6 Lessons From a London Fashion Legend on Building a Cult Brand

Melanie Ward ushered in a new mood of raw imagery in the 1990s, helping to build some of the era's most iconic brands, including Helmut Lang and Calvin Klein.
6 Lessons From a London Fashion Legend on Building a Cult Brand
Image credit: Helmut Lang's Spring/Summer 2002 campaign, featuring Anthony, Leslie and Melanie Ward photographed by Anthony Ward | Source: Courtesy of Anthony Ward
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“I remember once Guido [Palau] and I were flying to New York first class and someone saw us and wrote that you would have given us a wide berth,” says Melanie Ward, the British stylist who rose to fame in the late '80s as the prophetess of raw, gritty fashion imagery. “It was all quite manicured. Once on the flight, I was in my cashmere sweater (because even then I liked a little bit of luxury); I had sanded the sleeves to get holes in the elbows, and this gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know if you realize you’ve got a hole in your elbow.’ No one really understood what we were doing.”

Back then, Ward’s look couldn’t have been further from the gold-buttoned, gaudily hued outfits of the era’s fashion editors, known for their photogenic haircuts and high-octane glamour. Instead, she favoured slightly tattered-looking second-hand clothes, like sailor pants and khaki army greatcoats, that she would customize, dye and tailor herself. Today, she’s much more polished with an air of restrained subtlety, dressed in soft, tailored trousers, a luxe knit, minimal makeup and tight ponytail.

Ward started out in London in the late '80s, at the height of the Thatcherite government and the subcultural currents that rebelled against it. Together with her photographer friends -- Corinne Day, Nigel Shafran, David SimsGlen Luchford and Donald Christie -- she began by staging impecunious shoots that might involve asking an old lady at a shopping centre to wear a leopard-print fur coat, or making a daisy-chain necklace for a giggly unknown model called Kate Moss. “I was making a lot of clothes,” says Ward, who studied politics and languages at London University before enrolling at Central Saint Martins for a year-long design course. “I was making a lot of things, and changing things; I wanted the clothes to look like the person owned them as opposed to this sort of ‘fashion’ image.”

Related: Kate Moss's Top 5 Tips For Building a Modelling Career

Just as the Youthquake of the 1960s shocked the establishment by photographing free-spirited models like Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy rebelling against the couture-clad froideur of previous decade, Ward and her collaborators went to second-hand and Army surplus shops. They customized garments, which were often unironed and slightly tattered, and they were more interested in models with flawed skin and natural hair as an antidote to the Amazonian perfection of Linda, Christy, Claudia et al. and the superstar photographers who shot them with high-gloss and saturated colour.

However, unlike the youthful experimental fashion of the '60s, which has been somewhat renegaded to trend fodder, the gritty look of Ward’s early work has an untraceable, timeless quality. It can often be found on the mood boards in designers’ studios or on the countless Instagram and Tumblr accounts that find perennial inspiration in the raw "realism" that is central to its appeal. “I feel like that whole movement was about effortless dressing,” she explains. “It still seems so appropriate for now.”

The look resonated with designers, and soon Calvin KleinJil Sander and Helmut Lang, who was still based in Vienna at the time, came calling. “Calvin is the most genius branding person ever,” says Ward, who, along with Kate Moss, David Sims, Guido Palau and Dick Page, was flown out to New York to shoot a campaign. “I remember on the job it was like, 'I don’t really like these jeans.' So I got these men’s black jeans, pulled them on her hips, made a little crutch, lifted it all up, and she [Kate Moss] was all our little rock chick in skinny black jeans,” she remembers. “You’ve got to remember people were just wearing baggy, blue jeans back then, so even Calvin took a risk on us doing that.”

Her partnership with Lang, which began in 1992 after they met at the Café de Flore in Paris, ushered in the zeitgeist of lo-fi luxe with white-spaced shows of models of both genders and all ages, walking fast in clean-cut, flat-fronted tailoring, layered cotton tanks and sheer tees, utility-luxe parkas and techno-fabric flou dresses that were bold and grown-up (rather than fragile and grungy). It is epitomised by the word cool and, in hindsight, it lent an air of polish to underground references, echoing the transition of Ward into a much more serious tier, where scraping together a look would be impossible. By 1998, Ward was working exclusively with Lang (much to the chagrin of Klein and Sander) and the brand had relocated to New York. Over 1,000 yellow cabs congested Manhattan streets with "HELMUT LANG" lettered across their roofs, without even a picture needed to convey its appeal. The branding was so powerful that it even enabled the Austrian designer to launch a fragrance on the internet in 2000. “I’ve never met anyone who had such similar taste to me,” says Ward. “They used to call me the female Helmut -- we both have rarefied taste with a hint of the raw. I remember he would go to a furniture store and they would say, ‘Melanie’s already bought it!’ and vice versa with me.”

In the mid-'90s, Ward’s work for Jil Sander also caught the eye of Liz Tilberis, the British-born editor of U.S. Harper’s Bazaar, who persuaded Ward to become the “naughty girl” of the magazine. Initially, Ward was hesitant and declined the offer of a job. “She said, ‘What if you just go on the masthead? You don’t have to come into the office, you just do X amount of stories a year for me, you come to the shows with me and you drive around in a black car,’ and I thought, ‘Well, I suppose I could give it a try!’” Her time as senior fashion editor at the magazine resulted in plenty of memorable images, lensed by Inez & Vinoodh, Patrick Demarchelier and David Sims. “I’ve been everything really,” says Ward. “I’ve been a creative director, I’ve been a muse, I’ve been a stylist, but I actually feel that I’m more interested in style than trends because they’re just so fleeting, and if you look back at trends, I mean, I don’t feel like they’re very lasting."

“I know Anna Wintour hates the word, but I’m passionate about brands,” Ward laughs. “I love brand building and finding the DNA. Sometimes I think I should be famous for the things I’ve turned down!” Today, she acts as a stylist and consultant, and has been working closely with Nadège Vanhee-Cynbulski at Hermès, as well as Rag & Bone and Peter Pilotto. As a consultant, she advises designers on more than just the fit of clothes or accessories they should be paired with.

Here, she offers her essential advice for building powerful fashion brands.

1. Hire someone who can cut a pair of pants.

For Ward, the pressures on designers have never been greater than today. “Everyone is so impatient now,” she says. “We’ve got something like an eight-second attention span. Back in the day, when I was a kid, you could design a collection and not deliver it -- I think John [Galliano] and Hussein [Chalayan] did that once -- and now the industry just doesn’t have patience for that anymore.”

Although certain values of the industry may have shifted, Ward is also keen to emphasise that fashion has always first and foremost been about the clothes -- and can’t exist in a show or social media vacuum. “A problem I see often is that someone will be hired just because they’ve got a lot of Instagram followers,” she adds. “Don’t just hire them for that reason; hire them because they can cut a pair of pants. I’m obsessed about fitting because I spent so much time fitting clothes and [brands] need help -- they need help to learn that."

“At the end of the day what matters is someone going into a shop and finding a product that they want to buy and that makes them feel good about themselves,” she continues. “I truly feel that the most important thing is to feel comfortable in your skin.”

Ward’s aphorisms are echoed by her own personal style. “When you put on something by Azzedine [Alaïa] or some old Helmut [Lang], you feel good in your skin. I don’t want to look like I’m a Noguchi lamp; I just want to put my clothes on and go out of the door. Fashion is a creative exercise, but at the end of the day people want to wear the clothes. They can’t just exist in a gallery, and my personal take is that if I want to go to the theatre or see a movie, I’ll go to the theatre or the cinema.”

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2. Be inspired, but make it your own.

Every creative lays claim to inspiration, however, according to Ward, the key is to put just as much of yourself in as you take from elsewhere. “Reference, but twist it somehow,” is her advice. “I’m the first person to go to a vintage store and pull a bunch of stuff and cut it all up and re-proportion it. The most important thing is to make it my own. Where it goes wrong is when people just lift something and what’s missing is putting a little of themselves in.”

In the early '90s, when Ward helped usher in a raw "realism" into editorials and advertising, countless stylists and photographers attempted to emulate the look. “They just didn’t understand it, because it was just the antithesis of what the norm and the tradition was and the codes were just so different,” she says. “When you’re not just looking at a reference and it’s instinctual, it never looks contrived, but if you overthink it, it’s too much.”

Much of Ward’s early work, as well that of her collaborators, has gone digitally undocumented due to the absence of the internet at the time. It can often transpire that those unexposed images are plundered from with no nod to the originators. “People are hyper aware when it’s not coming from [your] gut. It’s because they’re not making it their own. Whatever you’re doing, whether you’re working on an image or you’re working on clothing or branding, it’s always most successful if you put yourself into it.”

3. Embrace mistakes.

“Creativity happens in a moment,” says Ward. “People are so afraid to push themselves and afraid to be judged, but my honest belief is that the only way that you move forward and learn is by making mistakes. We work in a creative industry and unless you make a mistake -- I’m not saying that I’m out there to make mistakes when I’m working with clients -- but editorially, if you don’t make mistakes, you can’t be free.”

Ward recalls a number of risks that resulted in game-changing fashion moments, from Calvin Klein bringing her to New York to work on his iconic advertising, to Helmut Lang challenging the sacrosanct fashion system by first showing his Autumn/Winter '98 collection on a CD-ROM and the internet, later reasoning that it allowed his customer “an unfiltered view” of his work.

For Klein, Ward became a part of a new generation of image-makers to propel the brand, including David Sims, Kate Moss and Guido Palau. It was a risk for a multi-million dollar business, but one that paid off and launched the careers of those involved along with a whole new style of advertising and fashion imagery.

Later that decade, when Lang embraced the digital presentation of his collection in 1998, the response was also unexpected. “People were so upset with us that we didn’t do a show because they wanted to have the show experience,” Ward recalls,“but again, it was not being afraid to push boundaries.”

4. A little bit of ego is essential.

Before enrolling for a year-long course at Saint Martins, Ward studied politics and languages at London University, which would later become useful in understanding the dynamics of hierarchy and collaboration. “I have to be such a diplomat in my job. I remember [at university] I would have to read a lot about Machiavellian plots, and I see a lot of that in fashion,” she laughs. “Try and keep out of it, but we do see that, especially nowadays, right?

“Essentially, it’s about brands. You’re a brand, I’m a brand, and it’s a certain DNA that you build,” she explains. “A little ego is super important and very healthy, but an overblown ego is very self-sabotaging and works against any kind of collaboration.” As a stylist and consultant, she is conscious that a client is hiring her to work for them. “It can’t become about you; it should be about the brand, it should be about their man or woman.”

5. You’ve got a second to stop someone in their tracks.

Ward is known for creating arresting images, from Kate Moss photographed by Corinne Day for The Face to Claudia Schiffer under the "Y" of the Hollywood sign for Yves Saint Laurent. Today, she says that the medium has changed and therefore requires stronger, more impactful imagery. “Back in the day it was all about what magazine you were working for and what editorial you did and how it would appear on the pages and the printing and layout,” she says. “Now, everything is reduced to a small square. Instagram reaches a bigger audience than most of those magazines and that’s incredible, but we shouldn’t forget that content is still really important.”

The risk is, she says, that it all looks like it’s been “thrown together.” “At the end of the day, who is your woman, who’s your man, and what is that content? Years ago, people would linger over your ad in a magazine. Now you really only have a couple of seconds to get that message across. There’s got to be some kind of arresting message: something that is going to make someone stop.”

6. New is the opposite of original.

The fashion industry is saturated with an increasing number of brands, all eager to carve out a unique identity. However, Ward argues that the desire to generate a sense of newness can result in a homogenised aesthetic.

Related: Guido Palau, an Eye in the Fashion Week Hurricane

“A lot of brands want something new and different, but what they’re buying into is complete inexperience and they’re ignoring the roots of their DNA,” she explains. “What they’re getting is something that looks like everyone else and in these times that’s the last thing you should want. When you’ve only got a few seconds for people to look at what you’re showing them, why look like everyone else?” For her, the restrictions of a brand’s ethos are a welcome challenge. “The advice that I give young designers is to find your woman or man and stick to that. Don’t be so schizophrenic!”

“If I was designing my own collection, which I did with a capsule a few years ago, that’s my brand and it’s me,” she says. “If you’re doing an editorial, you have to respect the magazine, the advertisers and the audience, so you’re working for them, but you make your own imprint. I think that the job of a stylist and a consultant, if you’re smart, is to have the intelligence and foresight to look at a brand and see who its woman or man is. It’s not about you, you’re there to help somebody and facilitate the whole process.”

(By Osman Ahmed for The Business of Fashion)

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