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Some Life Lessons from Meiling @ Startup Grind TT

There are these truths that float around in your head…these persistent ‘codes’ that tug at your brain every time you behave in a way contrary to what your ‘truth’ perpetuates. For me…I feel a tug when I tell myself I can sleep in late the next day. I feel one when I tell myself I need to wear more colour…and that I shouldn’t get that shirt or dress in black because I already have so much black in my closet. I feel it when I bite my tongue when people call me a ‘fashionista’…because for me…it is never about fashion. Hell, I don’t even read fashion magazines (something I’ll start doing now, but not for the reason you probably think…more on that later). The Startup Grind talk with Meiling reinforced some major things for me – be who you are, keep your head down and let the work you do speak for itself.

I was grateful to the Startup Grind TT team for facilitating an event in which these lessons could be passed on to those who need to hear them. There’s no one recipe for success, it’s true, but there’s also nothing to be lost from hearing about the experiences and challenges of those whose names are etched into the fabric of our society.

Be yourself (wear black)

‘Be yourself’ – You know they say most fashion designers wear black, and most designers are arrogant or think a lot of themselves. Just be yourself! You can create an image for yourself. This image of mine, only wearing black, wasn’t because I was a fashion designer. I used to wear colour!…But I kept going back to the black shirt and the black trousers. And I thought, you know what, I’m going to simplify my life. So now I get up in the morning and it’s which black shirt, which black trousers, maybe a bangle, I call these spectacles my earrings because I never take them off, the shoes can change. Black made a lot more sense because I always felt more confident in black. Every woman should have their signature. I don’t think it should be contrived…it should come naturally to you.

Obsessed with this shirt dress from Meiling’s Shirt Tales collection. OBSESSED:

Meiling Shirt Tales Collection - photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook
Meiling Shirt Tales Collection – photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook

Don’t believe in fashion, believe in style

I don’t believe in fashion, I believe in style. Now when I say I don’t believe in fashion…I mean I do fashion. I don’t believe in women jumping on to every trend…I believe in style, style is something that’s inherent, it’s within you, and style is not just what you wear, it’s a lifestyle. Style is the sheets you sleep on, style is the flowers in your home, style is what you have for your meal…style transcends.

Meiling 24 Hours Collection - photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook
Meiling 24 Hours Collection – photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook

Eat healthy.

Every morning I have a bowl of steamed ochroes or steamed greens. I’m very much into health and low carbs. Twice a week or three times a week I may have a boiled egg, but every morning I have a bowl of greens.

Wake up early. Be organised.

My alarm clock goes off at 4:15. A lot of my staff comes in here at 6. I have to do my meditation prayer for 45 minutes. Then I dress, put on the coffee and I open my doors around quarter to 6. I go into production. I plan every day the day before what I’m going to do so it’s not a surprise. I look at my diary, spend some time with my staff and plan the day so I know what everyone’s doing. Sometimes I fit as early as 6:30 in the morning, because sometimes I have clients coming from San Fernando.

The show must go on. Always have a plan B. 

There was a fabulous fabric shop that Janouras Custom Designs had, then you went upstairs and that was my shop, my sister a baby shop, then there was a shoe and handbag shop. It was a fabulous building – there was a home shop downstairs. I went up to the Hilton, because that’s where my shows wold be, and I usually move my clothes up like 1pm or 2pm, the models were there…and when I got to the ballroom of the Hilton – you know Hilton looks over Port of Spain – I saw the smoke coming out. I found out my shop was on fire. There was a huge fire that started in the People’s Mall, and it spread and took many shops with it. And there was I showing my collection. The show had to go on. Nothing stops the show. So I put on a brave face and I thought ‘I’ll deal with that after’. I had the show. I was married at the time and my husband had planned a fabulous dinner for me. I went to the dinner and then I said ‘what’s plan B?’. My first concern was – and I’m not trying to be a saint now – but my first concern was I could not send home my staff. I was producing here (6, Carlos), so I moved the entire collection to my home and we sold out of here. I could have gotten up the next morning and said ‘woe is me’ but I have to go on. Throughout life there have been many challenges – financial challenges, challenges with meeting orders, fabrics don’t come in on time…but you always need to have a plan B or sometimes a plan C.

Work hard. 

There was an industry at that time (when she began working). There were many many factories, but not factories that were creatively up to the moment in fashion; so I went out with my portfolio and found a job where I started as a pattern maker, a sample hand..everything, I did everything. I think it really taught me how to run my own factory, being in that environment. For the first few months every design of mine was thrown out because it was too fashion forward, until I did this coat dress which was very classic. I was there, I worked and then I decided I wanted to go out on my own. With $1000 – I always remember – I started my own business. Whatever my success is, besides the talent, it was the timing. I didn’t have the competition that you (fashion designers) would have today. The timing was right. But I can’t just say the timing was right…I still had to work very very hard. Especially now in fashion, everything is so transient, everything is quick quick quick. I can’t say I’m the Caribbean’s best designer; I have this award and that award…I still have to work very hard at the end of the day.

I came from a very humble home. I didn’t have a car. I traveled up and down town in a taxi. It wasn’t like a privileged home; I came from a comfortable home with a lot of love. My parents believed in me and they were very very supportive and proud. My mother being in fashion understood where I was coming from. She was one of my hardest taskmasters. I had to do the work.

You know what the best advice was to me? That I had to work. That I had to get up every morning and work and I had to earn my living and not say that I’m the best. And I had to continue and continue and try to get better, which I’m still trying to do today and think out of the box. That was the best advice. That if my business was to grow, I could not be sloppy, I could not be tardy. I could not be unproductive. I couldn’t go to a party and say ‘oh I’m not going to work’. Whatever time I come home at night, now if I travel, if I go out or come home late I’m up in my office. I was telling someone today that if my staff doesn’t see me it’s because I’m out of the country or I really have to be ill.

Meiling Shirt Tales Collection - photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook
Meiling Shirt Tales Collection – photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook

Build the brand first.

I see young people – and I taught for a little while at UTT – I see it, I see it all the time that they don’t want to do the work. I don’t want to be blowing my own horn but I can only tell you from experience. Everybody wants to arrive at an event and the paparazzi are there, and you’re on Facebook, and you’re on Twitter and you’re on Instagram, and it’s a million selfies that I get sick of. And it’s all about you and this and that…but there’s nothing to back up the work. For many, many years, I did the work, and people didn’t have a face to me. Until one young woman came to work with me – and invitations used to come to me, and still come to me, from everywhere – she used to come and say ‘you have to network, people have to know you.’ And eventually when I felt that I had done the work and I had earned whatever, then I started going out and I would say to her ‘I’m going out but I’m not staying late’. So what I’m saying to you is build the brand first…you have social media, which I didn’t have, so you can put your work out there – now don’t put YOU out there – put the work, put the garment, put the shirt, put the dress.

Meiling 24 Hours Collection - photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook
Meiling 24 Hours Collection – photos courtesy of Trinidad Lookbook

Don’t believe the hype.

Don’t believe your own reviews, and don’t believe every blogger’s review. Ceola is one blogger that I really admire, and Darcel, because it’s coming from a good point of view. It’s not just saying I like this one and I don’t like this one. There’s so many bloggers out there who feel they can say yay or nay to a designer, and they don’t know what is a tuck from a gather, but they want to bless you or throw you away…and that’s my problem.

There was MUCH more discussed…but I can’t possibly transcribe all of it for you now (maybe I’ll do a part 2) but these were the parts of the conversation that really stuck with me. And WOW at the shout out in the last quote…really honoured to have my blog considered a viable resource on local fashion. I really do try not to spout off at the mouth or ‘critique’ local designers. Some people disagree with that policy, but I genuinely don’t care. If I have negative feedback to share…I’ll share it directly…I won’t post it on here…not if I care about the designer (which I tend to, in one way or the other).

Meiling’s talk resonated with me on many levels – many of her philosophies about work mirrored my own; and I found her musings on social media and the role it plays in today’s creative industry a real eye-opener. Here’s a tool I think we all take for granted because it’s something that’s just BEEN around of late…but we don’t really realise or truly accept how it can make or break you as a brand…and as a person. It was really sobering and something of a relief to hear someone with so much experience say that they don’t have all the answers, but this is what they’ve learned.

Thanks to Startup Grind TT for making this opportunity possible, and to Meiling for being so honest and open about her life and business.

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