Meiling Esau is at the heart of everything we love at All the Pretty Birds. It all started in a garage without air conditioning as the designer started her career in the late ’60s. Today, Meiling employs more than 20 workers and owns the first fashion house in the Caribbean. Since then, she has been rewarded for her work and contributed to the visibility of Trinidad and Tobago, around the world. Her approach is revolutionary because, for more than three decades, the Trinidadian designer has been offering through her eponymous brand subtle, fresh, and simple references, and it’s often the most difficult when it comes to last. Free from trends, Meiling brings basics to another level. By creating clothes that will act as a second skin and age over time, It inscribes Trinidadian fashion in a global vision and not isolated and even less stereotyped.
Meet Meiling Esau
Daughter of a demanding seamstress, Meiling has always been against the current of this imaginary around Caribbean fashion: incredibly sexy and often overly colorful, preferring a smaller, organic palette. For All the Pretty Birds, Meiling Esau discusses the versatility of the Caribbean style, her mission as an elder in the fashion industry in the region, and her legacy for the next generation of Caribbean designers.
Amanda Winnie Kabuiku: When you created your brand, Meiling, what was your desire? What did you want to pass on to your customers?
Meiling Esau: Well, I started my brand in the late ’60s. I was just back from London, in an exciting time for fashion, and I wanted to sort of design a line that would bring Trinidad closer to where fashion was globally. I felt we were still a bit dated in terms of a fashion aesthetic. I also wanted to establish a brand that would live on through time, and I am happy to say and see that it has; it is in existence for over 40 years comfortably now.
I wanted to provide my customers with sustainable fashion. Even at that time, I was aware of this element of the business. My mother was one of the most popular needle-women of her time in Trinidad, and I grew up around her sewing room and workshop. She always taught me about quality and excellent work and was a tough taskmaster. I was determined, by those early beginnings, plus my studies abroad, to produce not just trendy fashion but garments that were well-made and could stand the test of time.
Photography by Marlon James @moderndaycaveman
AWK: You said: “People think because I’m a Caribbean designer, everything that comes out of me must be bright and tie-dyed. I say, no, I’m just a designer who happens to be in the Caribbean.” Does the press often associate Caribbean fashion with colors, ultra-sexy cuts, and reggae-dancehall? Why is it essential for you to offer something less stereotypical?
ME: I have always followed my own aesthetic first. I am drawn to black and white. I live my life in black. I always wear black, and one of my tag lines is: Less is more. I always felt that if any visitor purchased one of my pieces during a vacation in the Caribbean, it should still have the ability to be incorporated into their city wardrobe and aesthetic. I always begin with the principles of good design.
I am a designer influenced by the beautiful flora and fauna of the island I live in, but what I design does not have to shout that my island has Carnival traditions. You can see my island aesthetic in subtle nuances like the fabrics I use. Some of my trimmings hint at my island aesthetic such as mother of pearl buttons, one singular colored button, or even the surprise patterned collar or simple piped edge.
Photography by Lum Hung and Marlon James
AWK: How would you define your brand? In essence, how is it informed by your heritage?
ME: I think my heritage is a combination of my upbringing (heavily influenced by my mother) and where I live. I mostly work with natural fibers that work well in this climate, such as cotton, linen, and silk. To dig a little further, I have just done a collection inspired somewhat by some of the architectural features of the gingerbread house that is part of much of the Caribbean landscape. I live in a house that is over 100 years old that has some of these features, such as delicate, hand-crafted latticework and wooden jalousies.
AWK: Your cuts are timeless, the colors are neutral, but the aesthetic remains very feminine, even flowy. We have the feeling that you are more attached to creating clothes that hold in time than to a trend. What is your definition of an essential style?
ME: I read a lot and listen to what happens in the global fashion world, but I stay close to my aesthetic despite trends. I think basic is… a good shirt that has a twist to it. If you look at my collections and designs, I love making shirts, white shirts, or black shirts. Every woman should have these wardrobe staples but imbued with something special added. I think, funnily enough, this is where the world is headed now: basics with personalized style elements.
Photography by Marlon James
AWK: We feel a new wave of designers from the Caribbean, such as Aisling Camps from Trinidad like you, who redefine fashion and fight against the stereotypes. What do you think is missing in the Caribbean Style?
ME: I think social media has pushed the Caribbean to rely too heavily on outside influences. I have seen women become almost their fashion victims, mimicking celebrity style, and visuals. Sometimes our Caribbean aesthetic is one of “over-styling” with everything but the kitchen sink. They may be lacking the confidence to wear Caribbean designers who, like Aisling, are out of the box. Aisling and I have worked closely together. We do pop-up shops when she is in Trinidad, among other collaborations. I think we are designers again that are not trend-driven per se, and Caribbean women have to understand that fast fashion is not always the best option. Trends have timelines on them, and iconic style and quality, sustainable design has no timestamp. You can be on-trend, but not necessarily on every trend.
AWK: You have been in the industry for a while; what distinguishes Trinidadian Style from the other islands? Are there any identifiable differences throughout the islands? Can you share some of those differences?
ME: This is a difficult question. I can probably speak comfortably about a few islands. I think with every island, there is a bit of a difference. I believe Jamaica and Trinidad are the most visibly fashion-conscious. There are small differences, but you find similar enough designers and work coming out of the two islands. I think honestly, the differences lie in the way the women interpret and wear the same designs and trends. Very small, nuanced differences can be spotted across islands from the choice of footwear, accessories and wardrobe selections for various occasions.
Photography by Shaista Deen
AWK: What’s the most challenging thing about being a designer from the beginning of your career to today? What’s the most rewarding thing?
ME: At the start of my career, I was focused on growing my brand. It was not mainly a straightforward challenge, but it was more the challenge of building a legacy and brand that had relevance across age groups. Translating my way of working, which was minimalist in comparison to much that was going on at the time, was another challenge. The other major challenge was entering export markets.
Today’s challenge is a shared one across creative businesses. With the COVID-19 pandemic, production was shut down for months at a time, and now we are all trying to restart, keep brand relevance, and bring clients and customers back in to shop freely. To basically keep business going at this time is the challenge.
The most rewarding thing of my career to date has been after working with a garment manufacturer for just about a year, was being able to open my atelier and shop. I also cherish my collaborative work with other artists such as carnival designers, jewelers, textile designers. Now it is a similar reward, being able to work with young designers, carry their work in my shop and seeing them grow. Another reward is seeing how relevant my brand remains after so many years—and still being worn by women of all ages.
Photography by Nicholas Ravendra-Boodram
AWK: Everyone is talking about sustainability in fashion; how do you incorporate a sustainable mindset into your brand? What does that represent on the island scale?
ME: I was doing sustainable fashion before it was the “trend.” I always produced using natural fibers. My production team of women works under suitable conditions in terms of the workshop set up, hours, and financial compensation. I think the testament to this is that they all have worked with me continuously for over 20 years. The garments I make have lived for many years, generations actually. Just last year, I restyled an item of more than 30 decades passed down to the daughter of one of my best and long standing clients. I have, in a sense, been practicing slow fashion for my entire career.
In terms of an island scale, I am doing my part and trying to influence those with whom I collaborate. I think sustainable fashion is a continuum. I am trying to get more into clean fashion via my work with textile designers. We are doing a lot of experimentation with vegetable dyes, tea, coffee, and so on. I am really bent on trying to get everyone I work with to undertake a more sustainable direction in their production practices.
AWK: Following George Floyd’s death in the media, there was a wave of worldwide protests and a willingness to fight systemic racism. How is this translated in your country? Does this desire to turn to brands owned by POC like yours have an impact on your sales?
ME: This made our population even more aware of systemic issues. We saw very vocal calls for boycotts of establishments that did not seem to respect Black lives or the urge for direct change in support of Black lives. I feel that people across the islands have started to look more within the region to stock their shops and style using local content. Price points influenced things before, to be honest, fast fashion imports were the go-to in the region. Still, now with the pandemic and with the media coverage of protests, I think people are more inclined to shop locally and regionally first, where they can carefully assess and trace the production values of the products in question. I am happy about this.