The Fearless Ones: Melody Ehsani
The designer talks about finding her purpose and the inspiration behind her new Air Jordan I collaboration.
Interview: Elle Clay
Photos: Anthony Blasko
The “Fearless Ones” celebrates a new generation of defiant, talented individuals. Click here for more stories about the cast.
Melody Ehsani wasn’t always a designer. Before that, she was a restless law school student in her mid-20s, who signed up for night classes at the Art Center in Pasadena and caught an insatiable itch for a career in product design. All told, Melody lasted a week in law school and a few months in the corporate basketball world before pivoting to design full-time. Melody’s mother — herself a painter — initially disapproved of the career-180, and her community distanced themselves, dismissing her as “going through a phase.” Still, she persevered.
Melody’s first foray into jewelry included a line of bamboo earrings encrusted with Swarovski crystals. Where other companies preferred to design with precious metals, Melody made three-finger rings using acrylic. Her early designs, which also included larger-than-life technicolor feathers and pyramid rings, were a hit. She also designed jewelry for the stage, including costume pieces for big-name artists and performers.
When Melody started designing her first women’s footwear collection, the only factories that responded to her were in China. Never one to fear change, she packed up her life and moved to China for six months to personally oversee production. When she returned, she stored hundreds of shoes in her tiny L.A. apartment. Not long after, she received blessings from Prince (yes, that Prince). Three years later, customs seized an entire collection of her shoes at the border (and even that didn’t stop her). Now, Melody has her very own collaborative pair of Air Jordan Is — color-blocked and featuring a quote from her friend, Julie Burns-Walker, along the outsole.
Streetwear was (and in many ways, still is) a boys’ club. Melody dared to see it differently, opening the first and only women’s boutique on Fairfax in 2004. Her perseverance and hustle have made her storefront more than a brick-and-mortar; it’s a place for women (though not just women) at the heart of an ever-booming subculture. In addition to events like release parties, Melody’s L.A. and NYC boutiques host discussions that provide spaces for inclusivity and community.
Melody’s Air Jordan I collaboration has been a lifetime in the making. Here, she talks about being a businesswoman, following her instincts and more.
What inspired your style when you were growing up?
I was really inspired by sports and music. MJ was definitely one of the first to inspire me. Then came singers of the ‘80s and just that whole era. When I got older, my influences came from hip-hip, and then it just kept evolving.
You’re a veteran in the game. How has your creative process changed since you first started?
I’ve gotten a lot more efficient, I would say. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I started as a creative, and then I evolved into a businesswoman, which I didn’t sign up for. It just sort of happened as a result of making things that you sell yourself.
My creative process has changed a lot, in the sense that I think a lot more practically and in terms of functionality. I really think about my customer more, whether it’s who would wear something, why they’d wear, what it references or why it matters to me. I ask a lot more questions now, whereas at the beginning, it was more intuitive. I made stuff for the holes I saw in the market — things that I wanted but couldn’t find.
Would you say you’ve always designed for yourself, too?
You talked about blossoming into a businesswoman. How do you balance having multiple stores and being a full-time creative?
It’s really hard. I have two really solid people who work for me, and without them, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do. I recognize, now more than ever, that in order for me to grow and become more creative and free, I need help to do what I do.
A couple of years ago, I started making apparel, and at the same time, I stopped making jewelry. I just can’t do everything at one time. In order for me to create the whole look that I want, which is doing everything at one time, I just need to make sure I have help.
Weaving both serious conversations about business longevity and jokes into a meaningful dialogue doesn’t happen naturally. A good conversation is like being able to dance. For some it’s natural. Others have to work at it. That’s not the case with Melody. She’s easy to talk to and understands that there’s value in her entire creative journey. She’s honest about the challenges she’s encountered and doesn’t hoard her keys to success.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?
At this point, I learn lessons every two seconds! I had a lot of ego at the beginning. I really wanted to own something, and I want it to be mine. I sort of viewed it as my child. I’d refer it to as my child, as all my friends were actually having children. At this point, I’ve grown a lot more detached from it, in the sense that I can only do so much, and I only want to do so much. At this stage, I’ve learned that in order to make something meaningful, you have to collaborate with a lot of people, and it’s bigger than you.
You weren’t always pursuing the creative side of things; you were initially doing law. When did you know that you had made the right decision?
I signed up for night classes at Art Center in Pasadena. The first class I took was Introduction to Product Design. At the time, I didn’t know what a product designer was. The first night, I went into class, and then I realized what a product designer was. It was as if every star in the sky aligned. I was like, “Oh wow.” This is what I’ve always sort of done; I just didn’t know that there was a position for it — that people actually got paid to do this job.
Did deciding to be a designer feel like defiance, even though you were just following your heart?
It was the most defiant thing I’ve ever done in my life. It wasn’t just about changing my mind, it was about going against my community in a lot of ways. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were painters, and because I wasn’t creative in the same way that they were, they never thought of me as a creative at all.
For me to make a 180 like that, it was like jumping off a cliff by myself. It really felt that way. So many people stopped being friends with me. They all just thought I was weird, or that I had fallen off. My mom was really worried about me. When she realized this wasn’t a stage, she started heavily focusing on getting me married.
What happened after the big decision? Was there a sign or a specific moment of success?
So after I did that, I started interning for a sneaker company, and I learned how to make sneakers. At first, I wanted to make heels that were comfortable. The only factories that would get back to me were in China, so I moved to China for six months. I learned how to make shoes, and I came back with my first collection. Being able to be in China by myself, where nothing was familiar to me, made me know that I could do anything.
When I got back, I was at a party. I had gotten to know Prince through a mutual friend, and long story short, he was like, “Where have you been?” I showed him the shoes, and since he was a real advocate for young people, especially industrial people of color who owned something, he offered me my first gig. That was the first, big confirmation I got. I had literally just spent six months in a village in China, and then I came back, and that happened.
So, Prince was your major co-sign?
Yeah. Prince was my major co-sign.
“in order to make something meaningful, you have to collaborate with a lot of people, and it's bigger than you.”
You’re one of the more recognizable women in streetwear. A lot of brands have come and gone. Where would you say that your endurance comes from?
It’s interesting. I interned at the NBA for a while, because I was trying to figure out my passion. I played basketball during high school, and I was really passionate about it. Something I learned at the NBA was that there’s a real difference between the players who feel that it’s their calling versus just what they do. For the players who ate, slept and breathed basketball, it wasn’t exactly effortless, but it was a gift, and they recognized it as such. Those players would volunteer for the after-game activities or charity-related stuff. They would always stay back and sign autographs. It’s about the game, not them.
There’s a real difference between people who do what they feel called to do vs. people who work hard because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. For me, design is just something. It’s my vehicle. It’s not who I am, it’s just my way of serving the world. It’s never really about the products, it’s about the movement and the message I’m trying to spread. The moment that vessel stops working, I’ll switch to something else.
Melody is confident. A child of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, she’s the fly girl entrepreneur. She designs for herself: her nails, jewelry and sneakers all reverberate from her personality. The ‘fit hits different when it’s custom made, and her smoldering demeanor accents it. On set, she poses with ease and doesn’t need direction in front of the camera.
Do you remember your first pairs of Air Jordan 1s?
I do. I didn’t have my first pair until I was 17, which is really late in the game, because I could never afford them. I remember turning on the radio on and hearing about what was happening every time an Air Jordan dropped. I always coveted them, especially thinking that I could never have them.
I’ll never forget, I was 17, and my friend took me to Melrose, which was poppin’ back then, especially for vintage stuff. You went there to get your vintage denim, and you would cut it into shorts; it was a whole thing. I found a pair of patent leather Air Jordan Is, the original colorway, for kids. They were on the rack, and I bought them. They were barely used, and I still have them actually.
Walk us through the inspiration and the direction of your Air Jordan I — the text on the midsole, the mismatching colors, watches, extra laces and more. What were you trying to make us feel with this design?
There’s a quote that I hand-wrote on the shoe from one of my best friends, Julie Burns-Walker. It says, “If you knew what you had was truly rare, you would never waste it.” That quote was really powerful to me when I heard it, because I think that we still don’t know what we truly are. We’re only aware of the surface of what we are — these physical beings — but I think there’s a lot more depth to who we are and what our bodies are able to do.
I really wanted to plant this seed of limitlessness in people’s minds and the collective consciousness. We have to think bigger, because we are bigger. From a design perspective, the colorway is inspired by something I tried on my nails during a recent trip to Egypt. Those were my favorite nails that I’ve ever done, which says a lot, because I do my nails a lot. I chose the color combinations from my nails.
Talk about coordination. What about the watches?
The watches on the shoe are just a symbol of time. I always talk about how things are timeless, or that the time is now. I just love references to time, and I thought that this message could be open to interpretation.
The Air Jordan I Mid SE ‘Melody Ehsani’ is available starting November 15 on Jordan.com, SNKRS and at select retailers.