A visit to Salisbury Boutique last year first alerted us to Melanie Child’s upcycled fashion label which focusses on tailoring with a unique twist. Somehow, her incredible talent had flown under our radar! We were immediately seduced by her irresistible streetwear and it was inevitable that we would walk out of the shop with one of her sweater dresses. After recently returning from showing at ‘NZ Eco Fashion Week Exposed’ in Lower Hutt, Melanie kindly allowed us to interview her.
You grew up in Christchurch but moved to Dunedin to study at the Otago Polytechnic. What made you choose to study fashion/design here?
I moved to Christchurch at 14 from Blenheim, so spent most of my teenage years there. A combination of reasons really! I felt flat and uninspired in Christchurch.
I have always been drawn to Dunedin because my parents grew up here with their families, so we spent many a Christmas holiday in Dunedin. There’s something about the architecture, the geography and the creative atmosphere that I love. Also, I had been recommended Otago Polytechnic’s School of Fashion by several people. Dunedin suits me! It can be dark and moody but full of diversity and creative minds.
Part way through your studies, you realised your heart wasn’t in creating garments from new material. Instead, you moved towards creating upcycled garments. How would you define ‘upcycled’?
It is the process of reusing objects or materials to create an item of higher value or quality than the original. In my context, it involves taking garments that are either out of fashion or just unwanted and deconstructing then reconstructing them into contemporary edgy pieces that the wearer will wear for many seasons.
What is your philosophy behind producing this type of clothing?
I believe that we live in a world that is saturated with mass production and consumption. Instead of adding to it I choose to use what is already there – my philosophy is to not use anything new where possible. I have a bit of a simultaneous aversion and fascination to mass production and its by-products. The sheer scale of production today is incredible, which inevitably creates a huge amount of pre- and post-consumer waste. Textiles account for approximately 4% of total landfill waste in NZ. I focus more on post consumer waste because I am very inspired by the potential and challenge of creating new items out of existing structures.
What was it like to be a finalist in the iD International Emerging Designer Awards in 2010 and was this also a collection of upcycled pieces?
I loved it. It was my first big show, and to showcase my work among some of the top emerging designer graduates from around the world was a huge achievement! It was a great platform for exposure after coming straight out of Fashion School. I showed my graduate collection ‘Manufractured’, which focussed on banal, everyday objects that most people consider to be worthless, using them as embellishments on the garments to create high-end couture pieces. I used modal as the background fabric, and attached the materials (continual zippers, buttons, curtain hooks, beer tabs and old vinyl records) to an upholstery grade hemp as the ‘canvas’. The collection took on a sort of work of art theme, but still wearable, as I likened each garment to a piece of art that someone would collect and keep for years.
How have your designs evolved since graduating?
I’ve become a lot more commercial and refined in my approach. There’s a lot more of an allowance for absolute creativity and ambitious design when you’re studying at Fashion School. I designed garments for the runway then, but when I started my label and began to sell things I realised that I needed to make clothing that people would actually wear in their everyday lives.
Where do you look for your materials? How do you decide whether a garment is worthy of upcycling?
I source from a variety of places around Dunedin: namely opshops like Toffs and ReStore, and I also have a rapport with Shop on Carroll and their clothing warehouse, as they sponsored me during my final year of study. I also frequent the tip shops in town and Green Island, and lately I have been getting donations from people who know what I do, which is great! There are so many things that influence my decisions! I have to be picky because I am very much about retaining high quality and craftsmanship. I am usually drawn to the quality of fabric first – cotton, wool, merino, denim are the things I look out for the most … whether the garment has a lot of stains or just one … how pilled it is etc … how much work it will be for me to restore it. I tend to use menswear over womenswear because the fabrics are generally more natural, sturdy and without as many patterns and details. I like the simple tailoring of menswear – it reflects very well into my aesthetic. I also love stark colours like black, white and grey. You can usually find me in any of these sections in the opshops!
Do you start with an idea of something you want to make or does a found garment drive your inspiration?
A bit of both. I will sometimes reconstruct a garment in my head and then drape it on a dress form from there. Other times it is not until I have the physical item in my hands and I begin playing around with it and let it do what it wants that the idea forms. I definitely think three dimensionally though, I do make flat patterns for some of my pieces but I sort of work backwards with them, i.e. construct the toile first then take a pattern from it to reproduce.
We understand that you’re influenced by Belgian designer Martin Margiela’s upcycled Artisanal collections which are quite out there. For example, a waistcoat made out of playing cards, a dress made out of vinyl records etc. Can you envisige creating more-extreme designs like these?
Margiela was the first designer I stumbled across who reconstructed objects into couture that inspired me to focus on upcycling. I used vinyl records in my graduate collection actually! One off couture is my main passion. If I could afford to, I would spend hours making labour-intensive pieces! But it doesn’t pay the bills for me at this stage … so for now I focus on streetwear that is thought provoking and sculptural with a dark edge. I do have a cache of found objects (jigsaw pieces, size tags off hangers, toy soldiers) in my studio that I am planning on making garments out of one day. I also have an upcoming collaboration with someone for the World of Wearable Arts competition which will be an outlet for my more extravagant creative side though!
Are there any other designers or other members of the fashion industry who you admire and why?
Alexander McQueen for his incredible couture. Ann Demeulemeester – one of the Antwerp six. I love her monochromatic, androgenous, deconstructed aesthetic. From Somewhere – pioneering upcycled designers who focus on pre-consumer waste. And of course iconic Dunedin label Nom*d – I love their dark, moody aesthetic that reflects the variety of subcultures in Dunedin, and the use of reworked vintage garments within their ranges.
Is there anybody, celebrity or otherwise, who you would like to see wearing one of your pieces?
I’d love to see someone with eclectic style like Chloe Sevigny or Alexa Chung wearing Melanie Child couture, as well as Livia Firth (Colin Firth’s wife) as she is a passionate advocate of sustainable fashion and has frequented the red carpet in recycled outfits. And I have to say I would love to see Lorde in my streetwear! She is a very influential figure at the moment, very now and still maintains her own individual style despite being one of the most famous teenagers in the world.
You have just shown at ‘NZ Eco Fashion Week Exposed’ in Lower Hutt. Tell us something about the experience.
Meeting all of the other designers was definitely a highlight. Eco Fashion is still very much a niche in New Zealand so being able to network with other like-minded designers was very refreshing and inspiring! And my sister Steph, who came up as my assistant, got to have a last minute runway debut! There were a couple of model injuries so she got to fill in during the finale … so that was a proud moment. She is also the face of the last two Melanie Child collections. I also used upcycled jewellery label ‘Romance Rewound, Steampunk Jewellery’ with my collection on the runway, which was very kind of the designers and looked great with my garments. It was amazing to have an eco jewellery label to complement my clothing.
Apart from your online store, where else can we find your pieces in Dunedin?
I am currently stocked in Salisbury Boutique, and possibly another stockist here in Dunedin soon. I have just been added to the NZ Eco Boutique online store, and am planning to sell through independent fashion platform ‘Not Just A Label’, where I have a designer profile.
Are you planning to expand to shops around New Zealand?
Yes! That is the next step in developing my label. I am currently working on this after returning from Eco Fashion Week. I am aiming to gain another 3-4 stockists in the next year or so. I am taking the slow and steady approach so that I don’t fall short with the sourcing of my materials – it can be quite difficult sourcing multiples of the same garment depending on the season, so I would like to grow gradually to keep up.
Tell us about your upcoming spring/summer 2014/15 collection and when will it go online?
S/S 14/15 is a capsule collection entitled ‘Inertia’. It is a reference to the current state of the fashion industry and the unsustainable practices of the fast fashion cycle, and our tendency to do nothing or remain unchanged unless pushed. Fast fashion encourages the exploitation of workers, unfair working conditions and environmental pollution … think Rana Plaza, child labour etc. High turnover of four seasonal collections also creates ‘disposable’ garments, which are designed to be discarded at the end of the season in favour of the next. The ‘Inertia’ range uses asymmetry, line and repetition of details to create a striking, edgy collection out of second hand and discarded garments. I just showed it within my 10-piece collection at NZEFW, so I reckon I will release it once this article is published!
Where do you see your label in five years’ time?
I see Melanie Child employing a small team of dedicated individuals, ranging from local outworkers to new graduates. I want my business to support local economy and talent. The label will be stocked nationwide in selected boutiques, with a growing international presence. I want to see Melanie Child sitting alongside mainstream labels, because I believe that eco fashion should still have a high element of design and customers should be attracted to the aesthetic and style, not just the ethics behind the brand. Hopefully I will be totally self supporting in five years time too – I want to support myself and my family doing something that I am passionate about.
Thanks so much Melanie! This has been a fascinating insight into your work processes. Your sister Steph makes a stunning model, stunningly photographed by you. Can’t wait to get our hands on another of your inspirational pieces!