Project Runway’s 14th season is winding down from 16 designers to just six and Haitian-American designer, Merline Labissiere, is among the top contenders. With a dual degree in architecture and fashion design, Labissiere continues to push the envelope by combing the two and splashing it with some Haitian-influenced colors. However, that’s not all she’s got up her sleeves. Here’s what Labissiere had to say.
Haitian Times Style: How does being Haitian influence you as a designer?
Merline Labissiere: I feel like being Haitian affects me as a person and as a designer, it impacts color for me. I love color and patterns, and I think being Haitian helps me express that through the architecture of my garments. When I say architecture I mean the shapes, lines and 3D designs. The opportunity to apply color to that, brings it to a different level. That’s what sets me apart from other designers.
HTS: I think it’s wonderful that you’re so big on color. So many people are afraid they’ll look silly. What advice do you have for people who are afraid to wear colors?
ML: Oooh, I like that question. I feel like everyone should try all colors at least once, maybe not all at once, but if you try it, then you can have an opinion about it. Once you find a color you like, stick to it.
HTS: You told us in your Closet Tour with Lifetime that you’re big on vintage. Who are your style icons?
ML: There are so many people I feel do it right. I don’t think I have a style icon that I go to. There are people that I admire like Iris Apfel. She’s about 87. I love how she expresses herself through her colors. She’s always styling herself and has these big glasses and she brands herself. I just admire people who express themselves through clothes.
HTS: What does it mean to be a Haitan-American designer on Project Runway?
ML: It means THE WORLD! My Haitian family can finally say, “okay, she’s not crazy.” As you know, in the Haitian culture, you’re either a doctor, a lawyer or a nurse. Everything else is not really certain. It’s so cool, now that I’m on Project Runway. It helps my family see that there are other options out there for us to be creative. I did architecture for a very long time, for my mom, because it was more stable but I’ve been sewing for 30-something years. So, being on Project Runway helps my family see what all my hard work was for. It’s especially cool when fellow Haitian-Americans contact me and say “thank you for doing this” or “thank you for showing me that I CAN do this.”
HTS: Learning to sew is a part of life in Haiti but in America we can run to the tailor. Do you think sewing should be as important here?
ML: Yes, I remember in high school when we used to learn home economics and learn how to sew. I think it’s a lost art that needs to come back. That’s why I’m passionate about the next generation learning how to sew and learning basic techniques. This is also the reason why I started my nonprofit. We take clothes for granted in America. They’re so accessible. Back in the day, only people who had money could afford to buy clothes. The constant consumption in our industry makes us forget that there’s an amazing person in a third world country that made that piece of clothing, even if we only bought it for $10. So I think that even if you don’t become a fashion designer, learning to sew will teach you to see the value in clothes and you’ll appreciate it even more.
HTS: If you could shop out of anyone’s closet today, who would it be?
ML: Heidi, on the show, is amazing! I wouldn’t shop her closet but she always looks impeccable. I really love Tracee Ellis Ross, her closet is amazing. She has a unique, elegant, classic look. My friends have great taste in clothing and I love swapping with them. Overall, I don’t have any one particular closet I’d shop because I feel like I can borrow anyone’s garments. It’s about how you style it.
HTS: Who do you design for? What’s the profile of the client who wears your garments?
ML: My girl is in the artistic professional world. The director of an art magazine who wants to look very stylish and not too business. I don’t think there is something like that, that exists for women. She’s the CEO of her company but she’s not wearing a 2 piece suit all the time. My line is sophisticated and stylish for business.
HTS: It’s so wonderful to see that you have a nonprofit organization, Provoke Style Fashion Camp Corporation, “impacting, providing and educating inner city youth through fashion design.” Do you ever see yourself hosting a workshop/camp in Haiti in the near future?
ML: That would be awesome! Yeah! I would love to do fashion camp for them or even going back to Miami, which has a huge Haitian population. It would be like going back to myself as a little girl. Right now I’m partnering with other organizations to start an after school program and would love to work with students around the world.
HTS: What advice do you have for young Haitian Americans who dream of being designers but feel pressured to abandon their gift to be something their family desires?
ML: I think one, we should have grace with our parents. Don’t disobey them because they’re from a different culture and we’re the ones stuck between being Haitian and being American. We embrace our heritage when other Americans offend us, responding with “oh, oh” but when it comes to our parents, we’re quick to say, we’re Americans. We don’t have to agree with everything they say but try to understand them. Our parents really just want us to be successful and they don’t always know what that looks like aside from doctor, lawyer or nurse. My mom always tells me “I came here on a boat so that you can live the American dream.” Two, educate your parents on your dreams and three, work hard!! If you want it really badly, you have to really go for it. Pretend that you work for someone else and clock yourself in and out of work.
You read it here with Haitian Times Style and I hope you’ve been inspired.
Remember: Project Runway airs every Thursday at 9pm EST on Lifetime. Be sure to tune in tomorrow night in proud support of how far our Haitian-American designer has come.