A self-proclaimed odd-ball and risk-taker, designer Merline Labissiere understands the feeling of not falling into just one category — both artistically and professionally — with her latest collection designed for women similar to her.
The SCAD fashion alum and Miami, Florida native sat in Foxy Loxy Café — a block away from Arnold Hall, amongst other SCAD students working on their own craft — and talked college, her time at Project Runway, her most recent collection and her time at the Atelier program here at SCAD.
Labissiere began designing her collection with creative women in Savannah in mind. As part of her process, she asked women to bring in their favorite clothing items and explain to her why they love them.
“My girl is a metropolitan girl. I design for the creative woman in a business world … there’s so many creative women that don’t wear suits …What do we wear? We’re stuck,” said Labissiere.
Her work was most recently showcased at the Jepson Center’s “State of the Art: Savannah Style.” She mentioned her love for conceptual design and how, during Project Runway, she learned how to hold back a bit, though she still loves to play with color and geometric shapes
“I miss designing that doesn’t make sense. I’ve been doing so commercial for a while,” said Labissiere.
Labissiere struggled to stop herself from editing and constantly changing her mind with this collection but she explained how her biggest struggle was the internal fight between functionality and creativity.
“This is ridiculous. This doesn’t make sense,” were her initial thoughts when she realized how out-there and wild her designs were.
The detailed architecture, hipster aesthetic and art museums of Savannah — such as SCAD MOA and the Jepson Center — have been a major influence in her work as well as her Haitian heritage, but fashion was not always at the forefront. Raised by Haitian-immigrant parents, Labissiere was encouraged to pursue a more promising profession when applying for college.
“While kids were sneaking, doing drugs and sex, I was doing fashion,” joked Labissiere.
However, by age twenty-four she had already started her own design company and was designing sets for films and costumes for her church.
Labissiere then decided to try out for Project Runway in January of 2007, but after being told that she didn’t have enough experience, she applied to SCAD that fall. Architecture was her major going in but, by the time she graduated with a B.F.A in fashion design in 2011, she had gone from an architecture major and fashion minor, a fashion and architect double major, to finally a major in fashion and minor in architecture.
“I tell people, ‘don’t be mad where you are in life because it all adds up,'” said Labissiere. “Every experience adds to your destiny of where you’re supposed to be,” she added.
Years later she’s back in Miami but still flying around to L.A., New York and Savannah.
“I love Forsyth on a Sunday, under a tree, reading a book,” said Labissiere discussing her favorite spots in Savannah. Labissiere also enjoys getting coffee at Coffee Fox on Saturday mornings and then riding the ferry on a loop with a journal on her lap.
Labissiere highlighted the artistic nature of the city and SCAD – how they both support and house artists well, adding that few cities and colleges do that.
“When you go home and there’s not a lot of art community, you feel very isolated as an artist and it’s hard for you to dream,” said Labissiere.
And for Labissiere, dreaming is a large part of who she is as an artist.
“I grew up really poor and we didn’t have money, and I would dream if I had money what would my clothes be,” said Labissiere. “My whole life I’m just dreaming.”
Labissiere enjoys thinking outside the box and exploring new realms of fashion by merging it with architecture or taking risks others may consider too dangerous. But with art comes critique, a process that is painful for some if they don’t separate their identity from their art.
“When who you are is what you do, you can’t take constructive criticism,” said Labissiere.
But during her time at Project Runway, critique was the difference between staying and getting cut.
“I think Project Runway helped me meet the woman’s needs, making it more practical and still using my aesthetics. I didn’t lose myself,” said Labissiere.
After SCAD and Project Runway came SCAD Atelier, an alumni program that allows alums to work on their craft with the studio space and resources provided by SCAD.
“You just dream and you work and everything is beautiful … it’s like heaven. If you can think of any artist’s dream and not to worry about bills and just dream, that is it right there,” said Labissiere.
She emphasized how much it means that SCAD cares for their students after they graduate.
“Dream big,” said Labissiere. “Enjoy your college years, it’s the best at SCAD.”