Meiling, The Caribbean's Premier Fashion Designer, on Female Entrepreneurialism in Trinidad

One of Meiling's creationsTo kick off our September Editorial Theme of Food & Fashion, we're bringing you the story of entrepreneur Meiling, the Caribbean's premier fashion designer and one of twelve Caribbean entrepreneurs who were selected to pitch to a panel of investors in London last month..

Very few people in the Caribbean are automatically known by their first name but Meiling (Esau), the tour de force behind the premier fashion house not only in Trinidad but throughout the Caribbean and South America, is one of them.

Last month Meiling participated in the exciting Break Point initiative, which saw twelve Caribbean entrepreneurs selected from across the numerous countries in the region after a vigorous process of elimination. The final dozen were flown to London to present to a panel of UK based entrepreneurs including former dragon Doug Richard and Rockstar Mentoring & Investment's Jonathan Pfahl.

Meiling attracted interest from UK investor Jonathan Pfahl and the pair are currently in talks with an aim to bring the Meiling brand to market in the UK.

Meiling started her business in the early 70s in a renovated garage with just two seamstresses and became incorporated in 1982 as Meiling Inc. Ltd.  The company founded a successful corporate uniform division, which outfits employees throughout the Caribbean.

In 2005, Absolut of Sweden commissioned Meiling to design uniforms for the Absolut bar at 51 Degrees, a local nightspot. This collaboration proved so successful that the company concocted an “Absolut Meiling” martini. 

In the same year, she also designed the Opening Ceremony uniforms for the Trinidad and Tobago team at the Commonwealth Games held in Melbourne, Australia.

In 2010, Meiling was one of only two designers in the English speaking Caribbean to be invited to show at Platform K in Colombia. This is the most prestigious fashion trade in the region and in 2011, she was the only one invited back to represent the English Speaking Caribbean at large.

MeilingA recipient of one of the country’s highest national awards, the Chaconia Silver Medal for long and meritorious service to Trinidad and Tobago’s business sector, she also received a “Grand Master of Fashion Design” award at Caribbean Fashion Week 2008 in Jamaica.

In 2011 Meiling was honoured with the Women of Influence Award from the most influential networking woman’s group in the Caribbean, The Association of Female Executives of Trinidad & Tobago.

In 2012, she has been nominated as one of the top 50 influential people in Trinidad and the brand is setting the stage globally with presentations at London Fashion Week.

We spoke to Meiling about being a female entrepreneur in Trinidad and the start up scene there; how women are supporting each other in the Caribbean; and how she prepared the pitch which attracted the interest of a London investor.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Meiling designs and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

Meiling: I was very fortunate to have ‘inherited’ the design genes from my mother who was one of the Caribbean’s top couturiers in her time. I grew up surrounded by fabric, sewing machines and immense creativity, so it was a natural for me to follow in her footsteps.

She encouraged me to take that step further in going to London to study fashion. In the late 60’s, I attended the Lucy Clayton School of design which also produced fashion icon Mary Quant. When I returned to Trinidad in the early 70’s I was again fortunate to have the support and encouragement of family and friends to set up one of the first local designer boutiques under my own label.

TNW:  What makes your company different from your competitors? Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

Meiling: My company is in many ways very similar to other local designers due to force of circumstance; the island is small and resources limited. So most of us have our own ateliers and retail shops which service our customers.

In terms of my aesthetic, it has an instantly recognizable “Meiling’ look which has global appeal of clean lines, fine detail, innovative cuts and quality fabrics. My customers are women who appreciate the concept of style of fashion and are very loyal. They also don’t believe in compromising on quality and this is why I am dressing third generation clients now.

TNW: Tell us a little about pitching at the Break Point event. How did you prepare?

Meiling: It was a team effort. Sharleen Chin, my CEO (responsible for new business development) helped prepare my initial video presentation. However, after the second phase of the Coaching Sessions in Barbados, we were actually considering withdrawing from the competition due to scheduling conflicts with Caribbean Fashion Week and the launch of my own new collection. Fortunately, Sharleen was willing and able to jump in and do the pitch in St. Lucia (which put us in the finals for London).

We feel it was simply meant to be and she was the right person to do the presentations on behalf of the company. I also want to emphasize that my team of Marsha Syder (Administration manager), Don Ferber of Don Ferber Designs (who designed my website) and our financial consultant, Seamus Clarke were instrumental in helping prepare the information and look of the presentations. Much kudos go to all of them.

I would want to take this opportunity to thank the European Union’s support through the 10th European Development Fund. None of this would have been possible without their funding to the Caribbean Export Development Agency’s work program with the Fashion Industry.

TNW: What made it such a successful pitch?

Sharleen: 

For the St. Lucia pitch, I followed The Guy Kawasaki model of presentation to a T. I made sure I covered all the points and stayed within the time allotment. I practiced, practiced, practiced and for weeks I was living, breathing and dreaming the presentation!

I also anticipated almost every scenario of questions so I could be ready for anything. I actually felt quite comfortable when I presented and it was more like a conversation with the judges in both locations. It was only after when someone asked me how many questions I was asked in St. Lucia, I figured out that it was eight questions in five minutes.

TNW: How did it feel to be pitching to such a distinguished panel of investors?

Sharleen: To be honest, I purposely lightly perused the list of the judging panel so I would not be intimidated by them. I felt that this was one time ‘ignorance is bliss’ would be a good thing. My strategy worked because in the end, all I could do was to do my best, show my passion and knowledge of the company and be myself.  

TNW: What are the particular challenges and rewards of being a female entrepreneur in Trinidad? Are there many female entrepreneurs there? 

Meiling: 

I think the challenges are no different from any woman across the globe. Some of the most successful business people in Trinidad are women and it is actually a culture of entrepreneurship, from the vendor selling fruits and vegetables on the sides of the streets to the owners and CEOs of chains of retail stores.

TNW: Tell us a little about the business startup scene in Trinidad. Have you come across any exciting local startups there?

Meiling: Trinidad is at a very exciting time in our history especially with our 50th Anniversary of Independence this year. We are an oil rich country but one day the oil is going to run out and the government recognizes this and is focusing on developing new sectors of industry and growth. So there are amazing new opportunities for young people; in film, in the creative arts, in agriculture, technology and innovation and of course, fashion.

TNW: What kind of startup businesses are most prevalent?

Meiling: Right now it is wide open and just a walk down the major business avenues of Port of Spain and other commercial centres you see everything from auto supplies to office supplies. You also see lots of restaurants and cafes and bars opening up. Trinis love to eat and drink, so a sure winner is always food.

As you know, carnival is the major tourist attraction to Trinidad and the business of  ‘mas’ is huge. What is very interesting lately is the emergence of fashion carnival bands and we are beginning to see a return to fabulous costumes with an almost ‘couture’ air about them. 

TNW: What is next for your company?

Meiling: One of the strengths of my company is that we are always relevant to the global landscape and we continually look for ways to ‘push the envelope’. Last year, I launched a lifestyle line of scents, candles and body creams called Meiling Complete. I am planning to expand that line to more home products such as bedding and bath products.

We are also working hard to push our export line and even though we are in global recessionary times, I am confident that my line will find an international loyal niche of customers. 

TNW: Have you come across any other exciting startups recently and what is it about them that appeals to you?

Meiling: Anya Ayoung Chee (Season 9 Project Runway winner) is without a doubt the most exciting ‘start up’ designer in Trinidad. I have known Anya since she was a baby and she is like a daughter to me. She interned in my atelier for many years and I have mentored and continue to mentor her as I watch her progress with great anticipation. I love the flair, style and international outlook she brings to her designs.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

Meiling: 

Every day I am grateful for all the blessings and opportunities that have come my way and don’t take them for granted.  I look at the failures as humbling lessons to do things a better smarter way and try not to make them twice.

TNW: What does your day look like?

Meiling: My day starts at 4:00 AM and after meditation, I start work in my office at 5 AM. This is my creative time where I can work undisturbed researching new designs, trends on the fashion landscape, both regionally and internationally. From 6 AM my staff starts coming in and also customers! The day is then filled with made-to-measure appointments, meetings with a variety of organizations; from government ministries, bloggers, photographers and models.

I start winding down around 5 PM and take time to go for a power walk, go to the gym or a yoga class. At 9 PM I am getting ready for bed!

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

Meiling: I am a spiritual person and realize that worrying about things before going to sleep is counter- productive. However, I do sometimes get an overwhelming sense of responsibility to my staff and clients but “put it out there” that all will work out and it usually does.

The ‘fun stuff’ which keeps me awake is when the creative juices are flowing and I am excited about a collection which is coming together beautifully.

TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?

Meiling: 

I think in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world, it starts at a level of empowerment for young girls to give them the vision and confidence to be the best they can be.

I also believe women in the Caribbean are becoming a stronger ‘sisterhood’ and are learning to support each other in business and socially. You see it in networking associations such as the Association of Female Executives of Trinidad and Tobago and in the Basia Breast Cancer Support Groups.

TNW: What is one lesson you would like to pass on to other women leaders?

Meiling: In my line of work I am only as good as my last collection and I think this should be the mantra of everyone in all spheres of business. You cannot rest on your past laurels and must always continue to learn and grow and stay relevant this fast changing world. 

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