Marina Cortbawi de Merlette creates clothes for freedom

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Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska

In our new series MC Muse, savvy women from all over the world share their style, their ambitions and the most coveted coins to buy right now.


After studying journalism at the University of Sydney, where she was born, Marina Cortbawi realized that her passion was not so much to write as to work alongside creators. So she moved to England, where she did an internship with a small clothing designer based in London. Working for an emerging designer, Cortbawi (who had no experience in fashion until then) had many responsibilities, including international sales, an area she was unfamiliar with at the time, but which would become the the gateway to his long-standing career in the fashion industry.

After having had several years of experience in the fashion industry under her belt, Cortbawi was hired at the big design house Oscar de la Renta as Director of International Sales and later at Carolina Herrera as Director of international sales. Cortbawi was fluent in evening wear, but found that his customers around the world lacked options for high-priced everyday wear that adhered to a slow fashion philosophy.

Eager to bridge that gap and naturally enterprising, Cortbawi explains, she returned to school, enrolling at Central St. Martins and London College of Fashion to participate in an intensive design course filled with pattern making classes and draping. In 2016, Cortbawi launched Merlette – named after a mythical bird in constant motion – with an aesthetic she describes as an edited, quiet alternative to breezy resort wear. The line focuses on high quality natural fabrics, embroidery techniques and handcrafted details.

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Cortbawi in his Brooklyn studio.

Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska

The collection was first launched with 12 clothing styles in three colors and two productions exclusively on Moda Operandi. Five years later, the line has expanded to include seasonal knits, hand-crafted bags and a range of basic styles all produced by Cortbawi’s small team based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We sat down with the designer to discuss the importance of slowing down, finding a support system, and why simplicity is the best philosophy when it comes to dressing.

Marie Claire: How has your business changed over the past year and a half?

Marina Cortbawi: This year, we celebrated the brand’s fifth anniversary. Not only have we survived the pandemic, we have actually seen increased sales. Our clothes are really perfect to be washed and worn and can be worn as house dresses, but they are also pieces that you will keep forever. It was a blessing that we had a little time to slow down and live more creatively, and that we had time to collaborate with people, like the shibori artists who specialize in dyeing techniques that we recently worked with. . In recent years, the temptation to expand and diversify too quickly has been less strong. I really needed this. If you keep adding new things because you have a buzz moment, you run the risk of shooting yourself in the foot.

I also liked having more time with the family. I had a baby last year, which forces you to think about what’s important outside of work and professional identities.

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Cortbawi in the Ophélie de Merlette dress.

Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska

Marie Claire: What advice do you give to women entrepreneurs?

Marina Cortbawi: Starting a business is becoming self-sufficient, but you really can’t do it yourself. I have had the courage to do what I do by connecting with women who have had an unconventional career path. It is important to have people in my life who I can contact every day if I am looking for answers to a question or if I have any doubts. I think it’s really about having mentors who help you, not just with advice, but who will uplift you, and let you have a voice.

Marie Claire: What was the inspiration behind Merlette?

Marina Cortbawi: I know a lot of people who started a brand based on their own style, but I was really looking for the clients I knew after working at Oscar. [de la Renta] and Caroline [Herrera]. I design for freedom, which I also wanted in my own life. If you saw me in my previous jobs I would wear bodycon pencil skirts and high heeled Manolo Blahniks, but not anymore.

I also like the duality between masculine and feminine; with Merlette, there are fluid silhouettes and feminine levels, but also clean lines. I get a lot of inspiration when I travel and observe what people wear. I have often traveled to Russia, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia when I was on the business side, and often think about how different cultures wear and style their clothes, including religious requirements and of modesty.

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Cortbawi in one of her favorite button-down blouses.

Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska

Marie Claire: How would you describe your own style?

Marina Cortbawi: My style has really evolved with the Merlette brand. I dress according to how I feel through the colors, textures and embroidered fabrics. As a new mom, my style has also changed out of necessity. I started looking for nice, well-made, elastic waist pants, and before I had a baby I didn’t have button-up shirts for breastfeeding. I realized that I had only designed one button down dress in my own collection. . Now you will start to see more [of those] down the line.

I’m obsessed with children’s clothing right now, but when I’m shopping for myself it’s mostly vintage. Amacord vintage in Williamsburg is my favorite place to shop and I adore minimalist designers like Jil Sander and Maison Margiela. The less things you have to do when getting dressed, the more likely you will be wearing these pieces over and over again.

Shop for some of Marina’s favorite pieces:


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