Marina Cortbawi founded Merlette in 2016 with just a handful of simple but nevertheless striking designs made from natural fibers. Now, nearly five years on, the Brooklyn-based label’s legions of fans and followers seek out its signature voluminous cotton frocks as much for the way they look as the way they feel. “It all starts with the fabric,” says Cortbawi, who has emphasized soft, sustainable materials since the get-go. Which is why when she began working on her debut collection of handbags, which are available for pre-order starting today, she turned not to leather (or pleather) but rather to the same twills and satin blends that have become her burgeoning brand’s calling card.
Of course, such delicate fabrics lend themselves naturally to Merlette’s airy tiered tops and dresses, but figuring out how to transform them into something more durable presented a challenge. “We haven’t done much structure,” Cortbawi concedes with a laugh. “Everything is free-flowing and light.” After a year of trial and error, however, she and her team landed on three timeless shapes that are, against all odds, simultaneously supple and sturdy. Take, for instance, the Asha tote, which was inspired by a straw version Cortbawi picked up while vacationing in Mallorca: besides being visually arresting, an intricate Kantha embroidery pattern reinforces the elegant Japanese cotton twill shopper. “Even though it’s quite special, it couldn’t feel too precious,” she explains, noting that she personally put each bag to the test, overloading them with books, groceries, and reusable water bottles to ensure that they could take on the (heavy) demands of real life.
The collection’s other two styles, meanwhile, both feature a basketweave smocking technique. Hand-crafted by artisans in India, the bucket bag takes up to 90 hours to make, while a half-moon shaped silk clutch, available in black and shocking pink, is equipped with a subtle zipper closure, ruched handle, and a removable crossbody strap—an on-the-go must for Cortbawi. “Hands-free is very important when you’re running around New York,” she says, adding that the surprisingly practical style, which comes with a slight sheen, has quickly become her everyday staple, whether she’s dressed down in jeans and a puffer or wearing one of Merlette’s breezy flounced collar blouse-and-skirt sets. As we begin to venture out into the world again, keep her parting words in mind: “A nice detailed bag elevates any look.”