With her label Merlette, creative wanderer Marina Cortbawi designs relaxed yet refined pieces you’ll want to pack for your mid-winter escape.
Born in Australia but travelling throughout her teenage years before settling in New York – where she gained experience working for industry stalwarts including Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera –Marina understands the importance of travel for widening one’s perspective.
As the founder of Merlette, she designs for women on the move. Her delicate aesthetic, edited in colour palettes that focus around monotones with pops of colour, statement sleeves, gathers and tiers, and ultra-voluminous soft silhouettes, is practically made for your next holiday.
Fortunately, you can pick up a piece in New Zealand from its new stockiest Muse Boutique, whether you have an exciting trip planned, or want to introduce Marina’s laid-back luxury to your every day.
“Merlette is a label I have adored for years, and I’m excited to finally sell it exclusively in New Zealand,” says the owner of Muse, Olivia Healy. “I personally love investing in quality cotton shirts and dresses as they’re so easy to wash and you can wear throughout the year.”
Fashion Quarterly spoke to Marina about what it takes to start your own label, and what inspires her.
Why is it important for you to design for women on the go?
Because we are all on the go and need a wardrobe that can complement that lifestyle, without sacrificing style. It does not only mean constantly getting on a plane somewhere, it means on the move in day-to-day life.
It’s important to have those items in the closet that are easy to put on, that go back to the other items in your closet. What’s a deal breaker for many women is when an item is not easy and sustainable to care for long term. So many women love that many of our items you can wash in the machine, it makes life easier. We say our clothes are the items you pack and will always wear – we design every piece with that thought in mind.
What’s the meaning behind your label’s name?
The name Merlette is a bird found typically on French and English heraldic emblems. Its fictional depiction is that it is without legs to land on.
We loved this symbol of being constantly in flight as it represents the woman, we design for who has a lifestyle that is in more than one place or constantly on the move.
What are your favourite pieces from the latest collection?
My favourite piece is the Sian coat, it’s our first tailored and fitted piece in Italian cotton twill. It looks so great worn with our smocked blouses and the weight is perfect for those transitional seasons and Antipodean winters!
What do your signature pieces have in common?
Our signature pieces are loose, voluminous silhouettes usually with highly gathered tiers and unique handwork embroideries. These are the items that first-time customers usually buy and they recognisably Merlette.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
Mostly modern art and sometimes a single film can provide all the inspiration for a collection, from the colour palette to the shapes, textures, details and mood. My personal favourite artists and references are Ellsworth Kelly and Wolfgang Tillmans.
You had a peripatetic upbringing – how did this shape your approach to the world?
Perhaps it’s being from Australia and so far away from everything I was always curious about the rest of the world. Also, my mother travelled the world before I was born, so I was constantly told stories about Egypt, England and Greece and had permanently painted images in my mind of foreign places and people.
I was very lucky to be encouraged to travel like that. Being away since my teenage years has shaped me in that I constantly see things in a different way, and feel that this lifestyle has given me lots of freedom creatively too.
How important is travel to you?
It’s incredibly important. We have a quote at Merlette by Henry Miller that we live by and it really sums up our ethos: ‘One’s destination is never a place but a new way of looking at things’.
It’s important to challenge how you look at things, and travel is the quickest and easiest way to do this. I love a culture shock.
What’s the best piece of career advice you have been given?
Working for Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera, I learned about staying true to one’s aesthetic, and to design for timelessness and elegance versus trends.
Block out the trends, ignore street style and focus on your own creative process. If you create something different whilst also continuing to be consistent and deliver the quality you will always be in business.
Who do you look up to?
I admire the creative eye and style of many people including Sofia Coppola, Bianca Jagger and pretty much any woman who hustles out there and creates a business.
Why did you decide to go out on your own with your label?
I really saw a pretty open gap in the market for beautifully made clothes with attention to details in high-quality natural fabrics that were easy to wear, care for and had minimal fit issues. I did not find these clothes myself and could not support buying very high-end designer unless it was very timeless and would last for years. I was also never fond of the high street for the unsustainability and lack of original designs.
I tried to create something in between that would be cherished by women for years. After having some years of experience in the industry I began to know the customer and see that she wanted these things too.
What is the most challenging part of building and running your own business?
The fact that it can be hard to switch off after hours. And you can’t do it alone, a start-up needs many hands. I did that for almost two years and then my husband Ivo decided to join as CEO a year ago once we grew.
This was the best decision and we actually have the chance to have more balance, and it’s so much more enjoyable. He brings a different perspective too, it’s great to have people from outside the industry give perspective too as it’s changing so fast in any case.
The most rewarding?
It can come in the little things such as seeing a woman in our dress on the street, and also when you see the growth season after season, you know you are doing something rights. If it is selling and there is a demand, that says a lot in today’s competitive climate.
Merlette is three years old now, when did you know you had ‘made it’?
I like to take each day at a time, and we are enormously grateful that we have women all over the world love to wear our clothes. There is no single ‘made it’ moment but made up of the many rewards small and large.
Sometimes a customer email saying that she loves her item and will even send an image or a little video of herself in the dress. Other times, we have had industry veterans such as store owners who have been in business for over 40 years, and have seen all the brands tell us we have something special.
What does it mean to you to have a New Zealand stockist in Muse Boutique?
It blows my mind as an Australian, to think that our product is sold in New Zealand! I’ve been there and found it to be one of the most beautiful countries and the people are simply the best, so genuine, friendly and liberal.
The relaxed lifestyle is perfect for Merlette and I are so pleased to see that women are finding joy in our clothes.
Is there anything exciting you are working on you can share with us?
We are working on expanding the line for Fall into knitwear and other new fabrications for more dressy occasions.