Marina Cortbawi created Brooklyn-based atelier Merlette in 2016, and has steadily built the fashion brand into a successful business by focusing on thoughtfully-designed, quality garments that her customers seek out as lifetime investments.
Now in its sixth year, Merlette has grown without outside investors, and retailers including Matches, Saks and Nordstrom now carry the brand. Direct-to-consumer sales grew 40% in 2021.
And while the prices are higher than you’ll find at fast-fashion chains across the country, we’re talking quality over quantity, fewer better, and a much lower cost than luxury brands that often rely on name recognition.
Cortbawi is committed to responsible production and practice—the garments are ethically made in India by artisans being paid fair wages in safe environments. She uses only natural fibers including pima cotton made in mills that meet OEKO-TEX certifications.
This summer the brand introduced Merlette Collection 12 for Pre-Fall 2022, which Cortbawi says is an homage to Art Deco. Featuring original prints and motifs evoking that era, design details include eyelets and drop waists harmoniously integrated into their signature pieces, including the best-selling Soliman dress.
Knitwear with crochet detailing and feminine pointelle is another highlight, rendered in poppy red, “Byzantine” blue and Deco prints. But if you prefer a more muted palette, not to worry, most styles are also offered in calming neutrals.
You’ll find thoughtfully crafted and artfully placed touches like embroidery, pin tucking and hand-smocking.
I reached out to Cortbawi to find out more about her business, her designs, and her plans for the rest of 2022.
What was it about art deco that inspired you for this collection?
“The art deco period is so rich in detail, and we found inspiration in architecture, jewelry and vintage Swedish flower market posters. The collection’s prints, embroideries, knit techniques and the constructions of the garments all have an ornamental element to them—from the fan flower motif in our pointelles and crochet knits, to the poppy which inspired the print and the eyelets. Diamond shapes are seen in the lace trims and smocking details, and there are dresses with subtle wave constructions accentuating the waist. The color palette is very much of that era: poppy red, dusty rose to the bright blue and burnt orange. The RHODE dress in our deco floral print most encapsulates all elements of the inspiration.”
Did the pandemic influence your design process for this collection?
“Since the pandemic, we are designing at least 2-3 months earlier than we usually do and it does allow us more time for the most important part, the research and patternmaking which all happens in our Brooklyn studio. I think this alone has improved our process and allowed us to delve deeper into research and development, and even explore new categories. The styles of course are also changing as our lifestyles are shifting, from having the perfect house dress (sales of our Paradis dress grew enormously through the pandemic and remains a best seller today) to a greater focus on styles that are designed for parties, events, and travel—a return to dressing up.”
Who is the customer you are designing for?
“Our customer is global, Merlette’s appeal is that it is appropriate for Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, London and Sydney. Our main markets are in these cities and the customers are usually buying designer clothing and are discerning and about the fabrics, hand feel and have preference for natural fibers. They are searching for value in a different way, not for one occasion, but for something to keep and cherish for years to come and can be worn many ways. It’s also popular with quite a wide age range, I always use the example that Merlette is worn by all my friends and team, and also our mothers. Now that we increased our size ranges and have some popular items at our opening price points, we are starting to see a younger customer as well.”
Any plans you’re excited about for the rest of the year?
“We’ve been working with an amazing group of creative talent on our campaigns this year, and I look forward to continuing that collaborative process. It’s been such a joy to evolve and explore a new side of Merlette. I’m also excited to travel again internationally and enjoy some welcome time off with my family in Spain this summer.”