Black American history and culture have always played an essential role in the fashion industry and its trends. Our cultural influence is often considered invaluable by our racial counterparts, invalidating the contribution of the originators. Today we say enough is enough as we discover new ways to illuminate the black voice.
I had the chance to sit down with Monty Matuka, founder of the Luxury Fashion Brand, MELI, who aims to use his platform to take part in the global conversation of human inequality and morality. Together Monty and I discuss what it means to be black in predominantly white spaces, as well as highlight his experiences as a black entrepreneur.
Alyseah Simone: When did you begin MELI as a brand?
Monty Matuka: I started working on Meli in 2016, but it was officially launched as a brand in 2019. A group of friends and I launched MELI through a fashion show called FAME in the spring of 2019. We had about 160 people attend. The event featured four local designers, around forty models, three dance groups, a singer, we even had a culinary artist.
AS: What was the leading inspiration behind its creation?
MM: Honestly, I have always had a genuine interest in fashion. I used fashion as a big reference for how I presented and represented myself. A big thing for me was finding ways to incorporate my Congolese roots. Growing up, my parents heavily instilled the golden rule and so I have witnessed and experienced stories that have impacted my perspective. Because of this, I believe I was blessed with a good eye for creativity and putting things together. I use this passion and energy and incorporate it into my brand.
AS: Can you tell us what the name MELI means?
MM: Meli is part of my real first name, MONGOMELI, so I turned it into an acronym, “More equality less ignorance,” hence the golden rule. I knew that this was a prime opportunity for me to help in spreading more positivity and equality within the world.
AS: As a streetwear brand in 2020, what makes your business different from anyone else’s?
MM: Our message. There is a lot of internal value and thought that can be taken into account with MELI. Whether it’s the garments that make people look and feel confident, inspired and engaged, or the brand’s motivating message. I’m confident that MELI is more than streetwear, its a mindset, a lifestyle if you will. Another cool component about us that I don’t really see among other streetwear brands is providing customers with the option to order custom pieces in addition to the majority of our garments being considered unisex.
AS: You seem to have big plans for MELI, tell us about your new 2020 campaign.
MM: My new campaign is titled “Perception.” The goal is to promote positive values and encourage humankind to explore the unknown. This is necessary to shape a better future for our world. The message contains topics like intersection, cultural heritage and peace building which I believe are major components of what shapes our perspectives on society.
AS: Where does your inspiration stem from and how do you overcome creative blocks in your career?
MM: My inspiration stems from current events but it also comes from focusing on history where we [Black people] came from and what we have experienced in the past. Doing this will help build a blueprint for the future. My inspiration of course also is impacted by the fashion industry. There are certain brands and designers that I enjoy. When it comes to overcoming creative blocks I feel as though it’s important for me to begin finding balance in where I direct my time and energy. There’s a lot of trial and error that goes on and I try to accept that so that I can handle my business well.
AS: MELI is very globally conscious, can you describe the ways that MELI tackles global and national problems?
MM: Our message towards creating more equality and less ignorance within the world is key as MELI builds on its awareness of social issues. We want to encourage our wearers to develop positive and responsible values and mannerisms. To do this we use our campaigns, fashion shows, events, social media content and our products to help build a more socially aware community. Our sustainable efforts include having limited inventory on products. My high-end luxury pieces will be available through pre-order only to ensure that what we make matches the demand. This saves us on material waste and consumption, time and energy.
AS: Currently, you are an eCommerce store, do you intended to create a storefront in the near future? If yes, when and where are you thinking?
MM: Yes I do intend on opening a storefront, it will be located in downtown Indianapolis and in the Stutz building. It will be opening this upcoming august.
AS: What is the biggest challenge you face in running your business? Do you consider these challenges areas for growth within your brand and how do you plan to combat that indifference for MELI’s progression?
MM: I think that the biggest challenge I have faced so far is the trial and error of developing a team and finding the right dynamics to fit within it. There are definitely areas for growth and I think that it’s important for me to acknowledge that despite my previous industry knowledge, I will always be learning even when I think I am at my most successful stages.
AS: Right now the world is dealing with misfortune and recurring events of injustice for Black Americans. This movement has inspired Black people to take a stand against all forms of inequality and call out brands who lack transparency, authenticity, and support of this movement. For some brands, their image has been tarnished. Much of the support that fashion brands receive is widely due to the large participation of the black community. As a brand that focuses on equality, do you have any thoughts on the Black experience within the fashion community?
MM: One thought I have on the black experience within the fashion community is that there is definitely a lack of brown and black faces that are employed in these companies and fashion houses. The Black community is one of the main supporters of these brands through our purchasing habits, but we have the least amount of representation. Our voices should be heard at the big decision-making table and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to begin bringing in new perspectives within the fashion community.
AS: Both luxury fashion houses and fast-fashion chains have faced lots of controversy due to their offensive design choices and actions towards minority communities. To maintain their “company image” these brands simply provide the community with “apologetic statements” only to repeat the behavior again. Why do you think that people, Black people in particular, still purchase from brands who have proven their lack of support for their community? How can we change that narrative?
MM: I think black people still purchase from brands who have revoked them, because it’s a status thing more than anything. They want to be seen or known as wearing the latest most expensive items to pretty much, “keep up with the Joneses”. I also think it’s an ignorance issue, many customers are clueless of these instances from brands and still continue to support them. Between Gucci with blackface and Burberry with the newsletter dilemma, I think that people just lack proper education on what’s going on. Also, it’s almost like members of our community protest for a small amount of time and then go back to their norm and purchase these items from the same brands that don’t care for them. We can change the narrative by redefining what it means to be a high end and luxury brand and start supporting small businesses.
AS: Why is it important to uplift the black voices within the fashion community?
MM: It’s important because we have proven that our perspective is valuable. Our culture is where a lot of fashion influences stems from so I believe we need and deserve to be heard. So many dollars in the industry come from the black community, so it only makes sense to start uplifting the black voice especially if these fashion houses want our continued support, because we are coming!
AS: What do you envision for MELI 3-5 years from now?
MM: I envision us having a strong online presence and a storefront. We will be continuing to build a loyal customer base. I envision use being carried in notable stores around the world and gaining more international recognition and growth in my team, inventory, and in profit.
AS: Who are your biggest inspirations within the fashion industry?
MM: That’s tough but to name a few are Virgil, Kanye West, Rick Elliot, Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford– but there are so many people whose work I admire and their stories are so inspirational.
AS: What can Indianapolis do to better support creatives/ designers like yourself?
MM: The community could execute simple support strategies like media likes, re-shares, buying from local businesses and attending events hosted by local creatives.