How Marina Cortbawi Created Clothes for the Freedom She Craved

The Merlette founder has adopted a less-is-more approach to fashion.

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(Image credit: Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska)

In our new series MC Muse, savvy women from around the world share their style, their ambitions, and the most coveted pieces to shop right now.

After studying journalism in college in Sydney, where she was born, Marina Cortbawi realized her passion lied not so much in writing as it did in working alongside creative people. So she moved to England, where she got an internship with a small London-based clothing designer. Working for an emerging designer, Cortbawi (who had no fashion experience up until that point) was charged with a lot of responsibility—including international sales, a field she knew nothing about at the time, but would become the entryway into her lifelong career in fashion the industry.

Once she had several years of fashion business experience under her belt, Cortbawi was hired at major design house Oscar de la Renta as their International Sales Manager and later at Carolina Herrera as the Director of International Sales. Cortbawi was fluent in evening wear, but found that their global customers were lacking options for elevated everyday clothes that were moderately priced and adhered to a slow fashion philosophy.

Eager to bridge that gap and naturally entrepreneurial, Cortbawi explains, she returned to school, enrolling at Central St. Martins and the London College of Fashion to partake in an intensive design course filled with pattern-making and draping classes. In 2016, Cortbawi launched Merlette—named after a mythical bird that is in constant movement—with an aesthetic she describes as an edited and quiet alternative to breezy resort wear. The line is focused around high-quality, natural fabrics, embroidery techniques, and artisan details.

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Cortbawi in her Brooklyn studio.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska)

The collection first launched with 12 dress styles in three colors and two fabrications exclusively on Moda Operandi. Five years later, the line has expanded to include seasonal knitwear, handworked bags, and a range of core styles all produced by Cortbawi’s small team based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We sat down with the designer to chat about the importance of slowing down, finding a support system, and why simplicity is the best philosophy when it comes to getting dressed.

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 did we survive the pandemic, but we actually saw an increase in sales. Our clothes are really great for wash-and-wear, and can be worn as house dresses, but they’re also pieces that you'll keep forever. It’s been a blessing that we had a little time to slow down and live more creatively, and had time to collaborate with people—like the shibori artists who specialize in dyeing techniques that we just recently worked with. Over the past few years there has been less temptation to expand and diversify too quickly. I really needed that. If you keep on adding new things because you're having a buzz moment, you run the risk of shooting yourself in the foot.

I’ve also loved having more time with family. I had a baby in the past year, which makes you stop to think about what’s important outside of work and career identities.

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Cortbawi in Merlette’s Ophelia dress.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Shana Trajanoska)

Marie Claire: What advice do you have for women entrepreneurs?

Marina Cortbawi: Starting a business is about coming into your own power, but you really can’t do it on your own. I've gotten the courage to do what I do through connecting with women who have had an unconventional career path. It’s important to have people in my life that I can contact every day if I’m looking for answers to a question or have bit of self-doubt. I think it's really about having mentors who help you, not just with advice but, who will raise you up, and let you have a voice.

Marie Claire: What was the inspiration behind Merlette?

Marina Cortbawi: I know a lot of people who’ve started a brand based on their own style, but I was really looking out for the customers that I knew having worked at Oscar [de la Renta] and Carolina [Herrera]. I design for freedom—which I also happened to be craving in my own life. If you saw me in my previous jobs, I'd be wearing tight pencil skirts and high-heeled Manolo Blahniks, but not anymore.

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

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Cortbawi in one of her favorite button-front blouses.

(Image credit: 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 depending on how I feel through colors, textures, and embroidered fabrics. As a new mom, my style has also changed out of necessity. I’ve started seeking out beautiful, well-made elastic-waist pants and, prior to having a baby, I had no button-front shirts to breastfeed in. I realized that I had only designed one button-front dress in my own collection. Now, you’ll start seeing more [of those] throughout the line.

I’m obsessed with children’s wear right now, but when I do shop for myself, it’s mostly vintage. Amacord vintage in Williamsburg is my favorite place to shop and I love minimalist designers like Jil Sander and Maison Margiela. The less things you have to do when you get dressed, the more likely it is you're going to wear those pieces over and over again.

Sara Holzman
Style Director

Sara Holzman is the Style Director for Marie Claire, where she's worked alongside the publication for eight years in various roles, ensuring the brand's fashion content continues to inform, inspire, and shape the conversation about fashion's ever-evolving landscape. With a degree from the Missouri School of Journalism, Sara is responsible for overseeing a diverse fashion content mix, from emerging and legacy designer profiles to reported features on the influence of social media on style and seasonal and micro trends across the world's fashion epicenters in New York, Milan, and Paris. Before joining Marie Claire, Sara held fashion roles at Conde Nast's Lucky Magazine and Self Magazine and was a style and travel contributor to Equinox's Furthermore website. Over her decade of experience in the fashion industry, Sara has helped guide each brand's style point of view, working alongside veteran photographers and stylists to bring editorial and celebrity photo shoots to fruition from start to finish. Sara currently lives in New York City. When she's not penning about fashion or travel, she’s at the farmer’s market, on a run, working to perfect her roasted chicken recipe, or spending time with her husband, dog, and cat. Follow her along at @sarajonewyork