Spotlight Series: MERLINE LABISSIERE, Project Runway Designer
Welcome back to our Spotlight series! This week’s featured artist & designer is a true inspiration in every sense of the word. Merline Labissiere is an established fashion designer, SCAD graduate, and Project Runway Season 14 contestant! She has had the opportunity to showcase in New York Fashion week, compete on Project Runway, and make some amazing pieces. Merline’s passion and ambition emanate through everything she does, and you can’t help but feel inspired after every conversation with her.
Tell us a bit about yourself! Where did you grow up, and how did you end up getting into fashion?
Well, I grew up in Miami. I am first generation Haitian American, and we grew up super poor. I remember in elementary school, there was this one professor that had a crochet on top of her desk, and I was like, “Oh that’s so cool!” And she said, “Can you come and stay after school and learn how to do crochet?” and I was like “Yes!” And I think that’s the first thing that sparked that creativity- that I can use my hands, and I even brought that all the way to high school. I started using this heavy thread that I used to make purses that I would sell. I think for me that was the first time I felt that spark.
Also, growing up super poor, I used to dream if I had money, what would I look like walking into a room? I didn’t know what Nike was, I didn’t know what the name brand was. My mom would dress me up with ribbons in my hair and church dresses with tennis shoes, and that’s because Haitians didn’t really know what was in and what was cool, you know? I knew that I was different for sure, but I think combining those two made me who I am. I would sit there and think, “Gosh, if I had money, I would look like this!” and that really sparked my imagination.
I see you graduated from SCAD! What did you take away from your experience there? Do you feel it was the best place for you?
Yes. Before SCAD, I was self-taught. I’m a very driven person by nature, which I love. I love to work hard. Before SCAD, I did a certificate of arts in architecture, so I had that foundation. I started my first company at 24 years old, and I just self-taught myself how to do everything. SCAD was my dream school. I didn’t think I was going to get in. I remember getting that letter saying “You have been accepted, and here’s how much scholarship you got!” and I didn’t even have money for my dorm, but I put everything in my car and I just went to SCAD. If I had to sleep in my car, I was going to go to SCAD. That’s how intense I was. I saw the book that they send out every year and it was AMAZING, and I just knew I had to go there.
SCAD has really refined me as an artist. I think before SCAD, I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t know the opposite of complimentary colors; I didn’t know those things. And I think I was really educated. I know I’m really good at colors, like I can put two colors together, but I didn’t know why I was doing it. SCAD really educated me and refined me as an artist. And one thing that was really important was it gave me the platform to relay what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.
We had classes where we would have to go to a gallery and articulate on a paper what we thought of it, and I think that really helped me. I had that foundation of architecture at SCAD, and that really took me to the next level of standing in front of your peers and breaking down the space in architecture form. I’m talking about like why you chose the space and what was the inspiration. I think it gave me the words to go back and bring it to life. I love my education, and if you look at my portfolio before and after SCAD, it is like night and day and day and night! It is literally DAY and NIGHT! I’m proud of my portfolio because I had done a lot before SCAD, but I think I just evolved as an artist. I’ve shown my friends back in Miami and they can see it, like what I’ve done before SCAD and they all are just like, “Wow, she is just on a completely different level now.” I think that taking architecture and fashion classes at SCAD, and even other foundation classes, prepared me to dive into any area of my career.
Right now, I’m kind of dabbling into combining architecture and fashion in an installation/museum work, and I think having those foundation classes before my major where I could do clay and I can do 3D work, helped me to not be afraid to just go out there and design. There’s a confidence in that, because I feel like I have the confidence to go into any area in art.
Many of our readers are avid fans of Project Runway, tell us about your experience. What was it like being on the show versus what is seen on television?
Yeah, when you’re sitting on the couch at home watching it on TV and everyone’s just running around, it’s totally different than the actual thing. The pressure of being on the show and having limited time to create your garment, it was all such an experience, and I learned a lot about me, Merline. There were a lot of things about myself that I didn’t know before, like “Wow, I didn’t know I didn’t like that.” As an artist, I thought I would be this kind of person, and it really exposed my heart, and it exposed the kind of artist I want to be. I didn’t know that I was really good at ready to wear. It also told me that, although I do make my samples now, and that I have created garments before, I don’t want to create 100 garments. As an artist, I don’t want to sit there and manufacture clothes to sell.
At my Project Runway audition, when I submitted those garments at that audition tape, all of my garments weren’t fit to a woman’s body because I’m a very abstract artist. So, at my audition, I would take architectural plans and make shapes out of it, and then take those shapes into my garment. And a lot of these shapes went against the body, which is not necessarily bad, just a different approach. At that audition, Mondo (previous contestant) said to me “If you use these different materials, and you start to pick your designs and start to go with the body instead of against the body, I think you would go to the next level.” I didn’t even have my own dress form at my studio before Project Runway, but we both were kind of shocked and I was like “Wow, I’m really good at this!” I took all of my abstract ideas and put them into the modern girl, which is something I discovered about myself.
I discovered that I really love installations, like every time there is an Avant Garde installation, that’s like my natural habitat. I love those moments where you can be out of the box and just stay dreaming forever, you know? But it taught me that there’s a time and place where you get to do ready to wear, which I love to wear clothes as a woman. And there’s another platform where I just get to create art that could go into a museum, and that’s all it’s for. I think that I’m not one or the other, I’m the woman who gets to do both. I think I learned a lot about myself and that I can do both. It was nice because once you graduate college, there’s no one really that can give you that constructive criticism, so I think that was also important that I got to receive that [on Project Runway]. Getting to look at other artists brought me back to being at SCAD, and like being in your senior year, when everyone is doing their senior collection, and I think that’s what I loved about being in that studio.
With NYFW in full swing, it must be a bit reminiscent for you. What was it like to have your own show? What was the hardest part of the process?
Wow! It was so cool. Because I was Top 6 on Project Runway, I got to have a show at New York Fashion Week. I don’t know if there was anything surprising, but it was fun. I had the opportunity to showcase and there was press there, which was amazing.
I think the hardest part of New York Fashion Week is actually running a collection and the time that you have to get everything ready because the buyers are going to be there. You have to get your look book done at a certain time, and you have to contact all the buyers at a certain time. Other than that, I’ve done fashion shows in the past, so it wasn’t unfamiliar, but I think time was something harder.
See, Project Runway helped me a lot with this, because if I can make a dress in a day, then I can make a collection in a week. It pushed the boundaries because it was essentially like “Oh! Here go make something overnight” and you’re like “WHAT?!” But now, I feel like I can do anything, like the sky’s the limit. I can do a collection in a week, I can do anything in like a day and people are like “Wait really? You can do that?” It really stretched my abilities to dream and to kind of go after the stars, you know?
What was your biggest takeaway from NYFW?
I think it’s amazing to do these shows, but I think if you’re going to do New York Fashion Week, then it has to be an add on to what you are selling in stores. You can get caught up in just doing New York Fashion Week, but then never make a profit. Upcoming designers focus so much on the idea of being in New York Fashion Week, which is amazing, but for me, I’ve kind of had to switch my brain in the last few years to be more of a business woman. All that money that you invest into New York Fashion Week, you have to make sure you are going to get it back plus profit, and I think you should be adding on to what you already sell in stores to kind of get that momentum going, but not the other way around. That’s what I would tell someone else. I wish someone had told me that!
I love New York Fashion Week, and I love having those garments and being exposed, and people writing about me in magazines, which is all amazing, but putting numbers on paper and saying “I want make this amount of profit and sell this amount in stores per year” you just have to make sure you are making that back at your end of the year profit margin.
Your pieces are so interesting! Where do you get your inspiration from?
I usually get my inspiration from three areas. The first one is architecture, because I love shapes, I love negative and positive spaces, and where you combine positive and negative spaces to create a shape. I love shape, and I love getting to translate that shape through patterns. So sometimes I’ll use a pattern and make an entire dress, which is so cool.
My last collection last year was where I took a satellite view of Haiti and made shapes out of it, and then took those shapes and made a whole collection out of it. So that was one thing, and I never would have had that collection if I hadn’t had those shapes. And it just shows how architecture has really defined and given me a new lens to look through for fashion.
Another area that really speaks to me when creating a collection is sportswear. I love the ease of sportswear and the comfortability of sportswear, and a lot of my garments are neoprene, and the ones that aren’t neoprene I make with a lot of the same finishes as sportswear. I love the ease of it: I love that it stretches, the fact that it’s comfortable.
I design for the creative woman in a business world. It’s very, very important to me that she looks professional and put together, but that she’s also comfortable. I always want the fabric to stretch. I have suits in my collection, and I want even that to be comfortable and also put together.
The last thing is that I really love 1900 men’s attire. I really like how men are put together, how they carry themselves in the 1900’s. I love the layers, the vests and the jacket and the shirt, and the pants. If you look at a lot of my garments, there’s a lot of tail, which comes from the old 1900’s men’s coats where they have the tails. I love that! I love the silhouette of that and that’s something I always keep in my garments. I really love to combine architecture, sportswear, and 1900’s men’s attire, and the combination just gives me so many inspirations in so many different areas that the possibilities are endless.
What are the future plans for your brand and for yourself?
Well I don’t really use social media that much to promote on my end, it’s just not really my brand. I’d really love to go into more of a tour of trunk shows, and reaching out to all these stores and these partnerships and going in and meeting their customers and them face to face. I really want to start doing that tour.
Another thing is I do a lot of speaking engagements, which is a big part of my brand. I love to motivate people, I love motivating other designers that are like “Wow I really love what you’re doing and how you’re doing it”. Part of my brand is teaching fashion in inner cities, 50% of what we make goes back into the nonprofit of educating young artists and upcoming students in an area where they would never have access to the materials to become a fashion designer. Year round, I teach fashion, and they have their portfolios so that they can get into college. They learn everything that I learned at SCAD, and they have a fashion show and a gallery just like I’ve done in my past. That’s something that my brand is really passionate about. We aren’t just like “Oh we’re just going to design clothes and go and sell”, it’s a big component of giving back and empowering those that are coming behind us.
And the last part of my brand is kind of merging architecture and fashion, which is a huge part for me, and coming up with these installations out of different materials that is non-fashion is so important. Once a year I want to do a gallery opening at a museum where it is just pure art, because I think as artists we need that, where I’m not selling, I’m just there to express myself. Whether I just dab into paper and architecture and 3D, I need that as an artist, I need to kind of put that on dialogue and make a process book to show everything that I’m doing.
I’ve learned that there are seasons for everything; summers are my biggest time to focus on my students. We just love on them and they do their fashion shows, and then year-round we do after school programs. I love having these seasons, I love where the brand is going, where me, Merline, as an artist is going and where I can talk about fashion and talk about it all. There’s a platform where I want to say, “Yes, I do make garments” but then there’s a platform where I say “Yes, I do want to articulate that garment through writing and art” and then another aspect where I say “I also give back”. So that’s sort of all the aspects, and I’m a super woman, and I feel like I can do both. You shouldn’t just put me in a box of selling garments, you know?
Do you have any advice for aspiring fashionistas?
What I would tell them is “DREAM BIG NOW!” What I tell my students is, “You can do it!” A lot of my students, when I approach them, a lot of them are from the inner city, especially the boys, and I have to be cool and urban with them. I have them designing Jordans, like I’ll bring in a template of Jordans and tell them to redesign it, and make your own tennis shoes. A lot of the response I get is “Oh I can’t do this!” and I have to tell them, “Well, it’s your first time.” When you try something for the first time, you can’t be hard on yourself. It’s your FIRST TIME! Even me, I’m trying to create my own hat, and I took apart this one hat, and I was so sad because the first hat didn’t come out how I wanted it to be. But it was my first time, and I was happy still because at least I tried, like I made a hat and that’s huge!
I always tell them, “Whatever you want to do, do it now.” I’m a huge advocate for that. With my boys, I’m having them design men’s shirts, and I found a company that will design the shirts for them, so I tell them, “You can make like 500 shirts!” And I always encourage my kids to be entrepreneurial like that, because there are students that are in elementary school who are starting their own clothing line and doing very well. I always try to encourage them to do it right now, because they are entrepreneurial and they are designers.
All my students, I try to create logos for them. I make them sit down and draw out their logo, and then I go into Photoshop at home and make it for them. We don’t have computers yet for our students, but we are working on that so that they can learn how to use Photoshop and do their own logo. I try to get them to think about what their brand would be and their logo and if they had all the money in the world, what would this company be doing, because they are the CEO of this brand.
I tell my students to just dream big and to go for it. I always tell them “If you want to go be a doctor, don’t just sit around watching tv all day. Go to the library and get doctor stuff! Start learning body things and learning vocabulary. Whatever you want to be in the future, go after it.” For example, if they want to be a fashion designer, go learn that vocabulary. Learn what a buyer is, a fashion designer, what the different fabrics and fibers are.
Whatever you want to be today, start today. Don’t spend your time sitting in front of a computer or sitting in front of apps; if you really want to, use these things to help you! YouTube fashion shows and fashion designers. Don’t wait until you are an adult to start doing these things, because you can learn it right now and get ahead. One of my favorite moments is when I get them started on a sewing machine, and at first, they aren’t getting it, but then when they do their first straight line, their eyes light up and we both get so excited because they start to think, “Oh man, I can do this!” I get so pumped and so excited to see them get to that next level.
What does fashion mean to you?
Fashion means to me that I have an opportunity to empower a girl or woman to wear the right clothes. I don’t think clothes define who you are. But I do think that clothes give you the confidence to walk into a room and to stand out into what you want to do. Because a lot of women don’t know their body shape, they don’t know what looks good on them, and that certain pieces can flatter them. I feel like this power to kind of navigate women into this feel where they didn’t know they needed a product, and I’m super excited that I get to do that. That’s one way fashion works. Fashion gives me a tool to love on other people. My church back home goes on a lot of mission trips to like, Poland, and so I go on these trips and I get to teach a little Polish girl about fashion which is so cool. I feel like fashion gives me this tool to love on others and give them confidence to get them to the next level.
I feel like fashion is a place where I can articulate ideas that I haven’t seen before. I get to create a language for it. Because I went to art school, I get to create this dialogue for what I made and help people to understand it so that they can come into my world. So I think those three things show how much fashion means to me. It’s a platform where I get to help women discover their body shapes and empower them, and it’s also a platform where I can love on the next generation and show them that they are also amazing and creative.
And the last thing is that I have a platform to show who I am and express myself. That’s why I love art so much. Sometimes there’s hurt, there’s brokenness, there’s joy, there’s love- and sometimes we don’t know what to do with all that. I get to put it in my art. I get to design fabric depending on the mood, something that when my girl walks into a room people can be like “Oh my gosh, where did you get that?” That’s what fashion means to me, and I love it! I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else than here right now.
We absolutely love hearing all about what Merline is doing, her future endeavors, and her drive to give back and stand out from the crowd. She is such a bright light and an inspiration to all, and we can’t wait to see what she does next. Be sure to check out her website and Instagram to keep up with her and see her newest pieces!