LA-native, streetwear, footwear, and jewelry designer, Melody Ehsani was going to be an attorney. "I always knew I was really passionate about justice," she says a few days following a return from the United State of Women Summit in D.C., convened by the White House where leaders and influencers gathered to enact change for the #stateofwomen. "But I thought that the only way to work toward justice, was through the legal system."
In the early 2000s, Melody completed a variety of internships in legal fields. She worked on Capitol Hill, on human rights campaigns, and at private law firms. "I couldn't see myself," she says, "doing that for the long haul." So she dropped out of law school after a week and had the ubiquitous 'who am I' conversation. She didn't land immediately on designer. Instead she took her love for basketball and tried to turn it into a career. “I knew wasn't good enough to be a player, but I played growing up and in college and I thought, maybe I can represent players." But the internships she took did not live up to her fantasy. "Growing up, these were my idols," she says. "Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson-- and I was in this fantasy land about what the business would be." What she found was an incredibly misogynistic environment that didn't vibe well with her. Nor did what she calls "the negative side of the business."
She left the sports world and recalls feeling "super depressed during that time." Until a friend referred Melody to a "medical intuitive." She had no idea what that meant, but she made an appointment. "It was the first time in my life," she says, "when someone said, 'you're a product designer.'" At first Melody rejected everything the woman told her and was unable to see herself as an artist or a designer.
Both of her parents were artists and she says the rejection of the notion had to do with them. "They didn't want me to be an artist," she says, "because neither of them had succeeded.”
"I grew up thinking art doesn't make money, it's not practical, it's cool to have as a hobby, but it's not lucrative. So I never viewed it as an option.” But she also said the woman "struck something deep."
She ended up researching product design and found that the number one program in the country was at the Art Center in Pasadena. The first night she showed at class "every star in the sky aligned."
"I knew," she says, "this is what I should do."
Melody's eponymous flagship shop is in the illustrious strip of Fairfax Ave. populated by streetwear brands like New York’s iconic Supreme, which was among the first to open in 2004, and the (now-closed) Odd Future store. Its a block that plays host to pop-up shops from moguls like Drake, who opened a temporary OVO store in December 2015, and Kanye, who most recently hosted a surprise “Life of Pablo’”merch store in May. When *something* happens on the block, the lines twist and turn as far as the eye can see. It is highly dude trafficked. And it's a strip of street that's been described as intimidating for those not in the know.
But when Melody moved in a little over 3 1/2 years ago she didn't feel that vibe. "I think all of the guys on the block were dying for some female energy. I don't think the general online culture of streetwear is a direct reflection of many of the brands."
"I don't think the general online culture of streetwear is a direct reflection of many of the brands."
She started around the same time as Lanie from HLZBLZ and Married to the Mob in 2008, though Melody's store remains the only female-owned on the block. "We didn't know each other that well, but there was still a sense of community. I've always felt encouraged and welcomed by this space."
"We are all actually connected," she says, "it's not just a saying."
The Melody Ehsani brand is about female empowerment and not being defined by your past. When you first walk into her Fairfax location you're greeted by a large print of the famous Fred W. McDarrah photograph taken during a women’s liberation demonstration in New York in August of 1970. The women hold a banner that reads: Women of the World Unite.
It’s a feeling that emanates through Melody’s work, which is in part influenced by her Persian roots, her passion for women’s advocacy and justice, and her American upbringing on hip-pop, punk, and basketball.
For the United State of Women Summit, a female-owned company was commissioned to organize all the creative materials and they reached out to Melody to create custom letterman jackets for both the President and First Lady. "The majority of times I get opportunities like this it's from other women who are familiar with the brand. Women who are paying it forward."
She's of the camp that believes there is enough space for everyone to succeed and never felt in direct competition with other female streetwear brands. "Even if we're all doing the exact same thing, it's actually impossible for us to do it the same." This was not an innate feeling however, and she says it took her a minute to realize this.
"When I first started, my pieces were getting knocked of, super early on, not brands but by mass market Chinese distributors and it was really bumming me out." She thought her business was going to fold because she couldn't compete with Chinese prices. "They were making the same thing for four dollars." But then she had an epiphany after seeing a Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit in LA. "It was the first time I had seen that many of his pieces in person. After the exhibit I went to buy a print." Looking at the print however, “I realized, ‘I don’t want this.’”
"When someone makes something it contains a part of that person, it contains what they put into it-- essentially the love is there. You can make a perfect copy, and there's a market for that, but there are people who will always want the original."
It was in that moment she says she understood, "there's even room for the knockoffs. There's something for everyone, at every price point."
The store itself is a hang spot for kids who attend local Fairfax high. "There's no prerequisite here," she says. Girls from the school will come and ask for advice or hang out until their parents can pick them up.
"There are girls that are skaters that don't really fit in anywhere else so they hang out here." It's a positive and empowering space for young women."
"There's no one that's writing the script for us now," she says.
"I try to use a lot of language and emblems that have never been used in this context before." She doesn't want to rewrite history, she wants to make it. Rather than asking about a past, she wants to know "Who are you now? Who are you today?"
Melody today is a far cry from attorney. She's venturing further into apparel as well as continuing her collabs with Reebok, the first of which launched in 2012. "The business grew in a way I was able to scale it slowly," she says. ME has no investors.
As for the summit? ”It was eye-opening," she says, noting being excited about how much has changed even in the last ten years. "When I first started everyone told me I needed a business plan, so I did a bunch of research and every business plan I found was created by a man, and none if it worked for my brand.”
She knows how special it is to not be attending these events as a lawyer, but as a creative, and the odd cyclical nature of where she started and where she is now.
"I always bug out. When you're working in the legal field your goal is to be invited to events like that. But as corny as it sounds, I believe in the power of fitting in where you belong."
"You start to realize everything you're invested in will weave into your life. I really didn't see how justice could be a part of design. The way it's weaved into my work through the years, it's magical," she says. "There's no other word for it. It's divine."
Melody Ehsani is located at 424 1/2 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036
Arianna Schioldager is editorial direction at Create & Cultivate. You can find her @ariannawrotethis and www.ariannawrotethis.com
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