German-born and New York-bred, Melitta Baumeister is the independent designer who negotiates fabric into drawing the sublime from the mundane. She gave METAL an inside scoop on winning the CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund, obsession, and claiming space in the Big Apple. Particularly poignant from our conversation is her musing, “There are no shortcuts, no matter what people say.”
Hello Melitta! How are you today? Where are you answering us from?
Hi Zola, hope you had great holidays. I’m answering from my atelier here in New York.
You have been crowned the winner of the 2023 CFDA Vogue Fashion Fund! Congratulations! What designs have you got in the works that this fund will allow you to pursue?
Thank you so much! It’s was a very special moment for my team and I in 2023! Being the first female winner in a long while on top of that makes me very happy, and is hopefully a good sign for the future.
Above all, this recognition is a motivation for us to continue what we do and how we do it. I always had a clear vision for where I want to take my work, but establishing it as an independent, functioning brand while avoiding compromises is a strenuous journey. My goal is to grow the brand sustainably at its own pace. So there won’t be any drastic changes after winning the award, but of course there is a list of things that we want to approach this year.
Finding the right partner for a meaningful collaboration is one of them, another would be to find a Melitta Baumeister way to show the collections during the fashion weeks. Still the main driver for it all is what our design can do to its wearer. How it can affect the way we feel and how it creates sublime moments in the everyday. Continuing to explore, understand, and evolve how we can achieve that will always be on top of our list.
I’m sure more than one reader will be envious of your New Yorker identity. Tell us about the experience of growing up in such a bustling metropolis.
It makes me smile to hear you mentioning my New Yorker identity. Seems like we have finally arrived! The brand was founded here and is a real NYC kid, but personally I grew up in a small town in the black forest in Germany. Both places have had a significant influence on my development as a designer.
Ever since learning about the garment district and understanding its historical importance for New York, it became a goal to be part of it and contribute. It took a lot of time and energy to establish a network and be able to produce the collections almost entirely here in NYC, but we arrived here and we are proud of it. Apart from the history and the amazing talent, it’s also just such a unique story to be able to say that the garments are produced two blocks away from Times Square.
New York is a tapestry of inspiration sewn from an eclectic mix of cultures. Would you say there’s a dominating fashion style of the city, a common thread in the kaleidoscope of fashion?
This inherent eclecticism is what makes these places so exciting, but also so difficult to generalise with one clear answer. There are definitely cliches that float around, but after having experienced this place for over 12 years now, I definitely want to avoid them here. As much as I believe that there are quite a few cultural aspects that make a New Yorker, I’m not sure if expressing oneself through fashion is necessarily one of them. Don’t get me wrong, fashion does happen here in all its forms, but it’s too eclectic to pinpoint into a style.
Hollywood in the past and social media today have created a certain aesthetic which seems to be mainly there to be appreciated from the outside. On the inside, it’s comical at times to see how incredibly different the day to day reality can be. It is a challenging environment, harsh at times and it wants you to constantly claim your space, figuratively as well as literally at times. Maybe you could say that New Yorkers wear highly functional garments, functional not in terms of sportswear, but functional for their own very specific social surroundings, profession, aspiration, and so on.
For example, and maybe rather surprisingly, my own most worn, daily look is my cycling gear. Sure, it’s functional in the conventional sense, but cycling gives me the opportunity to get my head clear and prepare mentally for the day ahead, to brainstorm and dream up new ideas with my partner and all that throughout the year. It’s not a fashionable choice, but it’s the most effective - and slowly you can see cues of that aesthetic finding its way into my designs.
I can see that you work a lot with dramatically monochrome colours, this certainly makes your pieces very striking. How would you describe your aesthetic?
For a long time we have been perceived as a black and white brand, which wasn’t completely wrong, but it doesn’t tell the full story. A mentor once said that I treat colour as if it was black. Maybe that speaks to the monochrome use of them, but I’m actually more concerned with the quality of the colour. It always needs to be the right colour, the right intensity, and hue and, lastly, it has to be a personal challenge.
A lot of the colour families I used in the past, I would never have imagined using. Having identified that feeling provided so much excitement and tension throughout the design process, which can hopefully be felt in the outcome. On top of that, not every colour works equally well in every fabric and then the shape itself has its own requirements on colour, which makes the process very granular and even more time consuming then it might seem.
In the ever-evolving fashion scene, how do you keep up? Has your style adapted over the years or have you stuck to your roots?
Newness is very important to me, while keeping a certain language or vision. I have never found it necessary to follow trends, as longevity within design decisions is something I find more meaningful.
10% of annual global carbon emissions are produced by the fashion industry. In what ways is your work sustainable? Do you have hope for the emergence of a more sustainable fashion industry in the future?
For small brands like us, the key to sustainability lies in local production. Being able to avoid overproduction, keep distances short, and being able to supervise each step of the production is incredibly work intensive but makes it possible to be very efficient in terms of material use, waste, and general carbon footprint. Working with innovative, recycled, and sustainable materials is something we are trying to pursue each season, but accessibility to them as a small brand is more limited than one might think, mostly due to minimums. But it is getting better steadily.
As for the future, I believe that making products sustainable in all ways possible is of the highest importance, but it won’t be the solution to the problems we are facing if we don’t change the way we behave, consume, and take care of what we already have. I also think that designing for longevity is a rather overlooked aspect of sustainability in fashion, which will hopefully make a comeback.
Let’s slip behind the scenes. Can you take us through the creative process from the birth of an idea to when it is placed on a mannequin in the shop?
It’s all in the fabric movement for me. We always start with a fabric, which is draped on the body. It's the way to gradually understand what the fabric can do and where it is most exciting. A lot of the time the shape is the result of this, it almost feels like a negotiation.
Fittings are the next stage, it's an endless circle of trying on, evaluating, adjusting, and so on. To this day I’m trying on each piece myself in the fittings to make sure they feel right. Our samples are made directly in our atelier which became the way to go for our design approach. It speeds up the process immensely and makes it possible to get very detailed with each piece. But it also makes it possible to get lost in perfectionism. As with everything, it’s a beast that needs to be kept in check.
Once each sample is developed, we shoot the look book in-house while preparing to fly out to Paris for the fashion week. Since the last season we started to show additionally during NYFW, which comes with its own set of craziness. For the last presentation we shot a TV-like series with our customers, actors, friends, and a few models as a different take on a fashion film, and all this has to happen in the very last couple of weeks. Again, being able to do all that in house is just amazing, but it also causes quite a few sleepless nights.
Once we come back from Paris, there are quite a few technical steps that need to be taken to prepare for production. Making last adjustments to the patterns, grading sizes, ordering the fabrics, and all the minute details that are easily overlooked when seeing a piece on the rack in the store. And just like that, a few weeks later, we pick up the production, wave goodbye to Times Square till next season, quality control every piece, pack, and send out to the stores.
I’ve actually never written down this process like that and I’ve already left out a lot of steps in between. It’s actually pretty nauseating how much work goes into it.
What would you say is the most memorable instance in your career as a designer? Was there a defining moment?
There are these big moments like the CFDA Fashion Fund or seeing a piece exhibited at the most recent MET exhibition which are breathtaking. But I think small daily moments like receiving emails from customers that take the time to share their most recent experiences with our garments are incredibly touching, motivating, and a much appreciated reminder of why we do what we do.
Thinking back to my student days, I’d love to see my reaction when being told that I’ll be visited by Rei Kawakubo or that I’ll be chatting to Thom Browne about the struggles of brand building. These moments will forever be close to my heart.
And finally, what tricks did you have up your sleeve that helped navigate the fashion industry? What advice would you give to aspiring fashion designers?
The atelier I have built is particularly focused on a hands-on attitude, we constantly make, prototype, and try out immediately and I believe that this has been a crucial part throughout the years. Being skilful and inventive as a maker plus a good knowledge and interest in the actual garment making has proven to be key. For me this is where innovation and quality comes from and it’s based on a deep love and understanding of the actual physical hand-made product.
I have also learned that there are no shortcuts, no matter what people say. No-one really knows how to make things work, so evaluating feedback and suggestions is an art in itself. Eventually loving, breathing, and living design is, from my perspective, the strongest pillar the brand has been built on. You need to be obsessed with something, while constantly updating that obsession. In the end it should all be about working for a better future and understanding what it is that you hope to bring to the world.