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An Interview with Designer, Margot Elena: TokyoMilk Presents Neptune and the Mermaid By Margot Elena for Coats

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“Wait a minute,” I shout, pulling the phone away from my ear. “TokyoMilk? You mean like the hand cream I have sitting right here on my desk? That TokyoMilk? She’s doing a fabric collection for Coats? (sounds of screaming and phone dropping).” This is a reenactment of the excitement that ran through the Sew4Home studios when our pals at Coats told us about their latest designer collaboration with Margot Elena. Margot is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Margot Elena Companies & Collections. She is the design and marketing mind behind several cult-classic, niche beauty brands, including TokyoMilk, Lollia, Library of Flowers, and her newest creation, The Cottage Greenhouse. To her long list of accomplishments, she now adds: Fabric Designer. Today, you'll get to meet Margot through our interview and find out a little bit about the inspiration behind her first collection, Neptune and the Mermaid. You’ll also learn a few of her personal secrets to color mixing and matching, and discover why Margot never designs and drives. 

Margot Elena is known throughout the fashion industry as a true “designer’s designer,” an artist held in the highest regard for her multi-dimensional creativity and talent. Her beauty brands are frequently featured in Oprah’s Favorite Things, Vogue, InStyle, Marie Claire, and Glamour, among many others. And her products can be found nationally and internationally at Harrods, Barneys New York, Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Sephora, and more.

We were thrilled to get the opportunity to work with Neptune and the Mermaid, creating three unique projects: yesterday’s gorgeous Kimono as well as a Beach Backpack Duffle and a set of unique Dimensional Pillows to come. Designing with Margot's vivid colors and sophisticated motifs was a true joy. Be on the lookout for the playful fussy-cutting we achieved, such as how the vintage diver on the Backpack Duffle appears to be plunging right into the waves on the pockets.

The fabric really does tell a story, but it’s a tale you get to write with your imagination as you blend the patterns and color into your own enchanted undersea adventure.

Our thanks to Margot for taking the time to answer our questions and give us all a glimpse into her gorgeous world. Once you fall in love with this fabric (if you haven’t already), make sure to look for her accompanying Neptune and the Mermaid collection of Parfum, Hand Cream, Lip Balm, and Soap.

S4H: This collection is an ocean adventure – what is your connection to the sea and its beautiful creatures? Do you swim, dive or otherwise love to be under water?

ME: Hmmm…I would say that this collection for me was inspired by the magical possibility of what could happen in the vast world hidden below the surface. I loved the idea of the romance of the secret island and the underwater kingdom of protected mermaids. I see the fish as the guardians of this realm, a realm overseen by the Mermaid Queen. I'm laughing as I write this; I kind of think being the Mermaid Queen may be a democratic vote rather than a birthright… so she may not always be the queen! Then there are the divers who are from our everyday world, but who are searching for those elusive, beautiful mermaids. One of the most playful patterns is "What would Poseidon Say" with the Gibson Girl inspired gals. I like to think these girls have switched their mermaid tails for legs in order to sneak ashore on a Friday night, all without Dad's permission. You spend a lot of time with these patterns as they come into being, so the worlds begin to tell quite detailed stories.

S4H: There is a bit of vintage Jantzen swimwear vibe in some of the imagery, which we love since Jantzen is local to Portland and the Pacific Northwest. Did you draw inspiration from some of the retro fashion looks of the days of bathing beauties?

ME: Absolutely. For me, this collection was an opportunity to tell a more complete narrative, through illustration, than we sometimes get to tell on the small TokyoMilk bottles. Like my packaging design, I wanted to really create a fantasy that wove in many details – the primary thread being inspired by things, patterns, and eras that feel familiar, yet are juxtaposed in a surreal way that is beautiful and immersive.

S4H: We adore the color palettes of your collection. Where do you turn for your color inspiration, and do you have any particular mixing and matching tips to pass along to our visitors. 

ME: Great question! We worked so hard to get these colors correct, which was a huge challenge for my first collection. I had to learn how to accurately communicate and replicate the colors I wanted to see printed on the fabric. It’s a very different substrate than packaging! My thought was to create a palette that felt rich and luxurious. A palette that would feel timeless. I could see it in my head, but I needed to call in my resident expert: my Mama. My mother is an incredible fine artist, and I always tell everyone that her most amazing, super human skill is her gift of color. She has the most trained eye and sensitivity to color theory of anyone I know. It was so fun to call her in to come help, move colors around, and give it the final thumbs up.

As for mixing and matching, we spent quite a lot of time with multiple rounds, tweaking the collection's colors so the patterns would mix and match effortlessly. Westminster, Coats, FreeSpirit... everyone was beyond incredibly generous as they dealt with my first fabric line angst and as I got used to how the patterns would live together. I would suggest to those of you creating with the fabrics to look for the common color undercurrent. Start with what I call the “Mama color” from the largest pattern, whether navy or aqua or otherwise, then begin to mix in the smaller patterns with nods to the Mama color. Then, always add an unexpected pop that contrasts harmoniously with Mama (like any good rebellious child in the family, right?).

S4H: Fabric design is a new endeavor for you. Did you design with specific projects in mind; ie. do you envision the clothing, bags, pillows the fabric will become or did you need to wait until the collection was done to decide what to use it for?

ME: I have to say it has been a fantasy of mine for so long to do fabric, and I did always imagine the larger scale. Pillows, bags, robes, and pajamas probably came first to my brain. But I also love the smaller scale prints to compliment and create very arty and lively quilts. I saw someone out there who had quilted a bag with one of the patterns with a wavy quilting stitch, and I thought, "How clever to mimic the ocean waves!" Another incredible quilter on Instagram showed the "What Would Poseidon Say?" gals repeated and placed in a pinwheel pattern so they looked like they were synchronized swimmers in this lovely rosy water. Again I thought, "That is genius!" Such thoughtfulness. It's wonderful to see what everyone imagines and creates with the fabric!

S4H: And as a follow-up to that, what are the differences between designing for a flat surface like fabric, versus a dimensional surface like your parfums and hand creams?

ME: I think the first pass is very much the same, including figuring out the repeat. So the first step wasn't the surprise. And I love creating collections that flow together and tell a complete story in all of my packaging. So that wasn’t a surprise either. But the second step, when we got to doing multiple color ways, oh, yeah. Well. That got incredibly… ummm… interesting is the delicate word I will use. I understood plate separations from back in the day, having to manually separate color plates, but the added degree of difficulty with colorway plate changes, involving such complex details and subtle things like shading – that was brand new. On one colorway: "Fantastic!" On another colorway: "Wait, did you mean for her lips to be green?" Multiple colorways, constrained to specific plates with such a complex design left me, on more than one night, going to bed at 3am completely perplexed.

S4H: What is your favorite guilty snack food?

ME: Ha! My boyfriend (husband) says bagel and cream cheese. I could agree with that, though I rarely let myself go there.

S4H: Can we peek into your every day world? What does your own creative space and living space look like? Are there any empty walls or solid colors?!

ME: I am listening to Katrina, our in house graphic designer here, describe it. She says "It's so pretty!" Thanks, Katrina! We'd describe it (we're collectively describing it because, you know you can't describe your own stuff) as having a mix of modern and traditional with inspiration and collections that allow me to pause and reflect everywhere. I’d say that's true. There are always textures and details. My obsession with textiles and handmade antique and vintage rugs has probably gotten out of hand, but my husband is supportive and has not yet asked me to dial it back. My creative space is always moving and changing. I'm being told here to talk about how I mix antiques and our little one's stuff together. In reality, I simply consider it all to be lived with and enjoyed. Jill, another graphic designer here, is telling me to explain how I've shared my own amazing garden; which is a love letter from my husband. True, dat. My spaces are just filled with people and things I love!

S4H: You are such a prolific designer and artist. But there has to be a goofy side in there somewhere. Can you please give the rest of us hope and tell us there is something you are NOT good at?

ME: I am definitely NOT a good driver. I have literally no interest in it. My Dad taught me to drive when I was 13, but somehow that switch of independence didn't ever flip in me. So, it's totally eccentric that I rarely drive, so weird, right? But, truth be told, you don't want me to drive because I am totally distracted by thinking up all of these worlds. So really, it's a service I provide, I don't design and drive. Ha!

Thanks again, Margot for your time and inspiration!

Don’t forget to browse the TokyoMilk Look Book at Coats, as well as the TokyoMilk website of beauty products.

Photography courtesy of Coats.



Comments (13)

Sylvia Kidwell said:
Sylvia Kidwell's picture

Love your fabrics & the ocean/sealife in the colorful designs! I must find some to purchase!  Sewing is one of my hobbies.

Sewinbear said:
Sewinbear's picture

What a fun Give-a-way!! Looove this fabric! Thank you for chance to win some!! :D

Rosalind Hess said:
Rosalind Hess's picture

Some of the great projects for this fabric line were the pajama pants and the bathrobe. Do you have the patterns used for these two projects? Or are they part of her retail sales?  Would love to make pants and robe.  Thanks for all the insiteful information on this blog.  Have watched and used it faithfully for many years.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Rosalind - Thank you! We're so glad you've been enjoying this series. As mentioned above, all of the images in this article were courtesy of Coats Fabric so we did not produce the projects shown and don't have details on which patterns were used; they were made by Coats as inspirational items to help present the beautiful fabric. This week, we've offered our Kimono, Backpack Duffle, and Pillow set with free projects here at the site. 

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Bill - Thank you so much. We are head over heels with this collection. 

DebS said:
DebS's picture

The fabrics are beautiful! And ispirational - wheels are turning as I write.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@DebS - Thanks! It really is a gorgeous collection through and through. 

hooptdo58 said:
hooptdo58's picture

Think you should check out the web site above .  It is pornographic to say the least, not sewing related.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

hooptdo58 - The comment has been removed. Software captures most spam, but you'd be amazed at the almost full-time job it is to remove the bad posts while still keeping things easy to use for our real visitors. Thanks for the heads up.

hooptdo58 said:
hooptdo58's picture

To say the least, it was a sewing shocker.  Thank you for your prompt respose.