When it comes to career paths, most people decide to settle down and follow a traditional business road, others just settle. Melina Nmili refused to settle for anything less than passion, excitement and following her true calling. For her, this calling comes in the form of her fashion brand: Lalla Bee.
“My brand stands for the belief that no matter what your past is, or what circumstances you have had to overcome – you are strong, you are graceful, and you are a queen.” Hearing Melina Nmili talk, I couldn’t help but sit up straighter. Her character reminded me of her past, vibrant, warm and despite challenges, having headed towards progress.
Fashion designer and self-made women Melina Nmili is as enticing as her fashion collection. Lalla Bee’s structured silhouettes, colorful palettes, and painstaking attention to detail reflect the values and struggles of her past. Rather than following the latest trends in fashion, Melina’s designs are intentionally timeless. She believes that every strong and beautiful woman should own a luxurious, classic, yet contemporary piece that never goes out of style.
It is truly inspiring to meet those that overcome odds and strive to empower others. BELLA recently caught up with the fashion designer to discuss her road to success, the core belief behind her brand and what true beauty means to her.
Tell us about your upbringing and how you got into the industry.
I was born in the Dominican Republic and until I was 12 years old, I lived in a very small town on the countryside called San Jose de Los Llanos. My grandmother took me in since I was months old so my mother could go to college and eventually work. I would see her on the weekends. My childhood was very happy and very safe. I grew up playing in the backyard with my neighborhood friends; it was a small town where everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other. At 12 I came to live with my mom to Boston (she had already been living there for a couple of years) and that was a shock. New country, new person (my mom), new language, new responsibilities and new little people (my two sisters). Looking back now I am grateful for the experience as I know it built my character and resilience – as a young girl who simply wanted to attend the high school baseball game and couldn’t because I had to babysit my sisters, I hated it.
I went to a vocational high school and against the wishes of my mother I “majored” in cosmetology because I knew someday, I would own my own beauty place – not just a hair salon but a space for women to go to feel beautiful. I liked beauty and I liked to draw – I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I was always drawing things like: this is the house I would like to live in, this is the dress I would like to wear, etc. These were dreams I had growing up, but that I never really shared because it just wasn’t encouraged. I was supposed to go to school, college, get a job, and follow the path. Which I did. I went to school and got my masters in Boston and started my career in corporate healthcare. While my career was taking off, so was my interest in going beyond corporate. I actually started a little side business, where I would buy clothes at wholesale prices, send it to the Caribbean to be sold there. I was enjoying myself buying different looks, creating look books to merchandise the “collections” when it occurred to me: this is it. This is what I love to do. This is my why. From that point on I spent any free time I had reading, talking, attending classes, consulting and testing everything about manufacturing. I had never taken a design course in my life but I knew what I wanted: timeless designs. Designs that told a story and fashion that went beyond a pretty dress.
What is the belief behind your brand, Lalla Bee?
Lalla bee literally means “Mrs. Bee “ My brand stands for the belief that no matter what your past is, or the circumstances you have had to overcome – you are strong, you are graceful, and you are a queen”. This is the woman that raised me and this is the woman I strive to be everyday – this is my muse and the woman I design for.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome to make your dream come true?
There are plenty. First – financial pressures. This has not been as easy as I once naively expected nor has it been inexpensive. Budgets have been and continue to be a challenge, I still hold my corporate job. I don’t have a budget that allows me to advertise or hire an international PR firm so all of the growth I have experienced has been organic and very hard earned – and for the record a collaboration of so many people that have taken an interest, believed in me and helped me along the way.
Another challenge that is worth mentioning to me is learning not to take everything personally. I think this is a lesson more than a challenge. It can be a cut throat industry, not everyone is going to be a fan and certainly not everyone is my customer. At first, I was very worried about everyone’s opinion… and while I still seek advice today, what I seek the most is staying true to who I am and not losing my core believes.
What do you know now, that you wish you knew when you were in yours 20s?
Bad feelings don’t last forever. Everything has a solution.
Where do you draw inspiration for your stunning collections?
My inspiration usually comes from whichever place I am at in that moment. Designing is very much a creative communication outlet for me – it is my subtle way of expressing what is going on in my world, in my life. Overall, I like very simple silhouettes with bold details. My childhood is my main source of inspiration – the women in my life who wore a dress many times and always found a way to make it look exciting and new – this is where the timeless design concept comes from for me.
What can people expect from Lalla Bee this year?
This year I plan to put my efforts to continuing growth at a consistent and steady pace. I want to make a little jump out of my comfort zone start building my brand in new markets like the Caribbean.
Finally, at BELLA we believe in the idea that beauty is defined by each person. So, what is beauty to you and how do you stay beautiful as you are, inside and out.
This is going to sound so cliché… I believe I get more beautiful as I get older. The reason I feel this way is that what I am comfortable sharing today I probably did not have the confidence to share ten years ago. I believe beauty is living my own truth, writing my own story, being myself even when that is not the popular choice. Fighting if necessary for what I believe is right and doing so without offering an apology. Understanding that the feeling of guilt some of us have been taught to feel is very much a choice and not a need.
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