By Alicia Roache, Staff Reporter
ESAU MEILING is a Trinidadian-born designer with a knack for creating truly special designs. Her attention to detail is legendary and she is known to create beautiful garments from linen and other natural fabrics. And though her designs are in no way laughable, she believes "the woman who wears a Meiling design should have wit, humour and an ability to laugh at herself." Today, the graduate of the Lucie Clayton School of Design in London, England, is regarded as one of the Caribbean's best designers.
Meiling creates garments as varied as uniforms (Meiling Limited Editions Ltd.) and carnival costumes (with Peter Minshall on his carnival presentations). She has done resort wear and a clothing line, Z-Meiling, named after her son Zakri, for the 15-30 age group.
The Gleaner sat down with her during Caribbean Fashionweek to learn what one of the Caribbean's foremost designers has to say about the region's fashion.
AR: Is formal training necessary for one to become a good designer?
Meiling: I think some formal training. Because a lot of young people they come in to interview me all the time. They want to be designers and they think "oh you just sit in the studio and design all the time. You have to know how a garment is constructed. I hate sewing, but I can direct my girls how. You have to know how to cut a pattern and to braid pattern, so if you don't know that...
(Her story suggests that it is not necessary, but certainly important, as she is has both innate creativity and practical education. For Esau Meiling, designing was a part of her life for as long as she could remember. The young girl grew up with a mother who she says was Trinidad's top dressmaker, "so I just basically grew up the whole time sewing". After dressing her dolls until age 15 Meiling "knew very clearly" that she wanted to be a fashion designer. "My father didn't understand I mean, it was so long ago how a fashion designer would make a living, especially on an island like Trinidad where there were no boutiques," she said. Through her perseverance and her mother's persistence he eventually consented on one condition: Meiling must have English training.)
AR: How important is entrepreneurship and community involvement in a designer's development and recognition?
Meiling: For many years when I started I only worked as a designer. But my nature is that I always like a challenge. After leaving school in London Meiling returned to Trinidad, where she worked in a factory which manufactured ready-to-wear garments. (After nine months there she knew clearly that I wanted to go out on my own. Her challenge lay in helping to create carnival costumes for celebrated 'mas man' Minshall. She did the prototype for the band and became heavily involved in the design of the band 'River' in 1983. "I really worked on the production because it was the first band done all in white cotton," she said. Meiling has become 'very much involved' in Minshall's work for the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 and with 'Salt Lake City', another band. "I learnt a lot about costuming from that," she said. She has also designed for the Miss Universe Contest in Trinidad. "I think it's also being a creative person, it's like a different outlet for me. It's a different way of expressing my own creativity and I love it," she said).
AR: You have said "dressing is about a sense of occasion, about feeling special. The relationship between personality and garment is very important". Do you think that Caribbean people understand and embrace this idea of fashion?
Meiling: I think they do. I think they may not be all well-dressed, but I think Caribbean people love to dress up. I think they're very stylish. They may not be the best-dressed people in the world and then there are some who are very well dressed. But I think they know about dressing as a sense of occasion. (Meiling remembers as a child dressing up for mas or to go to church on Sunday. Then, she explained, you would wear your 'Sunday best'). That was a special time, because you wore your uniform from Monday to Friday. Dressing up is very special and I think that Caribbean people love to dress up. I think it's something that makes up our spirit AR: There is now a fashionable youth population in the Caribbean. Do you think the idea of Caribbean fashion connects with them?
Meiling: I find the advance of cable television and the world getting smaller with the Internet and you have fashion television, you have BET, MTV, VH1, that the youth are very driven by brands and they want instant gratification. I feel that in a way they do not understand, they do not give their own Caribbean designers that weight. And it's all because they want what Janet Jackson, or what Destiny's Child, what Beyonce is wearing. They want it and they want it now. And in a way I think that's sad. I think the youth today are very driven by what they see on television and they're very into branding and they prefer to wear an imitation Nike than an original Meiling and that's sad. Plus, they don't put any weight on quality. They don't care if it mashes up after the party or the concert. I think that's sad and I think it's not only about fashion, it's about everything in life. Everything is: you put a card in you get your money. You do this you get that.
AR: How do you think Caribbean designers can connect with the youth?
Meiling: I think it's by marketing. I started my youth line Z-Meiling and I think it was getting there. But the thing is, to pay so much for the fabric and the manufacturing and there are people who are bringing in their suitcases. What I would pay for a yard of fabric they are selling the T-shirt for. So it's a hard way. Probably it would be educating them into getting their worth for their dollar, insisting on quality, wanting a garment to live longer. Nonetheless, the name 'Meiling' has recognition and even the young in Trinidad recognise it. Daughters and granddaughters of clients hear the name 'Meiling' and are impressed." The designer tells of an incident when a child, about eight years old, came in to her office and asked 'when is your next collection due?'. I said 'oh my God, you warm my heart.' I'm going to be dressing another generation.
AR: Were the pieces shown on Caribbean Fashionweek from a previous collection or were they made specifically for this event?
Meiling: Some showed are going to be selling for the resort for this season, 2004-2005. I showed my women's and menswear and eight pieces that are haute couture/Caribbean couture made especially for the show.