Melina Cortes-Nmili doesn’t believe in settling. She believes in having it all. By day, she’s a corporate powerhouse working as the director of regional specialty sales at UnitedHealth; by night, she runs the fashion line Lalla Bee. Not to mention her 24/7 gig as mother of two kids.
Cortes-Nmili is a style force to watch and one of six women designers to be feted on the Sept. 30 opening night of Boston Fashion Week. She’ll be showing a versatile collection of dresses emphasizing classic, flattering silhouettes and adaptable colors for easy transition from day to night.
Cortes-Nmili launched Lalla Bee’s first collection in 2015 after a short stint in the fashion industry selling American clothes in the Dominican Republic. Her passion and energy stem from her childhood in the DR, where she learned about style and a solid work ethic from her grandmother. Now she applies those life lessons to her business to stay grounded, organized, and, of course, fashionable.
Exhale: How would you describe the Lalla Bee aesthetic and the Lalla Bee woman?
Melina Cortes-Nmili:I like the clothes to project a confidence that is not loud. My grandmother was a strong woman, she was the matriarch of the family, but she wasn’t loud. She had that presence. That’s what I want when I’m designing a collection. My aesthetic is timeless, it’s elegant, and it’s understated. It’s meant to be an investment. In my own way, that’s my grandmother’s legacy living on.
I want a woman to wear my dress and to go about whatever she’s doing—hosting an event, going to work, going to a cocktail party—and I don’t want her to be worried about her dress. I want her to enjoy herself. I want her to live her life, and the dress is coming along for the ride. The dress is a complement to her already strong and beautiful personality.
How did you take your love of fashion and turn it into a business?
I always knew, since I was a child, that I wanted to have a business. I remember asking my mom for her old makeup items so I could charge five cents to my friends to do their makeup. I was six or seven years old. It wasn’t until I was married and I’d started this little side business selling clothes that I thought, Wait a minute, this is the time for me to do what I want to do.
A key part of my business was to be able to budget my money and to negotiate in tough situations. I have an MBA in business and marketing. Fashion is great: It’s pretty, it’s beautiful, but what you see in the magazine or on the runway, that is the result of a very long and expensive process. You have to know the business aspect of it.
What’s a challenge you’ve encountered in your career and how have you overcome it?
In corporate there was a period of time when I was the only woman in a room full of men. Not only was I the only woman, I was a woman of color, and I was the youngest. I’m very direct. I’m very assertive when it comes to business. I think we have to be. And sometimes it can bring up insecurities in other people. I have had people approach me and say, “You might want to soften it up a little bit.” A major challenge has been staying true to myself. Some people may not like me, and I’m going to have to be OK with that. I cannot please everyone.
What advice would you give to other women trying to turn their passions into careers?
To educate themselves. To surround themselves with people who have done it before. It’s OK to ask for help. And save money, of course. I’m a businessperson so I’m always going to talk about money. Always ask for money when you don’t need it. You usually get it much faster than when you do need it.
As much research as you’re going to do, as much as you learn, there’s going to come a point where you have to take that step, you have to take that plunge. Even if it’s just a soft launch, that’s how you learn.
How do you hope to grow Lalla Bee in the next year?
Right now, I’m very focused on long-term growth. I want Lalla Bee to be around for my daughter to take over, or my son. I don’t think that I could handle right now a growth of 200 percent. It would be wonderful for, like, five minutes, and then I would have a panic attack. I want to enjoy my family and my kids and my girlfriends; I need that in my life. I can’t be all work. I like the pace of growth that I can learn in.
We caught up with the six powerhouse female fashion designers who are being honored at this year's BFW to discuss new collections, overcoming challenges, and finding balance.