At any given time of day, Fairfax Avenue turns into a catwalk for streetwear aficionados. They step out in neon Air Max's with doorknockers dangling from their ears while multi-ringed fingers snap and flick their latest fashion conquest. They're dressed to the nines in urban gear, and some even camp out for days outside the doors of popular skateboard and streetwear brands, vying to claim the title of being the first to scoop the latest release.
Photo Credit: Kiah McBride
In the midst of the “all boys club" of apparel stores is the boutique ran by designer, Melody Ehsani — a bright white shop with vibrant-colored threads, multi-dimensional jewelry and chromed-out bikes. Though she stands out by gender, her designs fit into the hip-hop culture of consumers that grace the gritty West Hollywood street. Her designs have adorned the ears, hands and backs of artists, such as Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and Lauryn Hill, and like her fellow soul sisters, she stands to ensure that we're not confined by societal norms — that we're accounted for and heard.
Redefining the proverbial rules is nothing new to Ehsani. She grew up in a Persian household that preferred fitting into molds over breaking them. “Parents Just Don't Understand" became her mantra as she fought to maintain her creativity and identity with little support from her family. Though her mother was a painter, art as a career wasn't considered realistic. It was good to be a doctor, being a designer was disgraceful.
“I wanted to be a pediatrician because I wanted to please my parents, and my culture identified being a doctor as the highest possible value in terms of role," Ehsani says of her days before design.
Though she didn't become a doctor she still went the “safe" route, trading in her stethoscope for social justice, and dedicating undergrad to prepping for a career in law, interning on Capitol Hill at the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights, and working as a paralegal for a private firm before throwing in the towel a week into law school upon realizing that her purpose wasn't in legal.
“I still felt like I hadn't found a place for myself within the legal field," she says. “I had a meltdown when I found out how much law school was going to cost me, and knew that I couldn't pay off my loans unless I worked in the field, and that gave me major anxiety at the time."
She searched her soul, read self-help books, and consulted close friends who helped her to discover that she was repeating the patterns of her parents who subscribed to a culture where blueprints weren't created, but were followed. She credits prayer and meditation to being the catalyst behind her transformation and decision to follow her passion instead.
“I would have these conversations with God and be like show me my path, show me how to serve you, and show me what you look like to me!" she says. “Establishing that personal relationship with my Creator outside of any learned constructs was very powerful. I found guided meditation to work very well for me. I would literally put questions to my soul, and my soul would answer. My intuition has and continues to sharpen as a result, and it has helped me make a lot of decisions with a clear head while being true to myself."
At 23, she went back to embracing the real Melody who bumped N.W.A., studied hieroglyphics, and rocked bamboo earrings and three-fingered rings. She enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and interned at Creative Recreation before deciding to sketch out her own shoe designs. But becoming a designer wasn't an easy feat, and during the period in between waiting for her shoes to arrive, she started experimenting with the laser cutter at school, ultimately creating what would become the Melody Ehsani jewelry collection.
“Love is not this esoteric thing that's in the air. Its real, its powerful. Find what you love no matter how big or small it is and do it everyday, and I promise it will serve you," she says. “I think often times we feel bogged down because of the breadth of the work we think we have to do to 'find ourselves,' but start small. If you're asleep on the couch, just wake up. If you're awake on the couch, just sit up. If you're sitting, stand up. Just one small step and we can all move forward.“
Behind the Business
When I first came across Melody Ehsani, I was instantly hooked by her creative designs. I saved my dollars to make my first purchase — a pair of lightening shaped earrings that I still rock to this day—and waited anxiously for the mailman to deliver my goods. I opened the box and pulled out a card that read “Stop Waiting to Be Who You Already Are." The words spoke to me, and I later went out and bought a frame so it could sit on my desk as a reminder to no longer speak about who I wanted to be, but to boldly claim who I already am. Packaging is something sometimes overlooked, but when carefully curated can be just as distinguishable as your brand.
“I was really into package design, so I wanted it to be beautiful," says Ehsani about the decision behind her packaging. “I had an image of a certain warm pink and gold and I wanted to make sure my tag line “I see you" was on the box. It was “I see you" because the first friend that really mirrored back to me who I was, said that to me, and it was so powerful because I believed it. I also learned that in Africa, it's a common greeting from one person to the next. I found that to be the most beautiful thing ever. From that moment on I wanted to pay it forward, be it forward to everyone who wore or purchased my items."
Ehsani said the hardest part of the design process is the manufacturing. She spent a few months in China building relationships and researching the best manufacturers to produce her custom designs. “Now there is no need for this for people starting out. You can find everything online," she says.
Over the last decade she's built a distinguishable brand, developing a cult-like following of women who are just as in love with urban culture as the designer herself. But it's not just her colorful collection that is drawing people to the shop, but the message behind the material.
“I actually have been following Mel for a long time,“ says Daisy Espana, a model who doubles as an intern at the M.E. shop. “I liked how her message was that you can be yourself. You don't ever have to switch up or pretend to be somebody you're not; who you are is perfect. I love that because growing up I felt like I was an outsider; I didn't really fit in. But coming here, she was very welcoming and she's always been like that, and it's kind of like a big sister, somebody to look up to."
Authenticity is etched in her brand, from the designs often intertwining her Persian and American background to the motivational messages inserted into her packaging. Carving out her own lane has been just as fulfilling to her as it's been inspirational to others.
“I knew the only way I could serve myself and the world was by expressing it through doing something that I really loved. Having this understanding within myself helped me to overcome any fear and move forward with what I knew to be true."
Building Beyond the Brand
On an early Friday evening, a group of over 120 women and men packed into the M.E. shop to talk “Race, Racism & The Healing Process," one of the many discussions hosted by Ehsani and her select guests as a part of the Speaker Series, where she transforms her retail space into an open discussion forum on a variety of issues plaguing the community and society as a whole.
"I'm building a fashion empire, but in reality I'm really building an empire of service, fashion is just the vehicle," Ehsani says. “Using my platform to create community and try to move the feminine forward is my passion and my purpose. I like looking at trends in the world and figuring out what kind of messaging I want to create to support or refute those trends."
Being the only woman to open shop on a strip dominated by male-owned brands like Supreme and Diamond Supply isn't Ehsani's only breakthrough as an urban fashion entrepreneur. In 2011 she claimed the title of being the first female to have a pump sneaker with Reebok — her design sold out within hours — and has continued to collaborate with the brand on a number of custom design projects.
But still, being fearless enough to be the woman of the block is pretty damn awesome.
“It was very needed and very smart of Mel to do it like hey let's put this here," says Espana. “We're going to scream louder than any other shops here because we're the only girl store here, so girls love us for that. We started noticing that a lot of those stores started carrying girl stuff like oh okay, we're going to make this a real section in our store now."
Breaking barriers and defying the odds both creatively and culturally has enabled Ehsani to build a rewarding life instead of a regretful one. After all, well-behaved women rarely make history.
“It's always safer to repeat history, to do what's always been done, but that's not why I'm here; that's not why God created me," says Ehsani. “I believe each person on this planet right now is a special part of the remedy to all the ills that are happening. We can't afford to repeat history; we have to make it."