Representing the creative future

Melitta Baumeister on establishing a brand, local production, and graduate shows

The brand owner shares what she has learned with her junior designer and Parsons graduate Chi Yu Han

Designing clothes is a delicate balance between producing something beautiful and wearable. Form vs Function. For brand owner Melitta Baumeister, who can be argued to be as much a sculptor as a designer, this is critical. Even the most radical forms must be able to be worn. The designer stresses that this is key in order for designs to be considered a garment as opposed to a more abstract, obsolete object.  How is this achieved?  Time, patience, experimentation, and education. Not giving in to fast-moving trends, looking, learning, collaborating.

Having graduated from Parsons’ Fashion Design and Society MFA in 2013 and being picked up almost immediately by VFiles for their New York Fashion Week Fall show, Baumeister went on to create her own temporary showroom at Paris Fashion Week and this year opened a permanent space at Dover Street Market in Ginza, Tokyo.  The eponymous brand is certainly being noticed internationally and has received considerable critical acclaim. For Baumeister, the reality of starting out is being as much a designer as you are an accountant and marketing manager. Many would argue schools often don’t prepare you adequately for this.

Melitta Baumeister had a conversation with her former intern and current junior designer, recent Parsons graduate Chi Yu Han about her approach to sculpting garments, the beauty of customers adapting your designs to their everyday lives, and the crucial importance of showcasing graduate work.

What stage of the collection are we at right now? What do you do on a day-to-day basis? 

We are in the midst of the production phase, which means I am in daily communication with factories and fabric sources. Most preparations have been made and the collection is about to be cut and sewn. Now it’s all about keeping up with the tight deadlines throughout the full chain. From fabric shipping, trims and details, grading, and cutting to sewing, all have to work to plan. And as with every complex system, things can go wrong, so there is no shortage of unexpected challenges each day. The challenge is to find some time to breathe as we are also starting with the new season, which means getting inspired and excited es as well as look at shapes, colors and discover new materials.

“Building a team and finding the right talents is very challenging, especially when you are independent and have limited resources.” – Melitta Baumeister

It might feel like decades have passed but I only join your team a little more than a year ago. From doing an internship to now becoming your designer, was there a specific moment in your head that you felt we’re clicking and decided to give me more responsibility? 

Building a team and finding the right talents is very challenging, especially when you are independent and have limited resources. The process I have with the garments is very hands-on: we drape, shape the garment, try it on, find the right proportion, then we make the pattern right away and the first sample thereafter. It is a very intuitive making process that is focused on the actual garment, how it appears when wearing it, how much volume it has, what kind of feeling it gives away when worn.  For this “shape-making” process to be effective, the skillset of draping and pattern making with the right understanding of the brand’s aesthetic is crucial. Besides the technical aspects, being able to communicate, being self-organized, and having that excitement for fashion cannot be understated. Having met you in the internship and seeing your development up till graduation gave me the confidence to think you would be a good fit for the team.

You’ve been in the business for approximately seven years. Even if I only join the team last year, your positivity, determination, and your strong belief in your own vision deeply impressed me. Is there a reason or faith that keeps moving you and the brand forward? How do you overcome failure and disappointment? 

Whatever does not work for the brand, I don’t see it as a failure but as part of growth. There is something to be learned from every decision. As an entrepreneur, having emotional resilience is of course important to not let disappointments get close to you but use it as something to learn and grow from. MB is independently self-sustained and we grow with each season, which is something I am proud of and also what motivates me to keep developing the brand. It is beautiful to see how the label developed into a way to meet and connect with extraordinary humans. Whether it’s some of our incredible women who wear the brand, our ambitious partner boutiques, or once-in-a-lifetime moments like welcoming Rei Kawakubo to our showroom during PFW. It is rewarding to see the amount of appreciation you can get in return when you put something out there that is authentic and created with care.

“Being able to discuss the making of a product in person with your manufacturer is a great advantage. ” – Melitta Baumeister

During your career, what are some big changes that have happened in the fashion field and made you feel challenged? 

Apart from the pandemic that brought an obvious interruption to the industry, it is the palpable turn towards sustainability and social awareness that I am very excited about. It is a positive change and has been long overdue. Every brand and especially the big players need to be held accountable for the impact they have on the environment. For us, this change is more of a confirmation that the way we are operating is right. Producing locally and ethically, reducing overproduction to a minimum, and generally trying to reduce our carbon footprint in every step.

Personally, I would be more worried if nothing ever changed. It’s exciting to see the development, to see individuals gaining more agency over their lives, society, politics, big faceless companies, etc. The challenge is to keep your eyes open, to reflect, and be critical.

Our products are all made in New York and I remember you mentioned this is very important to you. Why did you make this decision and what are the pros and cons of local production? 

Being able to discuss the making of a product in person with your manufacturer is a great advantage. It enables us to control the quality much better and ensures that we won’t need to compromise the designs as we can overview all possible changes and improvements that might occur. I’ve also noticed that we have been able to avoid a lot more waste since miscommunication problems have been eradicated. Beyond that, having a personal relationship with the makers of the product I am putting out there is something I value dearly. It is a great privilege to have the history and the talent of New York City’s garment manufacturing at hand. It’s such a special place that is at the heart of this city’s success and I am sad to see it being pushed out and getting gradually disregarded.

Melitta Baumeister's studio

Are there certain values you believe in and feel that you have to stick to it as a designer no matter what? 

I would love for my customers to include the pieces they get into their lives. I’m loving the idea of wearing the garments for a long time, living with them through different situations, enjoying moments. Garments can shape you as much as they can impact moments and interactions, they are like a language on their own. For all this to be possible, we always try to design with an aspect of timelessness and elegance in mind. Avoiding temporary trends and short-term satisfaction.

“If I could go back in time I would tell my younger designer self that even the most radical form needs to be worn to live up to its full potential.” – Melitta Baumeister

What would you have done differently in your first few seasons if you could go back? What was the hardest part of your first few seasons? 

If I could go back in time I would tell my younger designer self that even the most radical form needs to be worn to live up to its full potential. It is part of a good design to be wearable, but that doesn’t me that anything that is worn is a good design too. It is about finding this in-between space, where design becomes beautifully powerful, endlessly engaging, and educational even.

As a fresh graduate, I definitely went through the hesitation of whether to continue with my own work or work for another brand. Clearly, I’ve already made my decision but I’d like to hear your advice. 

For me, the brand just happened organically and was not pre-planned or forced into existence. Luck, courage, and an unavoidable part of naiveté were as big of a part in establishing the brand as some opportunities that a city like NYC can provide. It’s important to understand that being a good designer, does not mean that you are a good entrepreneur or that your work will sell. The hardest part about having a brand is the multiple positions you have to fill and the skills you have to learn, especially when you are starting out. I guess everyone has their own analogy, but for me, it has something to do with endurance, having patience, and the long breath, which might feel a bit surprising when thinking about the season to season rush of fashion.

“I strongly believe giving fashion students any form of display or platform to show their work is crucial.” – Melitta Baumeister

To be honest, even after almost a year, I’m still in a slight depression of not being able to have a graduation fashion show because of Covid. What are your thoughts about graduate fashion shows? Do you think they are essential? Do you think if it was the key factor that helped you to launch your brand? 

I strongly believe giving fashion students any form of display or platform to show their work is crucial. Of course, social media makes it easier for anyone to be showing work independently, but design schools should use their network and reputation to bring talented student work the attention it deserves. When you are a designer, your goal is to participate in world-making by creating something that has not existed before and this should be showcased sufficiently so it doesn’t stay unseen. My graduation exhibition and show were definitely a key factor to generate a huge amount of interest for my work. I got discovered by Vfiles’ director who encouraged me to participate in my collection launch in their group show during New York Fashion week in 2014. At that point all I knew was I will create my first collection outside of the university, there was no time to make any further plans than just getting ready for the show. The brand was basically born right then, as shortly after I had appointments booked with buyers and Dover Street Market New York, London, and Ginza who were the first to carry the very first season.

But this is only one example of how a brand can start, the times have also changed and especially after the pandemic a lot of conventions have been overturned. The world is different now and attention is much less centralized, which is a great opportunity for new generations.