I don’t know that I have a sense of style, which may be a style in itself. I’m not sure. I often don’t match. I wear white when I shouldn’t. I wear black mostly. I wear stripes on stripes, and at all different sizes. Ultimately, my goal is comfort. The result is sometimes I look like a bag lady. Somehow, I’ve made it work for me.
My friend Aimee owns a boutique in Winter Park called Ginger. One day while I was visiting her, I noticed this rack of mismatched clothes in the back. Naturally, I gravitated towards it. There, I found dresses made of old concert T-shirts, men’s clothing and vintage-looking materials.
“Oh my gosh. I love this stuff. Who makes it?” I asked Aimee. I was expecting her to say a name I didn’t know, thinking it was a designer from some place far away. Fashion designers seem so out of reach to me.
“That’s Melissa from Raw Materials,” Aimee answered. “Aren’t those dresses cute? She takes old clothes and turns them into something new. You’d really like her.”
I wanted to buy everything off the rack, except for I was unsure of how the dresses would fit. I never try on clothes before I buy them, but Casey does. She can try any outfit on and within seconds tell me if I’d like it or not. So I made her try on every dress for me as I tried to think of a way to justify such purchases. Then Aimee told me what I needed to hear.
“You know she’s local, right? She could do a fitting for you, or even make you your own dress.” And that’s when it clicked for me.
“Really? Do you think she’d make me a dress for my book signing,” I asked. Every woman will find a way to justify any purchase if you give her enough time.
“She totally would!”
And that’s how I came to know Melissa. Aimee set us up one night before her store closed. We began exchanging our life stories right upon meeting. And based on that conversation, she designed me a dress that I love.
That’s why I had to do this interview. I can’t help but want to share her story with the world.
Jana: How did you get into fashion?
Melissa: I’ve always had an interest in fashion. I’ve always mixed up my clothes and tried new styles, but I was a graphic designer when I realized that I wanted to do something totally different. It was after my second child. I was a stay at home mom before that. I had an interest in taking things that nobody wanted and making them into something new. And I wanted something socially conscious and environmentally friendly. So I took all those things and mixed them together—and that’s how I got into fashion.
How old were you at that time?
I was thirty-seven, thirty-eight?
Oh, wow. So it’s something that came to you a little bit later in life?
You never thought about it while you were younger?
No. It came completely out of the blue. I also paint. And I had thought to myself that I wanted to be a painter. So I had a hunch about painting later in life. The clothing thing came as a total surprise to me.
Yeah. It’s not something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s not something that I even dreamed of doing because I never went to school for it.
So what happened? One day you picked up some clothes and had a moment?
Yeah. One day, I took some clothes a part. Then I started piecing them back together and making new designs out of it. And that was it.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Fabrics inspire me a lot. I also think all women are beautiful in their own unique way. When I look at someone, I see a canvas. I try to design for that person by how they inspire me. So everyone is different.
When someone comes to me with a challenge, or something they don’t like, or something they love, I can tailor it to that person. I try to find out what the person likes, what her favorite colors are, what kind of hobbies they have and incorporate all that into the design. It’s kind of like what I did with graphic design and ads. People are like walking ads, or walking pieces of art.
Who discovered you? And who encouraged you to try out for Project Runway?
First, I started putting clothes together. Then I got to wondering what people thought. So I got a little focus group together over some wine. It was everyone from a twenty-five year old L.A. stylist to a fifty-something Winter Park socialite, and everybody in between. I asked, “What do you think?” All of sudden, people started taking off their clothes in my dining room and trying on all the stuff. They shoved money at me and walked out with over half of my closet. I hadn’t intended for anyone to buy anything, but they loved it so much that they did.
From then, a good girlfriend of mine, said, “I saw this contest and you have to enter!” I was really shy about it and unsure of myself. It was also in five days. I was like, “No way.” First of all, I needed to design a collection in five days to take to Miami. Then, I was going to be up against people that went to school for this. So I was against it. She was persistent. She was very persistent. She drove me down there. I got to the semi-finals.
There were 300-400 people applying that had gone to school and had their own lines and shops, or whatever. The editors of Elle saw my stuff and liked it. They helped push me past the other people all the way up to the semi-finals. Three people were actually picked from my group to be on the show, the very first show.
People ask me if I’ll ever try out again. You know, I don’t think so. It served its purpose. I was so unsure of myself back then. And when I heard that the editors of Elle loved my stuff, it was enough inspiration for me to come back and pursue it.
Do you think making it onto Project Runway would have changed your career?
It may have. I like growing at the pace that I’m growing at because I do a lot of other things, like painting and graphic design and raising my two children. I’ve been approached many times about growing and mass-producing. I’ve thought about it. But every time I pursued it, it took the love of it away from me and it became a business, a chore. I do plan to put together a plan and market it to investors, but I need to stay true to me and true to my own heart.
The unique thing about your clothing is each piece is hand sewn and different from another. Do you think this helps or hurts your business?
It probably does hurt my business in a way, but it helps me. I may not be a millionaire any time soon, but right now I’m really happy doing it. I tried it the other way. I tried to have tons of boutiques and do tons of appearances—I tend to do what people like. When you mass-produce the goal is to make your business money instead of being true to what the piece is.
Do you ever make replicas?
Yeah. It’s never exact, but I’ll go back to my old designs. I have a couple signature things I do that no one else has, like different sleeve treatments and different backs. I think you can tell when it’s a Raw Materials piece.
Do you watch Project Runway now?
Who are you rooting for this season?
I don’t think I have a favorite this season. I just enjoy watching them all. The quality of designers gets so much better every season.
Why is it important for you to incorporate vintage clothes into your design?
It’s a socially conscious and environmentally friendly attitude. I love an underdog. I like to take something that nobody wants, the ugliest piece of clothing I can find, and turn it into something beautiful. It makes me smile when I think about a cocktail dress, worn to a gala where there are 2000-dollar dresses present, made from a pair of office pants from the ‘70’s, and it looks fantastic. It’s taking that forgotten piece, like a men’s pant or office shirt, a piece that’s lost its soul, and giving it a new life. It really appeals to me. It cracks me up, too. [Laughs]
What thrift stores do you frequent?
There is one on Edgewater Drive—I think it’s called Family Thrift—but they have a Wednesday special that if you buy one piece you get two pieces free. So not only is it inexpensive, it’s a super-sale on Wednesdays! You get great deals shopping in a thrift store. I know about every thrift store in the Orlando area.
Roughly, how much do you spend on materials during on of those shopping sprees?
Let’s see … I try to keep it to a minimum. I shop by project now. I have oodles of material. I probably have every fabric in every color I’d ever need. But, like, for your piece, I went out and bought some special pieces. I could spend a lot of money in a thrift store and get my self in deep, deep trouble.
What’s a lot in a thrift store? Fifty dollars?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Fifty dollars is a lot to spend in a thrift store.
What’s your favorite city to shop in?
It’s Orlando, of course. I’ve shopped in many cities, and abroad, but I’m comfortable here. Probably because I’ve shopped these thrift stores for so long that I know them like the back of my hand. There’s just comfort here. A lot of times now, I’m given clothing. People aren’t throwing away their old clothes. They’re giving them to me.
How does Orlando influence your style?
I think there is such a great mixture of people here. I’m from up north. When I first moved here, I was like, Orlando? But now with the arts, the culture, the activity—everyone has their own little, cool sense of style. People who put their own stuff together, and have a sense of style, really inspire me. I think Orlando has characters, literally characters. You can tell this by the way they dress. I mean, no one looks like New Yorkers. In Orlando, there is one from every bunch.
That’s true. [Laughs] Because you’re in the fashion industry, do you feel like you have to be dressed to the nines all the time?
Yes! I swear every time I throw on sweat pants and go somewhere I run into one of my clients. I’m so mortified that I’m not wearing my stuff. When I go out of town, like to visit a friend, I love taking all my Target specials with me. It’s so relaxing to just throw them in the suitcase. [Laughs] So yeah, I do feel the pressure.
How do you know what’s trendy?
I don’t follow the trends. One of the greatest things about my cliental is that it’s all ages. I think once you become a woman of a certain age, you have an innate sense of style that you can’t get when you’re young because you’re just too busy following the trends. Women that have been through the years and that have learned her life lessons, knows what looks good on her body, knows what her colors, and knows what she’s comfortable with. I’ve watched many people become “hipper” since I’ve started dressing them.
What designers are killing it right now?
I think any designer that has his/her line in Target right now are the ones that are killing it. They have recognized the idea that people want affordable fashion. So anyone who can get off their high-horse and create an affordable line will continue to do well in the future.
Are you a rule follower or rule breaker?
A rule … breaker. And unfortunately I’m raising two other rule breakers. [Laughs] Or should I say respectful rule breakers that question authority.
What kind of models do you prefer for your runway shows?
I had the privileged of having everyday women in my last fashion show, and it was phenomenal. I had a choreographer and all the women danced, based on the emotions of women. People said it was like a New York show. It had women of all different sizes and all different ages that are comfortable with who they are.
What are you trying to express on the runway?
I’m trying to express that every woman is like a work of art. We are all different. That’s why I like to make such different pieces. I think every woman deserves a piece that is unique, just like her.
Who’s been your most famous client?
My most famous client? I don’t know that I have a famous client. [Thinks] Somebody sent one of my pieces to Jada Pinkett Smith. I don’t know if she’s ever worn it. But somebody bought somebody a piece for Jada Pinkett Smith, supposedly.
How does someone become a client of yours?
Call me, or email me. Anyone can be a client!
What’s the average turn around for a piece?
Right now, three to four weeks. But I can step it up if I need to, like if there’s an event or something Generally, I like to take my time.
What’s next? Do you have any upcoming shows?
I have an upcoming trunk show at Ginger’s. Something I’ve wanted to do is start a line called, Mama Mia, which is my little girl’s name. It’d be a mother daughter line, not too matchy-matchy, but a Raw Material-ized type of thing. I might roll that out this spring or summer.
You’re like Orlando’s best-kept secret. Why haven’t you blown up yet?
I’m a mystery. Still a best-kept secret. I’ve had to take care of some personal things and get my family unit in order. I feel now I’m ready and open for it when I was not before. I’ll be ready very soon. I’m glad that I’ve had the journey that I’ve had because I would have missed some very important things if I would have blown up any sooner, then what’s been given to me. So I look forward to blowing up … and I hope I do. [Laughs]
* Interview date: 3/2/2010
Email Melissa at email@example.com or keep up with her work by visiting her website www.rawmaterialsbymelissa.com.