Melanie Ward

The now-widespread concept of stylist as star owes a great deal to Melanie Ward. The British-born Ward, who lives in New York, helped reinvent London street fashion in the late ’80s and early ’90s with the introduction of her idiosyncratic interpretation of grunge. Alongside photographers such as Corinne Day, Nick Knight, and David Sims, stylist Simon Foxton, and a very young Kate Moss as willing muse, Ward helped create a streetwise youth aesthetic that went on to dominate the visual landscape of the era. Ward, though, is probably best known for her work with Helmut Lang. During Ward’s 13 years as creative director at the label-then still run by Lang himself-it was almost impossible to watch the collections roll down the runway without seeing her sharp, body-conscious manner in the blueprints. While Ward would go on to work with Karl Lagerfeld and Calvin Klein, and has served as a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar for the past 15 years, it’s her definitive turn-of-this-century minimalism that has made her one of the rare specialists who can mix sexiness with militant conceptualism. So when it was announced last year that she was teaming up with knitwear designer Graham Tabor to create her own womenswear label, the fashion community wasn’t so much surprised as wondering what has taken her so long. The line, Blouson Noir, finally launches this spring, its name directly translating to “black jacket” (with a wink, perhaps, to the French blouson noir rockers of the early ’60s). While her collection shows that Ward is still a fan of tailored cuts, layering, and basics that build off each other, her celebratory uses of patterning and textiles-ethnic prints and special nylon matching raffia are prominent examples-suggest she isn’t stuck in any sort of monochrome grid. She recently visited the Interview offices and sat down with Klein to discuss her new line, her new role as a designer, and how it all stemmed from a breakup with her boyfriend.   

CALVIN KLEIN: What made you decide to start designing a collection after all this time?

MELANIE WARD: I’ve been seriously making clothes since I was a child. Maybe I haven’t discussed it with you before but, like most children, I played dress up a lot. And my mother used to have her clothes made for her, so it was in my blood to a degree. Then I came into my own during my teenage years, when punk happened. I inherited a sewing machine from my aunt and I installed it in my parents’ kitchen. Every night I first did my homework from school-because I had a very academic upbringing-and then practically moonlighted as my own personal dressmaker. I constantly made clothes. In England at that time you would buy clothes from jumble sales, which were like vintage shops, and then you’d customize everything to your own style.

KLEIN: Did you think you’d eventually end up designing?

What we were doing was really the antithesis of what was going on in fashion at the time. Everything else was maximalism-women who were very polished and untouchable and Amazonian. We were living a very different way.Melanie Ward

WARD: No. I was educated by nuns until the age of 18. I think that partly turned me into a rebel, because it was all about how to beat the system, how to customize your uniform and make it individual and -personal. I got my university degree in politics and languages, but I was constantly making clothes. So then I went to Central St. Martins for a year. And I was actually awarded best daywear for my collection. I really didn’t plan for anything to happen career-wise, it all just fell into place. I remember I met somebody at a party who loved my outfit and offered me a job as a stylist. She was going to pay me £300, which was an extraordinary amount of money for a student.

KLEIN: Was she a designer?

WARD: No, she worked for a hair-product company. I didn’t even know what a stylist was, but I did it because it was an incredible amount of money. Then I joined this agency in London, which was actually a modeling agency, but I was styling and I got picked up by Nick Knight and Simon Foxton. They really encouraged me. Then I met David Sims and Corinne Day and Kate Moss. We formed this little group of like-minded people, and we were just having fun. I was making clothes and we were photographing them. What we were doing was really the antithesis of what was going on in fashion at the time. Everything else was maximalism-women who were very polished and untouchable and Amazonian. We were living a very different way. People would pass food down to us on the fire escape and we would count our pennies to be able to afford to take -photos. Kate was our muse. She was this fresh, beautiful girl.

KLEIN: She was a waif.

WARD: Precisely. We shot images that were very raw and gritty, and they looked almost documentary. My goal was that they should look like they were wearing their own clothes. For me, it always remained much more about personal style than about fashion. What was portrayed in those early photos was very far ahead of how the kids were dressing at the time. It was a strong statement about personal style.

KLEIN: I asked if you always knew you were going to be a designer because I knew that I wanted to be one from the time I was six years old. I always had this clear path. Every choice I made was geared toward getting the knowledge and training for what I wanted to do in fashion.

WARD: Everything I do comes from my gut-and my heart. It never comes from my brain. I’m not someone who can calculate anything like that. It just happens.

KLEIN: If you didn’t have any plans for Blouson Noir, how did it first begin? Didn’t you tell me it sprung from one stretch in August when you were bored?

WARD: Well, I broke up with my boyfriend and I had all this free time. I’d been making clothes for myself, because I just wasn’t finding anything I wanted to wear. I would wear something I made out to a dinner party and every woman-and men too, actually-would say, “Oh, where’s that from?” It made me think, well, maybe I should do this with all the time on my hands without a man. Maybe I should -commercialize it and do a capsule collection. It was very organic and innocent. I called my friend Graham [Tabor], who I had worked with when I was briefly the creative director at Karl Lagerfeld. He was my knitwear consultant. I started hanging out with him and his boyfriend [Miguel Villalobos]-who is a talented artist and did all of our scarf prints. I kept buying these raw-food cakes and green juices and we’d sit out on their deck and play around with inspirations. KLEIN: But there is a side of you in the clothes I didn’t expect to see. It’s a lot more detailed. It’s not what I would call minimal, whichyou’re mostly associated with.WARD: You and I have very similar taste, Calvin. But from my childhood through my grunge years and even into the whole minimalism thing, I had a certain irreverence toward clothing. I’m not afraid to cut it
up. What has defined my aesthetic is that things should be effortless. Even the clothes with details I wanted to be very easy for women to wear.

KLEIN: Are all the clothes pieces you’d like to wear yourself?

WARD: This is the wardrobe that I want right now for next summer-yes, it’s my wardrobe. I’m the woman I’m designing for-and so are many of my friends. Everyone is complaining that they can’t find clothes because they’re either too overdesigned or everything is so poorly made. What I’ve always hated is when you see someone coming toward you and you notice their clothes before you see them. You should wear your clothes; they shouldn’t wear you. I think that’s very much your aesthetic, too.

KLEIN: I am particularly loving the leather corset. 

WARD: Everyone loves the leather. I believe that the modern woman who puts her clothes on wants to forget she’s wearing them. You want to feel fantastic, but you don’t want to be constantly reminded of the fact that you are wearing them-you don’t want to feel restricted. My choice for leather was this beautiful, buttery-soft leather, which gives you an amazing shape whether you’re flat-chested or a C-cup. Women want to feel sexy.

KLEIN: How does designing start for you?

WARD: You know better than anyone that part of it is just looking at fabrics. But also I love to shop for vintage. I can wander around for hours in stores trying on clothes, and suddenly a new proportion will interest me. It doesn’t even have to come from clothes. I can, for example, be drawn to the colors and metallics of a John Chamberlain sculpture. But for me, it’s very much about literally feeling the thing on my skin.

KLEIN: Did you know when you started your own label exactly how much you had undertaken? I started the same way that you did-by doing it all myself.

WARD: Yeah. It’s a very slow process. I did my own shipping. My business partner and I would pack the clothes. I had my mother sew the labels in our little showroom. There’s something wonderful about having done it all. I’m someone who needs to challenge myself. I’m someone who abhors mediocrity in any sense, so I needed to push myself.

KLEIN: It means something when the designer is the one talking to the clients, talking to the store, getting the message across.

WARD: It’s very true. The industry has changed so much. You can see a trend on a runway and immediately find it in the lower-priced stores. I sometimes wonder if the masses really care or appreciate the details anymore.

KLEIN: But you’re not making clothes for the masses. You’re selling to the finest stores in the world. And the people who go to those stores understand. I did jeans and underwear for the whole world because I wanted to reach a lot of people myself. But there will always be a person who wants something special from the designer who created it. That’s why I want to get back to your early years in London. Because where you started and working with David Sims-that all made you who you are today.

WARD: Absolutely! Calvin, you know I’m a really hard worker. But that doesn’t mean work has to be torture. I like to laugh. Even if you’re starving you can still laugh. Those days were amazing because it was seriously about experimentation and creativity. And, you know, Kate was the perfect muse because she has an enormous amount of style. There was never this grand plan or moneymaking scheme. We were just curious. We all were curious, and we still are.

KLEIN: Was that time so different than it is today? Obviously, you are in New York now, but was there a cultural shift or is that just the process of growing up?

WARD: I think what was interesting was that we were very much outside the system, and I do believe that we had an impact on the system from outside. Whereas now I think it’s much harder to change the system. You’ve almost got to be within the system to change it.

KLEIN: Well, you’re in the system.

WARD: I’m totally in the system. But take designers for example: Years ago, they could design a collection and it could be completely unwearable. They could mess up their production, and everyone would forgive them. Nowadays, you don’t get a second chance. It always was a business, but I think it’s become even more of a business now because it is to a degree controlled by accountants.

KLEIN: My experience has been that there are always certain editors and store people who are supportive through difficult times. It’s a tough business, but there are people who really will appreciate what you do and be there to help make it what you want it to be.

WARD: It’s true. My friends have really rallied around me. Like, for example, Inez [van Lamsweerde] and Vinoodh [Matadin] shot the look book. And Lily [Donaldson] and Freja [Beha Erichsen] modeled for it. I feel like so many people have been supportive. 

KLEIN: All you have to do is ask.

WARD: I find it quite hard to ask, actually.

KLEIN: We all do, but the truth is people want to help. People really want to see other people they love do well.

WARD: I love to see my friends succeed, I love to see anybody succeed-and that’s kind of the American way. You know what’s interesting? People ask me if I miss England. I do miss it. I’m quintessentially a European in America. But there’s something so positive about the American spirit. Americans love to see people succeed. There is a support system here.

KLEIN: Well, I always used to ask Anna Wintour, who’s a really great friend of mine, why are you here? You could do it in the U.K. But there is a spirit here. If you’re gifted and hardworking, people do help. I truly believe that. How do you feel about stylists taking your clothes and applying them in a way that you wouldn’t?

WARD: I’m excited to see what people will do with them, how they will wear them. . . . Actually, in one of the Interview pictures, the skirt wasput on backward. I haven’t told them yet [both laugh]. But, apart from the fact that it looks a little ill-fitting, I was like, You know what, thatlooks cool and if that’s how they want to interpret it, then that’s fine!KLEIN: You can always put labels inside the garment that say: BACK, FRONT.

WARD: Geoffrey Beene used to do that. Now I understand why.

KLEIN: Or how to tie things. We made clothes that are still in the archives, and sometimes I think, How the hell did we tie this? I don’t remember, and the people who were with me are gone! We would actually make drawings and diagrams that we’d ship with the clothes because they were so complicated.

WARD: A lot of Japanese designers do that. I don’t think they do it anymore, but at one point they would literally send somebody to a shoot from Comme des Garçons to help you dress the model, which was amazing. Although I don’t think that my line is that complicated!

KLEIN: Are you thinking about next season?

WARD: Obviously I’ve looked at fabrics. I’m a little late ordering them because I’ve been working to pay the bills. But, honestly, fashion is kind of my drug. I get withdrawal symptoms. I can’t just go around and not be inspired. Inspiration is everywhere. The other night,
I was ordering my steamed vegetables and I looked down at this girl who must have been a student, and she had the oddest things on. I’m really sick of platforms right now, and she was wearing the antithesis of that. Her look was so inspiring. If you don’t get out there and look around, you’re never going to progress because you don’t know what you’re questioning.