He has the blueprints.
The Mirror Palais woman is Bella Hadid. She’s Justine Skye. She’s Dua Lipa. She evokes ‘90s nostalgia with slip dresses, silk mini skirts, halter neck dresses, and colorful two-piece sets. She’s sexy, but with a sense of humor. In fact, founder and designer, Marcelo Gaia has been binge-watching The Nanny this pandemic and cites Fran Fine as one of his many inspirations. “It’s sportswear mixed with tropical vibes mixed with references from the Edwardian era,” he explains of the brand over Zoom. “I love anime. I love fashion history and you really see these in my designs.” His references may be eclectic, but the result is a tightly edited fashion label with a cult following.
Founded in 2019, Mirror Palais is a label destined to succeed in the social media era, thanks in part to Gaia’s ability to create inventive, eye-catching designs — like the brand’s iconic underwire polo shirt, a clever bra-meets-collared shirt — that have caught the eye of celebrities ranging from Emily Ratajowski to Ariana Grande. Now with made-to-order pieces that are consistently sold out and a loyal fan base on both Instagram and Tik Tok, Marcelo Gaia explains how he has quietly built the internet’s favorite brand by doing things his own way.
Gaia’s designs are a nod to his childhood spent in Queens alongside a working-class immigrant Brazilian mother. “We were poor so I would often shop in my mother’s closet for styles,” he says. “She wore skirt suits. She wore super sexy colorful beach clothes. You could really just see how our cultural heritage shone in the fashion choices she’d make. I’d spend hours sketching designs inspired by her.”
Mirror Palais' success within the last year might suggest beginner’s luck, but Gaia has spent ten years in the fashion industry working towards this dream. He started off as a stylist intern for stylist Lester Garcia whose work has graced publications like Elle, Vogue, and Teen Vogue. He studied design at the now-closed Wood Tobe-Coburn School in New York and needed an internship to graduate so he messaged Garcia asking for an opportunity.
Following graduation, Gaia would go on to work as a stylist assistant for several more years. Finally, in 2018, he launched his first label, Rosemilk — similar to Mirror Palais in its nostalgic references — with a friend after a trip to Italy. While the label built a loyal following on Instagram in a short time, the pair ended things in 2019 to pursue separate dreams.
“I feel like all these experiences really prepared me for Mirror Palais,” the designer says. “As a stylist, you need great communication skills as you’re frequently sending emails back and forth between PR, designers, clients ... I had friends in PR and other stylist friends who I knew I could send pieces to once I had samples made. From my previous brand, I had already learned how to not overspend and had formed relationships with pattern makers And so, once I became a designer, these were skills that came in handy.”
Still, even with years of knowledge invested in this new project, Gaia says that since he started Mirror Palais with his own savings, he wanted to step into his new endeavor carefully.
“Invest in one or two styles that you are extremely passionate about rather than developing a whole collection,” he explains of his strategy at the time. “A lot of people feel like you need to launch with 100 SKUs [stock-keeping units] and have this full shopping response, but not really. Things can really spiral out of control quickly so try to stay simple where you can.”
At the beginning, Gaia would design the pieces, have samples made, and then take these pieces (sometimes carrying garment bags on the subway) to friends like content creator and former editor Alyssa Coscarelli to have a try-on and take pictures. It was extremely important for Gaia to reduce overhead cost, so when the business began it was made-to-order, a choice which also allowed him to create a wider size range.
“I grew up in Queens where I got to see diverse people. When I started designing, I would take custom orders which required measuring people because even for straight-sized people, you sometimes still need alterations depending on body shape. So for me, it didn’t require much thought to make clothes that different sized people can fit in. However, I must say, there’s so much that’s not set up to support size inclusion in fashion right now,” Gaia says.
“When I go to the garment district, people aren’t equipped to diversify sizes,” he explains, referring to difficulties getting pattern graders to make patterns above a certain size. “So, my team and I have had to be intentional about building this structure for size inclusion. We just got this custom size 20 mannequin that’s really hard to acquire because not many people use it. We have people come up to the atelier to help us test our sizing and fitting. I would hate for people to feel like they can’t participate in this fantasy I’m creating. You know, it’s disappointing to see something, love it, and realize you can’t partake.”
As Mirror Palais continues to grow on social media, with over 180 thousand followers on Instagram now, so do those big retailers trying to imitate what he has created. “What bothers me most is that I’m not the only one these brands are stealing from,” he explains. “I work with a team of immigrants who are trying to make a career for themselves and so when any of my designs are ripped off, it affects them too. It’s very disheartening. I’m currently researching ways to protect unique designs.”
But Gaia isn’t fighting these brands alone. Along with his own Tik Tok videos talking on the issue, eager customers tag him on social media when they spot counterfeit items. He then sends messages to these brands in private asking them to stop. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. However, this doesn’t deter Gaia who believes that the Mirror Palais woman knows where to find him, and his energy as a small business owner is better spent elsewhere.
Namely, in navigating how best to grow the brand sustainably. Gaia says he is speaking to retailers about possibly offering Mirror Palais in stores and moving from just direct-to-consumer. But, the process has been complicated as Gaia tries to navigate the process. “Someone always gets the short end of the stick you know. Either me the designer, or my pattern makers, or my tailors,” he explains of the expectation to move to wholesale pricing. “There’s no way to sell at a reduced price right now without undercutting someone and I would hate to do that to these people who I know and are immigrants, just like my mum was, trying to make a living for themselves and [their] families.”
Despite hiccups along the way, Marcelo Gaia is committed to building a brand that is able to navigate the industry shifts on his own terms. “I hope that the business is able to keep growing in a sustainable way,” he explains. “I want to cultivate an in-person experience at my atelier where people could come in and get custom-fitted for my pieces. You know, it used to be like that and I would love to return to that... helping people create lasting relationships with their clothes and affirming this idea that our clothes are things that we should be attached to.”