Notable Designer Series: Aime by Monica Mei

On Wednesday evening, our Notable designer series, held in our brand new Notable Lounge, continued with Monica Mei, the young designer behind Aime (pronounced em, in case you were wondering). One look at her collection, and you’ll want to book a vacation and leave immediately. Besides the style, perhaps the collection is best known for its versatility as the looks transform from day to night, season to season and from distant city streets to stunning beaches.

Indeed, Mei finds inspiration from her rich travel experiences around the globe. With international stints at HBC in Toronto, Emporio Armani in New York, Johanna Ho in Hong Kong, and Ports International in China, Monica Mei has created a line that she describes as both powerful and pretty. Most recently, for World MasterCard Fashion Week, Mei has launched a brand new resort line on Kickstarter, which we can’t get enough of. Inspired by her 2011 travels to Istanbul, the collection, called “Turkish Delights: Ottoman Opulence,” features reversible resort pieces, providing a solution to that annoying over-sized luggage issue that fashion-loving females know all too well.  

On getting started…
I have always had a love affair with fashion and love to travel. My parents also loved to travel and would bring me around with them as a child. They really wanted me to experience the world and didn’t want me to live in a Toronto bubble. I have been on every continent and been fortunate to see what life was like in every place. This means the food, travel, music, and, of course, the shopping and fashion. I grew up with parents with immigrant Chinese roots; they said that is great that you love all that, but you are not going to be an artist or a designer – you will be a dentist or a doctor. I always did love art, though, but took classes separately, outside of high school. At the last minute, I changed my mind about studying health sciences and enrolled at U of T for a business degree. I did a minor in fine art and began to fill my portfolio. A little way in, I decided to enroll in Ryerson’s fashion program on a whim, and ended up doing both degrees at once, shuttling back and forth between the two schools. It was tough, juggling those two very different degrees and using different sides of the brain, but it gave me the knowledge as to what it was like to be an entrepreneur and really set me up for the challenge. 

On internships…
I really found my niche through trial and error after a series of internships abroad. At first, I thought I wanted to be a buyer so I interned at Emporio Armani in New York City, where I quickly realized that I didn’t want to be a buyer. It involved too many numbers, just like business.

I had another internship in publishing and public relations in Asia. They needed someone who could do English translations. Though I realized that I didn’t want to be in PR, what I learned in Asia was a hard work ethic. If I thought Toronto and New York City were fast, Asia was crazy, even as an intern. It was standard to be at the office from 7:30am to after 6pm, and to work half days on Saturday. Of course, with PR, there are also many evening events. I had the time of my life, but it was exhausting. 

In my final year, there was an opportunity to work at Ports International in Asia, and it was fabulous. It is located in Xiamen, which is known as a b-tier city and a big manufacturing hub. All my other internships I had to pay my own way, but with this one, they flew me there, hired a driver, and gave me a two-bedroom apartment. It was there where I learned about manufacturing and also had a chance to work on the design team, for White Label, which had many stores across Asia. All these internships offered so much experience in different facets of the industry.

The turning point…
Ryerson has great student and alumni initiative that awards $25,000 to the winner. I applied on my third year and completely failed, but tried again in my fourth year and actually won with my thesis project for Aime. That offered capital to start the business. Then, I pretty much just went for it.

Here we are five years later. The best advice I was given was to take the money and go the States and that Canada will follow. I bought unlimited US air passes for two months, and each week I would be in a different city. I would walk right in there with my collection and chat with buyers.

On the name…
In terms of the French influence, I love Paris and how classy French women are. It is also based on the philosophy to love yourself and others. I want a woman to buy it for herself, and nobody else, so you she’s going to feel good about it and feel good in it. Aime is also a phonestic play on my initials. My nickname was M, and Aime was actually my ICQ handle back in the day.

On her environmentally conscious outlook…
In grade four, I had a teacher named Mr. Green, who was really passionate about environmental issues and brought us to all the green shows, and it became very important to me. That is why I am all about slow fashion – pieces you can keep in your closet for years. I don’t believe in one-wear throwaway clothes. Of course, I use organic, natural fibres in my own clothing.

On production…
Everything is produced in Toronto except for Aime Project Charitee, which is made in India. India has the finest organic cotton and a custom knit. It is perfect for creating t-shirts. I wanted something that was thin; not too thin that your bra would show, but not thick like an athletic t-shirt. I wanted it to be done in a cloth facility that paid attention to proper environmental considerations and employee codes of conduct. Otherwise, everything is produced in Toronto.

On her new collection…
The new collection has a strong focus on versatility, and you can easily wear it up or down. One size fits most, from a 00 to 12. You can go online, pick the style, pattern and colour and are then good to go. The Zoe Dress can be worn eight different ways, from tribal on one side, to tie-dye on the other, and can be reversed from front to back. The belt can be reversed, or you can remove the belt for a more boho look. It can be worn over a bikini during the day, and then transformed to a dinner dress while you are sipping bubbly. In the past, I have done some office wear, but started to realize that we don’t really like what we wear to the office. Some of our best times are on vacation, so everything is going to be resort and travel from here on. The website will even offer suggestions as to where to eat, where to stay, and what to do in different parts of the world. I got into it because I like to travel and felt a disconnect when I started to venture away from it, so now I am sticking to it.

On Kickstarter…
With kickstarter, people can pre-order. It is perfect if you have a trip planned in the future. You can go on the site, pick the collection, fabrics, and pattern, and it will be sent by June. I love the idea of crowdsourcing, especially with my mandate of being eco conscious. I don’t want to produce waste by making a bunch of one thing that isn’t selling. This way, you tell me what you want and I will know how much to make.

What’s next?
I will definitely stick to travel and resort wear, but everything travel-based. I may introduce different categories like shoes and bags through collaborations with other designers. I am also excited to start airport wear. It is often overlooked, but really important. You need to show up looking good.

See the full gallery here.

#LYNL | (Live Your Notable Life)

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