Creative Womenswear Design and Strategy Consultant
Melanie Walker has racked up one of the most impressive design resumés in the business with stints at Roland Mouret, Jonathan Saunders and most recently: Victoria Beckham, where she was Head of Collections. On the cusp of a new direction in design consultancy, Melanie joins us for this edition of #CreativeAchievers to talk beginnings, inspirations and career highlights.
You’ve had a really interesting and varied education, with lots of short courses and work placements, can you tell me more about that?
I’ve always been conscious about using my time wisely and once I had made the decision to pursue a career in fashion I was very focused. I was also conscious that while a university education can be important, there is nothing like real experience in the industry. It really is totally invaluable.
My various internships taught me precisely what jobs were out there, formed important professional relationships which I still value to this day, and gave me real insight into the full life cycle of a garment; from concept and design right the way through to packing boxes for shipping to store.
What drew you to fashion in the first place? Did you always know that was what you wanted to do?
I had always been passionate about the arts throughout school and secured myself a place at Wimbledon to do my foundation. At one stage I thought I might follow a career as a fine artist focusing on figurative painting, but if I’m honest I was worried that it would be too solitary.
There is something so inspiring about working within a team of people, the way you drive each other forward. So this, and my love of drawing the human figure, particularly the figure in motion, very naturally led me to fashion – the proportion of the body and how fabrics respond and move.
Your career has seen you work with some of the really big names in the fashion industry; Roland Mouret, Jonathan Saunders and Victoria Beckham. Is there someone who has especially inspired you and your work?
I have had the opportunity to work with some phenomenal people in the industry – but I would say that my clear mentors would have been Roland Mouret and Susanne Tide Frater.
Susanne joined the team at Victoria Beckham as Fashion Director just a few months after me. She mentored me throughout the brand building process and the collection range planning - we would work meticulously together with Victoria season by season to expand each collection. Always positive, passionate and very knowledgable in her field Susanne is such a pleasure to work with. I owe Susanne and Roland great thanks for their patience, nurture and belief in me. I have learnt a lot from them both and take so much of their advice with me wherever I go.
Tell me about your first job in industry?
Working with Roland Mouret as Development Manager really laid my foundations in the industry. I learnt how all the cogs of the business fitted together and, although I worked primarily on development, I crossed over into design, production, distribution, quality control and sales.
In a smaller company you have no option – when work needs to be done it needs to be done, whatever your staff count. This was an invaluable grounding and I always took the view that 'the more you put in the more you get back’. I worked incredibly hard and managed to achieve a lot in my time with Roland. I worked with a high class, talented and driven team who really lived and breathed the brand.
What keeps you motivated?
The people I work with; change in the industry; competition with myself. I really thrive on nurturing a situation or team to its fruition and I’m constantly inspired by the arts and this amazing city that is filled with so many opportunities.
What was it like launching the Victoria Beckham line from the ground up?
An unbelievable experience and something I will always remember very fondly. Setting something up from scratch with only one or two other people is so rewarding and, of course, you become like a family. You learn a lot along the way and I loved the thrill of forging a new path together.
Being at the forefront of something completely new is exciting. At the very beginning you have no idea where the path will lead, but I’m a firm believer that if you have a quality product that is designed and made well and you stay true to your vision, you are in with a good chance of success!
You’ve spent some time freelancing as well as in full-time roles. What are the challenges and joys of freelancing?
Freelancing, in a way, gives you great freedom and a privilege of working with multiple people and businesses at once but the major challenge for me was learning not to take on too much work – I learnt the hard way and nearly blew myself up! I was young then – now I feel I have a much clearer grasp of my goals and work/life balance!
How have you developed your personal design aesthetic whilst working for a real mixture of brands?
I have been a bit of a magpie really and picked up different skills and aesthetics from the various people I have worked with. Working with Jonathan Saunders, as Development and Production Manager was amazing, particularly with his knowledge of print. I learnt a lot about proportion and colour from Johnny. Roland taught me his skill of drapery and from Victoria Beckham, I absorbed her intrinsic understanding of how a garment should look flattering, 360 degrees. I really feel like every item I work on adds to my design aesthetic.
All the things I’ve learnt and developed along the way just give me more creative options moving forwards. Sometimes the restrictions of working within a brand brief can make the creative process more challenging, but having a blank canvas can be equally, if not more, difficult. And when you achieve what you set out to do with a brand, there’s nothing more satisfying. But probably most importantly, I have always had a really strong, feminine aesthetic that’s really been rooted in fine art and this has informed all my work throughout my career.
Do you have one particular career highlight?
Victoria turned round to me after our first ever day of presentations for SS09 in NYC and said, "we did it!". She gave me the biggest hug. We knew we had a good product but you have no idea how it will be received by the outside world. We were ecstatic.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned along the way?
Be honest – always say when you have made a mistake! This is what I always say to people I work with. It’s much easier to sort out a problem now than six months down the line!
Don’t be a diva – I haven’t got time for it.
Work hard, be honest and loyal. Life will come back to you tenfold.