Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Interview with Michelle Aquino (The Passion Behind L.A. Fashion)

Michelle Aquino
Founder and Designer of M Dot Design

This post is part of The Passion Behind L.A. Fashion series. A celebration of the talents behind L.A.'s fashion industry.
M Dot Design Show at the W Hotel in L.A. Fall 2013.


The upscale W Hotel in LA was crawling with very fashionable and sophisticated people. Interns from the M Dot Design Studio were busy corralling fashion correspondents and fashionistas into their seats. It was the 17th of October 2013, at the height of Los Angeles Fashion Week, and the pool side venue was packed to maximum capacity. Guests were captivated with the collection. The design and cuts were clean, chic and refined; the color palettes were from a subdued ivory, sophisticated black and glorious and shimmering gold. After the finale I knew this was a story worth writing, I was fascinated with the designer. There’s something about Michelle Aquino that makes her intriguing and inviting. She exudes a calm and quiet confidence and she flashes an easy and genuine smile. It took a couple of months to work up the courage to ask for an interview, I after all knew nothing about fashion.

I felt Michelle was expressing something from that 2013 Fall Collection and I knew that it is the first question I would ask. In fact, two months later during our January 2014 interview, even before I asked the pertinent question of what is the meaning of M Dot label, I asked the inspiration behind her last year’s collection instead. I knew from her website that the Collection was entitled “I Am” and was inspired by Silvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”.

Sylvia Plath’s novel was a depressing and disturbing one. Right at the very beginning of the first page you’d feel how disconcerting and upsetting the novel is going to be. The author started the first chapter of the book wherein the main character, Esther, was musing on the execution and electrocution of the Rosenbergs. “I love Sylvia Plath, I love the character Esther, I love how she moved to New York to pursue writing—in a time when men dominated that occupation—I’m fascinated with the character’s personal struggles…her mental instability…I envisioned what would Esther be like and what would she be wearing in our time instead of hers and I believe she would’ve been different” Michelle explained breathlessly. So why was Michelle, probably one of the most delightful persons I ever met, so attracted to probably one of the most depressing literary character ever written?

Talking about her 2013 Fall Fashion Show, Michelle explained with enthusiasm how the muted colors translated to the introverted Esther, the shimmering colors of gold and silver rendered as the peak of Esther’s creativity, the mournful black colors represented the character’s mental breakdown and finally the mixture of all the different palettes depicted Esther’s struggle with her “highs-and-lows”. “Even though I was fascinated by the Novel’s time and setting if the book was set in our decade, I envisioned Esther to be a more confident and successful woman” Michelle said with so much hope in her voice as if Esther was a real person.

Michelle Aquino at her M Dot Design Studio displaying her favorite book "The Bell Jar" the inspiration of her Fall 2013 show.

M Dot Design Studio.

Perhaps Michelle sees a little bit of herself in Esther, a woman who went against conventions and did her own thing. “I think I identify myself more as a seamstress rather than a fashion designer since my Lola (Filipino for Grandmother) was one and I was assisting her, and trained as a seamstress with her supervision, when I was fifteen…my parents were traditional Filipino and they expected me to get a career that would be more stable and less risky…I have a degree in Respiratory Therapy but fashion is something I cannot shake” she said laughing to herself.

Michelle knew that the path she had to take wasn’t an easy one. She struggled to find her own style “People kept giving me advice and I generally listened but I kind of lost my own identity in the process. I said to myself: ‘If this (design) is not something I would wear why should I create it?’ so from then on I followed my own and I figured out that I like to make sophisticated clothes rather than edgy”.

Michelle learned her craft informally, she researched and followed designers and studied their different styles. “I realized that I needed to complete my first line and put on my first show. The venue where I was planning to launch my line cancelled the week before the event—it was a disaster! I have already booked and paid the models! I ‘cold’ call everywhere and begged. Andrea Ebbing, the Marketing Manager at the W Hotel in San Diego accepted to meet with me. The asking price to set up an event at the hotel was $8000 but she let me do it for free once she saw my collection” Michelle recounted wide-eyed as if it just happened yesterday.

Michelle’s M Dot label and the W Hotel started their fruitful collaboration after the designer’s debut. M Dot Design began doing fashion shows and pop up shop events at the different W Hotels in California and Arizona, “That’s why I moved here to LA, I kept getting invited to do shows here. My main goal is to have a retail boutique here in LA and one in New York that’s it. I would want to supervise a handful of trusted seamstresses because I’d rather work with a loyal few. I do not put up with (interpersonal) conflicts and back stabbing” Michelle said sincerely. It appeared that Michelle is trying to cultivate a creative environment that is based on cooperation rather than competition “I trained my interns to be kind…to work together…I like a harmonious place”.

If I would hazard to give a description on Michelle’s line, aesthetic and style I will describe it as this: Her designs are very limited edition clothing that would be perfect in informal picnics or dressy cocktail parties. One cannot feel too underdress or overdress in Michelle’s clothes. Her design doesn’t just make you look chic—it makes you look witty (a combination of “smart” and “fun” in my own definition). Throughout the interview it occurred to me that Michelle’s whole endeavor hinged entirely on her wits—it reflected not only on her clothes but the name of her label as well. “I intended to call my label M. Aquino…when I was thinking of the website address I needed to have the ‘dot’ for the URL and I realized just to go with ‘M Dot’” she said happily. Very witty indeed!

Edited by: Paul Remy, CEO of Nxup Magazine  

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Copyright 2014 RG Los Angeles Stories

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