A page out of Joe’s Magazine
Acne Paper, Fall 2012
Photographer: Roe Ethridge
Stylist: Marie Chaix
Model: Karlie Kloss
Catch me on the first episode of OCTV’s “Show & Tell”
who is heeeee?!
Rhamier in Raf Simons
Martin Margiela, Winter 1997, Street Magazine Volumes 1 & 2 (1999)
Me and Martin Margiela collectible.
Kate in Paris, 1993
Go Crazy featuring Kate Moss in Helmut Lang
photography david sims hair guido palau make-up linda cantello
Melanie Ward is a blonde, angelic presence in the front row of fashion shows. She sits with the team from Harper’s Bazaar, her editorial home for the past 14 years, but it’s hard not to see Melanie as somehow separate from the pack. She is visually striking, with her long hair swept into a high pony-tail, a creamy English complexion and a look of fine imperturbability. She also wears a wonderfully droopy black trousers. I’m smitten with them. They are part of her uniform of white T-shirts and smart-looking jackets, or a stylishly adrift sweater and perhaps a pair of chunky boots. Brana Wolf, a colleague at Bazaar, likes to chide Melanie about her droopy pants. ”Melanie, they’re not chic!” Brana will say, or some-such.
Yet, on Melanie’s long fame the style looks elegant and effortless, and further, you can tell she has considered how every ripple of fabric will fall in order to achieve the right silhouette - silhouette being everything in fashion.
I was desperate to ask her where she got the pants. Conveniently, we were seated next to each other at the fall Yves Saint Laurent show in Paris. Stefano Pilati was about to send out his own droopy pants. It was to be the season of the dhoti. Well, I’m sorry, Mr. Pilati, but yours didn’t cut it. They had too much drop in the rear; the evening style grazed the ankles. They were all effort, and no chic effect. I decided to ask Melanie where she found hers.
”Oh, I made them.” she replied.
If the fashion stylist is a fairly recent phenomenon, a belnd of muse and editor with a dash of Mother Hubbard thrown in, Melanie represents the ideal. For 20 years, she has exerted a constant influence on fashion through her magazine work and her various collaborations with designers, notably Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein. Helmut used to call her the nicest pit bull he’d ever met. Nothing seems to daunt her. In fact, she could give lessions to hordes of aspiring designers in how to follow your gut and actually - well, just maybe - do something that influences fashion. In the late 80s, after graduating with honours from London University, Melanie began to mess around with clothes, buying things at local jumble sale and reconfiguring them with a sewing machine given to her by an aunt. A man’s jacket, twisted in such a way, became a dress for clubbing. In time she met the photographers David Sims and Corinne Day, also just starting out, and they, along with a 15-year-old schoolgirl named Kate Moss, began producing these amazing pictures that seem to say to fashion - big, official fashion at least - ”Fuck off! We’re having fun.” Thus the grunge movement in England emerged in a spree of dragging jeans, 1930s dresses and receveing-bin sweaters worn on bony girls. That was her idea of chic.
I caught up with Melanie in her handsome Greenwich Village loft, which she shares with her boyfriend and her beloved dogs. The place is quite masculine in tone, with black leather furniture, a sturdy dining table, many books and the building’s original industrial windows. One thing I was surprised to learn about Melanie is that she follows a holistic lifestyle, and has for years. She explained that she eats mostly raw vegetables and nuts. She produces her own nut milk and told me how this was done as we stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. We were having a cup of tea. I told her I preferred mine with milk.
” Do you mind if it’s nut milk?” she asked cheerily as she took a container from the refrigerator.
I said, ”Why not?”
Later Melanie sent me home with a chocolate mousse made with seaweed. It was delicious - different but delicious.
”When I graduated from university, I think people hoped I would go into the diplomatic corps or something,” Melanie said. ”I studied politics and languages - nothing to do with fashion. But whenever I wasn’t reading Zola or Sartre, I’d be on my aunt’s sewing machine making clothes for myself.” Her mother’s saucepans were useful for dying clothes black. Of course, it was a time of major partying in England, and Melanie went out in the clothes she made, or rather transformed, from old pieces. After university, she took design classes at Central Saint Martins.
I said that her education seemed to prepare her, if nothing else, to believe she had no boundaries. ”Oh, completely,” she said. ”That’s how I am. I’m a very no-boundaries person. That’s something that defines me.” Her parents were supportive, although it wasn’t until rock’n’roll entered Melanie’s life, briefly, that her mother finally grasped what her daughter was up to. Melanie, who had begun to work with David and Corinne, as well as the photographer Nigel Shafran, said the only styling jobs she could get in those days were with bands. She’d find herself on a train to Manchester with six clothing bags to dress some guys in a band. ”Then one day I got this booking from the Rolling Stones,” she recalled. ”I was in one of those red telephone boxes, calling my mum. She asked me what I was doing, and I said, ”Oh, I’m preparing for the Rolling Stones.” She was there with a cousin and they started screaming: ‘The Rolling Stones! That’s incredible!’ From that point, my parents understood that it was a real job.”
Money was not a driving force in those days. Melanie didn’t have access to designer clothes, and it wasn’t really her sensibility, all those aggressive pantomimes of women. This was the era of Jean Paul Gaultier and Claude Montana in Paris, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood in London. Instead, Melanie would go to Portobello Market, buy a bag of old clothes and customise them. ”It was just all about creating and having fun with your friends” she said.
Grunge had roots in America, in Seattle, with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, among other bands. England, though, had magazines like The Face and i-D, and the way they captured the post-punk youth culture was enourmously influential, in time, for mainstream fashion.
Melanie was brought to the attention of Calvin Klein by the American-born art director Ronnie Cooke Newhouse, who had been a founder of Details magazine. And, of course, Marc Jacobs, in the early 90s, did his famous grunge collection for Perry Ellis. Fashion seemd very different from today. As Melanie points out, ”When we started the whole grunge thing, David and Corinne and I were completely outside of the industry. I normally feel it’s easier to change things when you’re inside the system, but we were on the outside. We were shooting grainy, gritty black and white. And I wanted the girls and the guys to look as if they were wearing their own clothes. I didn’t iron the clothes. It was all very personal and effortless and cool.” There was also a great sense of things being handcrafted. Melanie was obsessed with hipbones and an almost insect-like body. ”The jeans or the pants had to hang off the hips,” she said, touching her hips for effect. ”Nobody made hipster jeans in those days, so I would buy a pair of jeans, cut the crotch and insert a little piece so you could pull them down. Even when we worked for Calvin, we custumised those jeans. I greased them down, I sanded them. I had a whole team of people greasing and sanding.”
One person following Melanie’s stories was Helmut Lang, who was then living in Vienna. He wrote her a letter, but apparently sent it to the wrong magazine - Melanie never got it. Later, he got in touch with her again and they arranged to meet at the Café de Flore in Paris, in 1992. Helmut had already established himself a force. His clothes, and the way he presented them - on a minimal runway, with men and women, some of whom were friends from Vienna - had an opaqueness and sexual tension that was new and, unlike grunge, very grown up. Melanie herself was making the transition to a highly influential and seriously scrutinised world. The days of scraping together a look, and the romance of that, were over.
Melanie spent the next 13 years working with Helmut. ”Our tastes were so similar that I ended up designing the women’s collections,” she said. Seeing my look of surprise, she added: ”Not many people know that, I guess. I’m vary hands-on. I’d say, ‘Oh, let’s do this,’ It just gradually progressed so that he was pretty much designing men’s and I was designing women’s. He trusted me. He liked the woman I represented, a cool English girl who wasn’t specifically interested in fashion. I’m kind of a conundrum, a person who’s as much a designer as a stylist. I see myself going in that direction more and more.”
Her collaboration with Helmut lasted until the end, and led straight to her next job. ”We started to work together in 1992, and we stopped when Helmut retired,” she said. ”I worked with him for 13 years. Literally, I was in the factory in Italy, finishing off some stuff, when Karl Lagerfeld called me and asked if I would be interested in meeting him and discussing this project he was starting. We literally hit the ground running.”
But this next design gig was short-lived - she was creative director of Karl Lagerfeld’s new line for only one season before its corporate owner Tommy Hilfiger, abruptly pulled the plug, only to re-start it with a different team from Europe.
Many people liked the dark, austerely romantic look Melanie produced for Lagerfeld for autumn/winter 2006, which they showed at New York fashion week, so she didn’t see the sudden end coming at all. ”It was such a shame. We had an amazing team. I was in a fitting when I got the call.” Recently she designed some cashmere knits for TSE. She wants to do more designing, maybe work on a holistic project with fragnances. She’s obsessed with aromatherapy oils.
”I still make clothes for myself,” she said. ”I’m making them more and more. Someday I’m going to commercialise them.”
”But you know so much more about designing now, I can’t imagine you’d do anything too fashionable.” I said, Melanie nodded. ”It just seems pointless now,” she said. ”I really don’t want to design a three-legged pant. I want to design a pant that I and my friends would want to wear.” She was wearing a loose black cotton jumpsuit, which she had belted over a white T-shirt, the neck slightly pulled. I wondered if the jumpsuit was something she had made.
”It’s vintage,” she said casually. ”I shop mostly in vintage stores. Maybe I’ll find something and than I’ll have it tailored to me. If I buy something from a designer, I have to chane it. It’s because I’m obsessed with proportions. The belt that I’m wearing is Azzedine. I love Azzedine! I do love really timeless things. I’ve got the to feel good in my skin. I’m a real T-shirt girl, actually. I have a gazillion of them. I also love a vintage Hermès bag. I guess that’s a weakness of mine.”
There in her loft, with our mugs in front of us, Melanie’s words made her seem restless but not unhappy. Maybe because of her upbringing she’s not the type to show pessimism. But while it’s true that many stylists and photographers of her day have prospered, with retainers of all kinds, the magazine business today is tough. Also, stylists and designers don’t seem to have the exclusive relationships they have once had. ”The role of a stylist is very different,” she admitted. ”Obviously for a magazine to survive you need advertising, and rightly so one photographs the advertisers’ clothes. But there are times when it seriously feels ‘right off the racks onto backs’. And then the designer often wants you to shoot the whole look, even with the shoes. I don’t really have an issue with that. I looked at her, ”Really? Isn’t that limiting?” She smiled mildly. ”It’s their prerogative. Even when I’m doing a total-look piece, I’ve always got a character in mind. Maybe my role then is to work closely with the photographer and really invent this character. I just did this shoot where the caracter I worked with was the woman in Last Tango In Paris - naked except for a scarf and jeans. Sure, it’s shooting advertisers’ clothes, but I was thinking about her sense of freedom.
Melanie paused for a moment. She went on. ”It’s quite interesting, really. When I first moved to America, you could shoot just one nipple - just one. Now you can’t show any nipples. The magazine would be taken off the shelves at Wal-Mart.”
To have seen, in the space of 20 short years, the free world go from being enthralled by English waifs with feathers in their hair to being scandalised by a nipple is a pretty awesome perspective, you must admit.
Then again, Melanie has any number of ways to express herself - and that, too, in a way, describes fashion nowadays. A while back she stood under the famous Hollywood sign, styling a Harlow like Claudia Schiffer for the spring Yves Saint Laurent campaign, photographed by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. For most of the images, she is under the ‘Y’. The ads are pure glamour.
”When I started there were no rules, no boundaries,” Melanie reflected. ”I did anything I wanted. Now, increasingly, the world is controlled by accountants - and it’s not just the fashion world. It’s entertainment and the media, too. People are so afraid to take risks. But there’s no point bitching about it,” she said, much more upbeat. ”At the end of the day it’s about coming up with an image of which you are proud.”