It's Monday morning and SO is headed to Meiling, 6 Carlos Street, Port of Spain, for the perfect little white shirt... make that two!
This one is my Resort 2015 collection and I showed it in St Lucia. This is a one-of-a-kind and I thought, This has to stay for Novia. After she's worn it a few times we will repeat it, with a new twist, not exactly like that. It is white and all of the seams on the shoulders and back are hand-plicated. It's my signature and sometimes I feel people like you get it, but the young generation... it's a very small number of them who get it.
What was the response to your collection in St Lucia?
When you are showing on a runway and then you have these very bare swimsuits either come down before or after you, your collection pales and it really is about the shock presentation. But I think afterwards, when I post on Instagram and get all these likes, I know there are women like you out there, a lot of them are Trinis who have left and come back and buy my designs.
How has the response been to Meiling since your appearance in Vogue Italia last year?
Vogue was a bit of a disappointment because I think it went out more like a travel piece rather than a fashion piece. I am still trying to get out there, to test myself. I still have clients who come in and people who order for their shops, and I feel the export is starting to pick up again. My niece is about to launch an online shop from Canada or New York and it's going to be Living in M, so she is going to feature all the different aspects. There are plans in the making in Jamaica and St Lucia, as well.
I feel like the world must recognise your talent.
Not only my talent. I feel like every other designer in the world, except us from the Caribbean, is really recognised. It's the marketing money behind it. It's getting the right people and the right dollars.
What is your place within the fashion scene in Trinidad?
I think my challenge is always two things. First thing is my legacy; I want to be an open door to young and emerging designers, or artists. We are a creative space and always interning. I have had interns from Africa, and a lot of people come from the London College of Fashion. I have people writing me all the time. This is what I love doing. Besides designing, the fashion scene in Trinidad is now very vibrant because you have all these emerging designers, but I keep telling them getting here is not easy. I am still struggling. Social media is a great thing. I tell them, if you get a dollar for every 'like' you get, it's okay, but I think it's more about the selfies and the promotion than really doing the work. You have to do the work. You have to have the work to back it up, to have that staying power.
Tell us about your African intern.
She was a young Kenyan who grew up in London. She wrote me out of the blue, came here and did a long internship and fell in love with Trinidad and the mangoes. Guess what she is doing now? She is bringing her own Carnival section and soon her own band, just from working here. We keep in touch all the time. She came last year and visited me here.
How do you stay relevant?
I stay relevant by surrounding myself with all these young people, not only here [in my work space] but in the spheres of music and art. Peter Minshall is an artist who is older than I am, but being surrounded with a creative is like being a sponge. I am a very curious person, so I read everything that is going on in fashion. What I also think is very important is pushing yourself. Right now, I am preparing myself for our fashion presentation on November 23. Last year we pushed the envelope, where we didn't do a runway and this year, I can't give away too much, but I am inspired by one of your Jamaican writers Marlon James: I love his work The Book of Night Women, and my show is going to be very different, like a procession, but right now, I am re-reading the book. I think he is an amazing writer and I am a big fan. When I read it and showed it to 3Canal artistic director Wendell Manwarren, he fell in love with it. He read the book and now he's telling everybody.
You could be in New York, London, Paris or anywhere. What is it about Trinidad that keeps you here?
If I were many years younger and with the world what it is today, I would not be here. But I think what keeps me here is the people and the place. Trinidad is a dichotomy of being challenged by whatever is happening, the government and the politics, but having this warmth. Trinidad has an edge to it like Jamaica. We are the closest island to Jamaica that really challenges you, but it makes you love the place even more and informs your work even more. My friends in New York always say I am in a hurry to come back, but I say I love what I do, and I have a passion for what I do. I think Trinidad is an amazing place with all the artists and I am blessed to be surrounded by a lot of artists. I worked on my first documentary last year which was a documentary on pan. It was a period piece so it was a lot of work and research. I had a great team of interns working with me and the Belgian director said [my] department was the only one that really worked. I am such a stickler for discipline, and being on time, so I was very proud. I just went to New York to see the documentary screening at the Brooklyn Museum.
What is it that makes a Trinidadian designer command the same price tag as an overseas designer?
I think we are having a tough time now and I think that the government has to put a thrust to buy local. My clientele is strong. Thank God I have fourth-generation clients who heard the name Meiling growing up, or the time they come here for confirmation, graduation dresses. My clients tell me now they shop online. I tell them stories of women who fly in to Trinidad to have their wedding dresses made by me and there are those who fly out and have someone else do it. I think it's a global thing with people shopping online, but Trinidadians feel to wear an imitation Armani rather than a real Meiling, I don't get it.
What do you tell your interns?
You do everything from sweeping the floor to packing boxes to designing. It's not an easy job, but if you have your dream, you just go for it and you work for it. This thing about social media, I keep telling them it's great; sometimes some of them come out with me, and they see when I arrive, the paparazzi want a picture, I said that's not important. One said to me after my last show, "Are you going to take a holiday now?" I said, "No, when you run your business, there is no holiday." A lot of them are putting in the elbow grease and are really working hard, and not settling.
Tell us about your signature black.
It makes life very easy. I wore colour for many years. About 30 years ago, I found two things: if I shopped abroad and bought colour when I came back here, because of the light, the colour never worked as it did in New York or Europe. And then every morning when I got up and I started to prom dress I would put on the pink or white shirt and then I would reach for the black one, and I thought, you know what, I am going to simplify life, and in a way, this is my fitting room, and it is very small, and I do design in colour, but it's too distracting for me to have on a pink shirt -- so I jazz up my black with the glasses or red shoes or nail pops. I feel more confident in black, and I don't know if it's because I was a convent girl who wore a uniform, but I love a uniform. It simplifies life.
Take us back to leaving Trinidad for London, and your fashion journey.
I grew up in my mother Evelyn Achong's sewing room. She was one of Trinidad's couturiers. She was like a career woman ahead of her time, so she had a nanny to take care of me. I was the only child by her second marriage, and she didn't have time to teach me. So I was in the sewing room and I taught myself. Every Vogue magazine that came, I was poring over it; every fabric I wanted a piece to make a dress for my doll; and I just knew at an early age. My father couldn't understand it because he was an academic. He was a soil researcher at the University of the West Indies. He said one thing: if you are going, you're going to London. I didn't know much about art schools, so I went to Lucy Clayton, which was a very shi-shi school that had a fashion programme, but I went there having a lot of skills from my mother so I finished it up, and worked there for a little while with different designers, just interning but it prepared me. Then I came back here and worked in the factory for six months and said no, I wanted to go off on my own. I think a part of whatever successes was the timing because there were no designers at the time; there were young people coming back from the 1960s who had experienced Mary Quant or King's Road or Ossie Clarke, and wanted something, and I was the closest. The timing was right and it was lot of hard work. I'm still in my studio at six in the morning.
Who would you like to see wearing Meiling?
I would love to see George Clooney's wife, Amal, wearing my design. I think she would get it. I would love Asian models or film stars to wear my label. I am even proud to say Novia wears my work. Trinidadians knew me and I had a great following, but Jamaicans put me on the Caribbean map and I always say Jamaica was really good to me.