THE MUSE FROM MARISULE!
The darling of New York opens up about her island roots and signature style.
HER BROAD SPECTRUM OF TALENTS AND ACHIEVEMENTS MAKE IT IMPOSSIBLE TO PIGEONHOLE HER: ART CONSULTANT, WRITER, MAGAZINE EDITOR, ECLECTIC BLOGGER, STYLE-INFLUENCER. SHALA MONROQUE IS ALL OF THAT AND MORE. WHEN SHALA SPEAKS, THE TRENDY AND TRENDING LISTEN. SMALL WONDER THAT A-LIST INTERNATIONAL PUBLICATIONS CAN’T GET ENOUGH OF HER.
In a Vogue pictorial Shala is seen at home in Saint Lucia teaching wide-eyed kids about preserving the ocean. Her Shala’s Rabbit Hole blog features photos of Chisel Street, Castries in 1997 juxtaposed with Alexander Wang’s new store in Tokyo; an Instagram shot taken in Colombia presents her in a bright pink creation by Guadeloupe’s Lilydezîles, whimsically framed by a perfectly matching traditional doorway. And then there are her well-covered front-row appearances at fashion weeks in New York, Paris and Milan, and on red carpets the world over. As if already she did not have more than her fair share of talent, it turns out Shala Monroque may be capable of being in several zones at the same time!
Her international reputation as a style chieftain spreads across the multiple lanes of social media. The Saint Lucia-born fashion phenom is the darling of creative New York and the world of haute couture.
She grew up with sand between her toes, playing at Marisule beach on the northwest coast of Saint Lucia. Shala reminisces: “I loved to play, climb trees, bathe in the rain, explore, walk along the coast from Vigie . . . On school vacations, and sometimes at weekends, I stayed with my grandmother at the island’s southern end, in Saltibus. So in essence I had an idyllic childhood.”
Storytelling and music were a big part of her family life, as was growing vegetables in her granny’s garden and eating what they grew in that old time farm-to-table selfsufficiency that is suddenly trendy again. Her mother worked at one of the island’s earliest resorts, the St. Lucian Hotel, and it was here that have-not Shala got her initial glimpses into the life of the haves. Saint Lucia was even then a popular wedding destination for the rich and famous and from about age seven she was a paid flower girl, spending days at the hotel with the guests, snorkeling, lunching or accompanying them on tours. For Shala it all amounted to “a taste of what was possible.”
But too much of a good thing can be bad. Despite her deep-seated love for Saint Lucia, for the teenaged Shala island life became boring. What she saw on TV about living in America convinced her that’s where her future lay. She was twenty when she left for New York. But things are seldom as they first appear. New York reality initially proved a bit of a shock: “Loud, overly aggressive and stinking!”
A few years later Shala Monroque gave the USA another try, indulging a romantic idea of taking the Greyhound bus from Miami to New York like she’d seen in movies. This time, her experience was very different.
“I arrived in New York around Fashion Week,” Shala recalled during a recent visit to her home island. “My aunt worked backstage at the venue so I got to go to the shows and some parties. I felt so at home in that environment. I kept extending my stay, from two weeks to a month, to three months. I didn’t want to go home to Saint Lucia. But I did, eventually. However, I knew New York was where I belonged.”
Hard as it is to believe, Shala claims to be something of a non-planner, even these days as she continues to evolve into a fashion household name thanks to exposure in Vogue, Town and Country, Harpers Bazaar and New York Magazine. In her early NYC days, Monroque went through a number of career reinventions to pay the rent, from receptionist to waitress to hostess at ultra-hip restaurants Man Ray and Nobu.
It was in 2009 that she landed the position of Pop Magazine’s editor-at-large, at which point the fashion industry began to sit up and take notice: Miucca Prada became devoted to this mysterious muse; global
I LOVED TO PLAY, CLIMB TREES, BATHE IN THE RAIN, EXPLORE, WALK ALONG THE COAST FROM VIGIE . . .
ON SCHOOL VACATIONS, AND AT SOMETIMES WEEKENDS, I STAYED WITH MY GRANDMOTHER AT
THE ISLAND'S SOUTHERN END, IN SALTIBUS
What did you think of Saint Lucia Hot Couture?
I loved it. It was really good, and there’s a lot of talent here and in the Caribbean. This was my first show in the Caribbean, so it was great to see it in Saint Lucia.
Who were your favourites?
Oh I’m not sure I should say . . .
When you’re Shala Monroque it’s your duty to say, so share the scoop with SHE readers!
[Smiles] Well I wrote a few names down: Thelma Williams from Saint Lucia, Meiling from Trinidad; Tamara Depestre (Lily Deziles) from Guadeloupe was really nice, and I really loved Treasure Couture from Saint Lucia. When I got here I thought I’d have a bunch of stuff made, then go back to New York looking like the coolest person. It’s a really nice feeling to do that. Treasure Frederick surprised me – I could see all the details and quality in his pieces – I was expecting a younger, hipper designer, but he does have a lot of experience and a really cool moustache. [Laughs] I was really intrigued.
How did the show differ from New York or international runway shows?
The format was different – you had many more designers, so it was longer than the usual 5-10 minutes for individual shows. It was nice that it was in two parts, so you could grab cocktails in between the viewings. I think it was also nice to see Caribbean designers alongside Saint Lucian, and to see what’s going on in the region. I think that talent scouts from major labels should really be looking here for new talent.
You’re known for your passion for Prada, but what other international designers excite you?
Jil Sander, Rochas, and Miu Miu.
Do you plan to come back in 2015 for Saint Lucia Hot Couture?
As an island girl, what significance did the ocean play in your childhood?
The first thing the ocean did for me as a child was open up my imagination. I instinctively knew that it held invisible roads to wonderful places around the world and often imagined crossing it. My childhood home gave me a spectacular view of the horizon, of wonderful sunsets and of cargo ships sailing in and out if the harbour and living that close to the beach, I was very often in the water.
[We had] so much freedom as children back then, there was usually a pack of us headed to [the] beach to swim, play and express ourselves without any sort of fear or hindrance. We even bought fresh fish from the fishermen on certain days. So in effect I think the ocean gave me a wonderful sense of freedom of the imagination and also physical freedom.
Why did you choose to work with La Mer and what do you hope to contribute?
Working with La Mer happened very organically. I was contacted by them to find an ocean-related charity to support and heard about Kids4Coral through the [St. Lucia] tourist board.
It totally made sense for me to support them as I felt very connected to the cause. As a child snorkeling and swimming right off the shore, I had been exposed to what at the time was breathtaking marine life at Jalousie beach. I’m sad to report that with the development of that beach, much of what I remember has gone.
The memory of the marine life there has remained vivid. It was a sight so beautiful that I wanted to share it with everyone. Kids4Coral is one good way of making St. Lucian children aware of our marine heritage and also sparking a desire to protect it as they are the future leaders of our country. La Mer is a brand that sustainably uses sea kelp in its formulas and is dedicated to supporting Ocean conservation and awareness. It made perfect sense for us to align our interests.
How did you spend Ocean Day 2014?
I spent World Oceans Day at Rock Away Beach in New York.
“I LOVE SAINT LUCIA,” SHE SAID FOR MAYBE THE TENTH TIME DURING OUR INTERVIEW. “I LOVE THE SLOWER PACE, THE WAY PEOPLE HERE ARE SO LAID BACK.”
gallerist Larry Gagosian was papped with the smiling sphinx-like Monroque. Everywhere, editorial ears perked up at the sound of her name.
This from Essence: “The stunning social jet-setter, art enthusiast and editor-at-large of Pop Magazine possesses a high level of sophistication and elegance with a dose of eccentricity that is rarely seen and sorely missed in today’s fashion landscape. Monroque first [piqued] our interest at the Paris Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2010. And how could we miss her? Among a sea of severe black and leather ensembles, there was Monroque front row at every show in a riot of eye-popping hues, prints, textures and statement necklaces. We love her willingness to stray from the pack with confidence. It’s no wonder this editrix made Vogue’s top ten best dressed list.”
A formidable fashionista! What a surprise, then, to meet Shala Monroque for the first time and to discover her a sweet, shy, almost guarded woman. Which is not to say she projects anything but self-confidence, especially when in front of the camera. An air of mystery seems to surround her, but as she swigs on fresh coconut water and sucks the sweet flesh of a ripe mango through its punctured skin—Looshan style—the observer is left in no doubt at all that she’s one of us: An authentic island girl!
Sitting down with SHE Caribbean on the heels of last May’s Saint Lucia Hot Couture, the local tourist board’s special guest opened up about her passions and the altogether sophisticated life she leads as a favorite of New York’s dedicated followers of fashion. Don’t call her a celebrity, despite her rave reviews and fashion-household-name status.
“I don’t think of myself that way,” she says, “not in New York and definitely not in Saint Lucia. It always sounds weird to me. always sounds weird to me. I still think of myself as just Shala, the girl from Marisule.”
Nevertheless she confesses to soaking up the local “inspirational vibe and channeling the positive island energy” when in NYC. She’s regularly stops on the way home from Hewanorra airport just to sample Looshan treats such as Creole bread, coconut turn-overs and coconut water—now becoming a favorite in the big wide world — she drinks as much as she can when on the island.
I couldn’t help wondering how Shala felt about being described as a “style icon” and “It Girl.” She seemed to mull over the question for several seconds, as if she’d never before given thought to it. Finally, she said with a shrug: ”I guess people see what they see. Sometimes they see things you don’t see about yourself. Everybody has his or her own subjectivity.”
But when asked if she feels the labels diminish what she is achieving in her professional life, a circumspect Shala admits that it can. “In the beginning, sometimes, I found it . . . I don’t want to say annoying, but, what’s the word? I guess I used to be preoccupied with the world’s image of who I am. Or who I think I am. Sometimes it can be a tight line. The media will do what the media will do.” She pauses, smiles. “You’d be surprised who fails to fact-check information. So for the first few years, even now, I stand back and look at it for what it really was.”
And what of the singular style that has caught so many editorial eyes? “I’m not quite sure,” she claims. “I’ve been told that I have a great understanding of colour. I also dress for whatever environment I’m in. I guess I understand fashion’s rules and know how to use them. Also when and how to break them.”
Shala does not subscribe to the style-canbe-taught school of thought: “I don’t think of style only in the sense of the clothes you wear. I think it’s how you go about life. For me, style is something that’s innate. It’s not so much the clothes you wear that people react to. Rather, it’s the life you live in the clothes you wear that they respond to.”
And how does New York’s most celebrated style influencer choose what to wear? “I don’t have a routine. It depends on where I’m going, the weather, what I’d like to accomplish, the mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll be hell-bent on wearing a certain shoe, in which case everything has to follow that. Other times I like to blend, so that has its own dictates.”
Given her nomadic lifestyle of the past few years and her reluctance to plan ahead, it’s quite understandable that routine is not her thing. Still she hopes one day to have a home base in Saint Lucia.
“I love Saint Lucia,” she said for maybe the tenth time during our interview. “I love the slower pace, the way people here are so laid back. You know it’s very easy to keep complaining about what we don’t have while missing out on what we do have. My favourite thing about modern-day Saint Lucia is that I can buy bottled coconut water at the roadside. Not only because it’s fresh and nutritious but also because it shows an entrepreneurial energy that didn’t really exist when I was growing up here. It’s a shame that farming has such a bad stigma in Saint Lucia when we have so much arable land.”
On the flip side: “I wish we had a better recycling program. When I left no one really bought bottled water; now everyone does. I’ve gotten used to recycling in New York and it hurts every time I put a plastic bottle in with the rest of the garbage, knowing it will most likely end up in the ocean.”
As a schoolgirl, she was always involved in some form of artistic expression, whether dancing and acting as encouraged by her mother, or writing poetry and prose at Leon Hess Secondary School with the encouragement of her principal. But she attributes much of her artistic direction to reading: “I was a member of the Castries Public Library from as young as I can remember. I was always a participant in the children’s summer programs. Reading exposed me to much of the outside world . . .”
Like Saint Lucia-born poet and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, Shala too fears for the future of the arts on her island. She recently visited the Saint Lucia School of Music and discovered the government had cut funding for the school’s community outreach programs, in particular a community orchestra in one of the island’s most infamous ghettos.
“There are many ways of combating crime,” she observed, “and one of the easiest is by affording idle children in vulnerable communities positive activities to engage in. I’m not sure why it was on the government’s list to cut funding for these programs. I really hope they have a very valid reason. We can’t that easily give up on our children.”
I asked Shala for her opinion of one of the most contentious magazine choices this year: the infamous Kimye Vogue cover. As a dyed-in-the-wool fashion maven, did she share the skepticism of many of the critics who saw the image as a sell out?
“Well I guess fashion is about reflecting the times, and that’s where we are. You can’t discount the fact that Kim has 18 million followers on Instagram. There is tremendous value in that. Kanye is a phenomenal musician, super-super talented, and she is a successful businesswoman with her own clothing line.
“That particular Vogue cover was historic. I don’t think the magazine has ever had a couple on its cover; certainly not an interracial couple. So it spoke volumes. There’s a lot that could be broken down from it. Anna Wintour had the same issues in the 80s when she put Madonna on the cover. There was absolute outrage. Wintour has her finger on the pulse of the times so there are more reality stars and musicians on magazine covers.”
That may be so, but with all her creative guns blazing and a growing army of followers on the planet’s trendiest webzones, it seems clear that the world can look forward to many more covers featuring inimitable Shala Monroque, the girl from Marisule.
Silk chiffon gown by Treasure Couture, St. Lucia
Swimsuit by Rhion Romany, Trinidad
Known for her love of colour, Shala rocks this hot pink cotton gauze dress from The Cloth, Trinidad