoulder dresses and skirts finished with rich embroidery.
We catch up with the designer on a flawless vacation wardrobe and her view on the fashion scene in the Middle East.
How would you describe Merlette in 3 words?
Escapist, luxurious, subtle details.
How has your experience at Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera shaped your vision for the brand?
Working for two of the most iconic design houses in New York, which both had their own in-house ateliers, I got to see the whole process which is so special. This only reinforced my love for the creative process and shaped my vision to create something unique based on luxurious fabrics and embroideries.
I also travelled a lot during this time and I tried to understand what women like to wear in different corners of the globe. Merlette is a brand that is born out of that desire to be ageless and dress a very international woman.
What are your tips to picking the right vacation wear?
I believe the best pieces to bring on a vacation are those ones you would absolutely wear more than once, because they are so comfortable and you feel so good in them.
Less is more, so if it’s a summer holiday, just taking a few pieces that you have tried on already and would work for multiple occasions. Packing light is a luxury.
I think the wardrobe needs to be inspired by the destination also, I always visualize what I would be doing and what I would want to wear. One thing you cannot go wrong with is a white dress that goes back to all your accessories.
Which fabrics would you choose for hot weather?
I favour natural fabrics such as cotton is the best because it is the most breathable and easiest to wash, and I love cotton lawn because it is not too sheer, so soft and you can fold it up and unpack without worrying about creasing, it just falls out when you wear it. I also love light silks and linens but cotton is my number one choice.
You’ve travelled to the Middle East before, what did you take away from seeing the way women dress?
I noticed the women just really love fashion and are so informed about it more than any other women I have met. This has a huge impact on the very well thought out sense of style.
I have met some of the most incredible women during my travels to Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Lebanon (where my family is originally from).
Even though each place is so different in their taste, timeless elegance is key as well as having fun and not being afraid of colour and embellishment.
This is what I love most, and with Merlette they embrace the volume and playfulness of our pieces. I also find the women there always searching for a unique piece to stand apart from others, it’s less about being a clone and wearing something different to what your friends have.
What do you pack in your suitcase?
I try to always travel with a carry on if going away on a summer holiday for a week or less, so some of the key things I like to pack are: a long white cotton dress – the number one piece – that I can wear during the day and in the evening, some tunic style dresses and wrap blouses for the beach, Eres bikini, Turkish towel, leather sandals and a bottle of Moroccan argan oil for face body and hair.
What is the most valuable lesson your learned while launching Merlette?
To stick to your own original vision, keep focused on what your brand ethos is, and everything must follow that. For us, quality, simplicity and consistency are the most important things.
Can you share with us the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Creativity is your only commodity.
Where do you go to escape from the world?
Upstate New York for a weekend but for vacation I love Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and when I can, I go back to Australia where I was born. I love places that are packed with a lot of culture and not far from a beach. I try to go somewhere new each time.
What are your future plans for Merlette? Will we be seeing you in Dubai soon?
To continue designing pieces that women will love for many seasons to come. We are slowly expanding into some timeless prints and embroideries, and lightweight knitwear.
I do hope to come to Dubai soon, I love the city and as we are expanding in the Middle East, so I hope to make it over this year.