Melanie Ward – The Imagist

Surface Magazine

Melanie Ward is hard to define in standard fashion terms. Perhaps that’s why she has had so many titles: Helmut Lang’s muse and design partner, Creative Director for Karl Lagerfeld’s namesake line and Senior Fashion Editor of Harper’s Bazaar.

Each description is accurate, but none fully embraces her influence or skill set. For the past two decades, the London-born, New York-based Ward has been a catalyst of change that has steadfastly pushed fashion forward – from deliberately disheveled grunge to rigorous minimalism to the mix-and-match cool now in vogue. “Melanie has had a vast influence in shaping modern fashion and the way women dress,” says her brother Anthony Ward, a photographer and her frequent collaborator on Bazaar editorials.

Unlike other stylists, who often reference the past for inspiration, she always has her eye on the future, creating new ways to outfit. “I’m more interested in the mix of things and a certain attitude than trends that originate too literally from the past,” she says. “I prefer to live in the now; being too nostalgic would limit my creativity.” Although her work keeps evolving, there are certain elements at the core of her aesthetic: strong, graphic shapes, a play with extreme proportions and a fusion of masculine and feminine elements. She never over-embellishes. “You have to know when to stop,” she says. And she always avoids an overly polished look: “It will always be about effortlessness for me. Even if you are wearing an evening gown, it is about the attitude. A certain defiance.”

That sense of sedition is what first made her an industry force. In the early 1990s, Ward was part of a London cadre of photographers, stylists and models who created the so-called grunge movement that would turn fashion on its head. Together, with shooters such as Corinne Day and David Sims, Ward made gritty pictures that were the polar opposite of the glossy flawlessness prevailing in magazines at the time. “We were inspired by imperfection. Our muses were real. We captured a beautiful, 5’7” Kate Moss squinting in the sunlight with no hair or makeup,” she says.

Ward’s styling was just as controversial. For magazines including The Face, i-D and L’Uomo Vogue, she made her own clothes and customized vintage garments to create slightly unraveled looks. (She did study at Saint Martin’s School of Art where she was awarded Best Daywear for her graduate collection.) “There were pants hanging precariously off the hipbones: louche, raw cut at the hems and dragging the floor,” she recalls. “Cashmere sweaters and tank tops peppered with holes. Silk, biascut dresses worn with trainers. At that time nobody made low-rise jeans, so I would buy a bigger size, drop them on the hips and staple the crotch up the back, so they looked like skin-tight leggings. I wanted the clothes to have personality and look specific to the model, as if they were wearing their own, a little undone, a bit off,” she muses. “Ironically, it’s a look that’s still the coolest today.”

Sims thinks Ward’s influence has also made her calling more visible and her craft more respected. “She brought about a whole new cult of the stylist,” he says. But Sims also feels her work had a mainstream impact: “Her taste is very unique, and it registered with a whole generation of people both in and out of fashion,” he says.

Ward was wooed to New York in 1994 by former Harper’s Bazaar editor Liz Tilberis. “She wanted me to bring an edge to the magazine,” says Ward, by collaborating with some of the world’s best imagemakers: Craig McDean, Patrick Demarchelier, Paolo Roversi and Mary Ellen Mark. She also spent the rest of the decade collaborating on design, image and branding for the era’s titans: Calvin Klein, Jil Sander and Helmut Lang. “Things became more minimal, and we ushered in a new cool sense of sophistication. Very played down, urban, street, yet luxury,” she says. Her relationship with Lang, which lasted from 1995 to 2005, when the designer retired, was particularly close, and Prada CEO Patricio Bertelli (who bought Lang’s company in 1999) has called her the “female Helmut Lang.” “Helmut and I had such similar tastes,” she remembers. “We would often have different starting points to our creative process but would end up at the same conclusions.” While Ward worked from instinct, draping herself in fabric, Lang had a more “metaphysical” approach. “He might find a rock on the beach and design a collection around it,” she says.

When her job with Lang ended, Ward was approached by another great – Karl Lagerfeld – to conceive a new clothing line under his name. As Creative Director of the house, she hired and supervised a large design team and in-house atelier, created all concepts and developed all products and branding for the line. When the promising label abruptly shut down in 2006, a casualty of a corporate merger, Ward painstakingly helped everyone in her team find new jobs. “Empathy and ethics are an important part of my life,” she says.

In fact, Ward is known as one of the most sincere people in the business. But coupled with her manners is a steely sense of determination to get things right. “Helmut used to say I was the nicest pitbull he’d ever met,” she confesses. Sims is also struck by this quality. “She’s a gentle soul, but it took me a long time to realize how strongwilled she is,” he marvels. This single-mindedness is what has kept her at the top of the game in a community known for its appetite for the Next Big Thing.

She is, almost 15 years later, still relied upon to add a disheveled sharpness to Bazaar’s pretty and pristine. “[Current editor] Glenda Bailey said to me that sometimes it’s hard for her to understand what I’m doing, but then she’ll see the looks from my editorials on the runways a season later.” And that’s the way it should be, according to Ward: “As a fashion editor, one’s job is to inform and inspire the readers, to challenge their perceptions. To embrace what is modern. To be adventurous.”