Highsnobiety’s Honors Week is a celebration of the women — particularly the trans and BIPOC women — who have pushed our culture forward. This Women’s History Month, we’ve tapped six guest curators to go deep on the issues they care about and to spotlight their favorite women and nonbinary creators. In this story, Highsnobiety's own Lucy Thorpe speaks to sneaker industry maverick Melody Ehsani.
When Melody Ehsani founded ME in 2008, few women were visible in streetwear, with only a handful heading up brands. Chitose Abe was running Sacai, April Walker had founded Walker Wear, Erin Magee had launched MadeMe the year before, and Yoon Ahn was just co-founding Ambush. Overall, streetwear was overwhelmingly a boys’ club.
With her namesake brand, Ehsani has played a crucial role in carving out a space for women in the industry, serving them with products and championing their voices long before most streetwear brands had even acknowledged them. Her career reads like a prize athlete’s, with one “first” after the next — she was the first woman to open a store on Fairfax (LA's streetwear hub), the first to collaborate on the Reebok Pump, and one of the first to collaborate with the Jordan brand. She is a pioneer, and even though her gentle demeanor might have you think differently, she is a force to be reckoned with.
“It's not something that I set out to do. Honestly, in life, if there was a sound in a dark room, I don't want to be the first one to walk in and flip the switch on. I'm usually not that brave of a person," she confesses. “Of course, it's so much easier if you're working with a reference in mind, but the blessing in all of it, and what keeps me going, is the hope I could potentially be to somebody who comes after me. It's like, ‘Okay, if Melody did it, then I could do it,’ or, ‘If Melody did it like this, I can do it better than Melody.’ That's my entire impetus and motivation. If I could just be one person's reference, I've done my job.”
Now, she has another first to add to the list: Foot Locker's first women's creative director, overseeing the women’s creative approach as well as quarterly ME collections to be sold exclusively at Foot Lockers globally. When we connect to discuss her latest accomplishments, she’s not even a minute late to the call, but she apologizes and tells me, laughing, that she had to cut her husband’s hair (who happens to be the renowned bassist Flea). Humility is something the down-to-earth designer has in abundance, and even as we discuss her new position, she's humble about it: “Sadly, there aren't a lot of people who do what I do in the capacity that I do, and in the particular niche that I do. I've done consulting for a lot of people and mentoring for other girls that have been interested in starting their own lines. I figured that this [working for a larger company] would be the natural evolution. I just didn't think that it would come along now.”
Nothing in Ehsani's career seems calculated, she follows her intuition expertly. Raised in California to Iranian parents (who escaped Iran during the 1979 revolution), Ehsani was brought up in a traditional household where certain expectations were placed on her — like focusing on finding a husband and following a traditional career path — that she knew she couldn’t meet. Once she finished high school, she began studying for law school and did several internships (including one at the White House), but soon realized the concept and the practice of law were very different and dropped out disheartened and depressed.
On a friend’s recommendation, she met with Julie Walker, a medical intuitive who has since become a close friend. Recognizing Ehsani's design sensibility, Walker suggested she explore product design, and she began taking night classes at the Art Center in Pasadena. Following an internship at a sneaker company, Ehsani started her own shoe line... but had to abandon it after the US customs department confiscated an entire shipment, which would have cost her more than it was worth to pay off. In the meantime, she'd transitioned to making jewelry for herself: "I wanted to make all the things I wanted that I couldn't afford, like a three-finger ring with my name on it and custom bamboo earrings." She quickly saw she wasn't alone in her desire for big, gold, statement pieces, and the business took off.
Although she stopped studying law, Ehsani's inclination towards justice and equality still underpins her work. Rings, earrings, and necklaces reading “Pay me,” “Fuck Racism,” and “Unity” fill her collections, along with T-shirts carrying tongue-in-cheek phrases like “Boys and boys club of Fairfax.” “You can't walk into a room and leave parts of you outside of it, or at least I can't,” she explains. “That's just part of the DNA of what I do — it's not even a conscious decision and it's not even an agenda. So much of my design aesthetic is inspired by what's going on around me and what I want to contribute and put out there. It's 2021 and we've never experienced equality, ever. So yeah, it's something important to keep bringing forward.”
It’s a message that resonates widely — her jewelry has been worn by almost every woman in hip-hop, from Ms. Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys to Saweetie and SZA. What's more, she's achieved this reach without ever venturing seriously into wholesale, selling everything from ME.com and her stores on Fairfax and Soho in New York, the latter of which she was forced to shut due to the pandemic.
Despite the constant stream of celebrity endorsements, Ehsani has never let it distract her from the core audience she set out to serve. "It's about my community. It's girls like me, how I grew up, and the communities that I was a part of. I've never really resonated with the elite customer, so to speak. I've never been interested in catering to a luxury market, just because those aren't really my people. I really want to honor the community that I work with and that I hang out with. I want it to be accessible to them."
Accessibility is important to Eshani — it’s one of the reasons she’s teaming up with Foot Locker — and she understands firsthand how hard it can be to ensure. Ehsani has collaborated with the Jumpman twice so far; the first time on a multicolored Air Jordan 1 Mid SE in late 2019, and then again in March 2020 for the relaunch of the Women’s Air Jordan OG. Her first collab resells for quadruple figures, which was never her intention, and portrays the nature of today’s resell market.
"I was really excited with the Jordan collab, because so often for me, growing up, Jordans really never existed specifically for women, and if they did, it felt like an afterthought. It always seemed like they worked really hard on all the men's stuff — they did all this incredible storytelling and brought in all the incredible collaborators — but then when it came to women's stuff, it was kind of formulaic," she laments. "So it was a dream come true; I never thought that I would be able to do something like that.”
Just like Ehsani’s products are about much more than the actual products, her Jordans were about more than just Jordans. “If you knew what you had was rare, you would never waste it,” goes a quote written on the sole of her first collaboration. For the second, she revived the Air Jordan Women's OG, the brand’s first-ever women-focused sneaker, which debuted in 1998. When the sneaker launched shortly after Women's Day last year, Ehsani shared a post on her Instagram outlining some of the major milestones in women's basketball. The sport was one of her early passions, and the collaboration (which was about honoring women's excellence on the court) felt deeply personal, too. "I remember Magic Johnson had a basketball camp, and I wanted to go so bad as a kid, but they didn't allow girls," she recalls. "I was in high school when the movie Love and Basketball came out, and I remember when the WNBA was created, it was such a big deal. And then I remember Sheryl Swoopes and how incredible she was as a player. She was given her own shoe," she shares. "So many firsts were happening then, but it was like a rocket where it took off really fast and it sort of fizzled out; it was never sustained. I wanted to go back and honor that iconic moment."
As time has gone by, Ehsani's message has become louder and more overt in her designs. In some regards, it seems as though her younger self, with all the expectations and limitations placed on her because of her gender, is fighting back. It could also be that in all the years Ehsani has been active in the industry, the changes she has witnessed, although significant, are still too few. Either way, she’s been exploring new ways to reach and unify her community. Currently, that’s through her podcast, but before the pandemic took hold, it was through her ME speaker series. The regular event brought influential women (and gender nonconforming individuals) from a multitude of backgrounds and industries into Ehsani's store on Fairfax, where they would discuss "real stuff" in front of a small, press-free crowd. Some of her guests so far include Lena Waithe, Dr. Joy Degruy, Janaya "Future" Khan, and Serena Williams, who stayed for an hour and a half after the talk to speak with everyone in the audience.
"When you bring women together, that alone creates magic," says Ehsani. "Just coming together to talk. Because so often, we operate in silos… we think that there's something going on and we’re alone in that. And then as soon as we start talking, we realize, ‘Wow, actually all of us are going through the same thing in some way or another.’ That's been really beautiful, and it reminds me how easy it is to connect with women when we're just being real."
What makes Ehsani's event series so unique is the atmosphere she creates and her ability to withdraw candid stories, often from extremely well-known figures. Indeed, what stands out to me during our call is how patient and curious she is; she pauses often to reflect and doesn't mind when my zoom cuts out or that we ran overtime. Unlike many in the often ego-fuelled world of fashion, she has a clear desire to listen rather than just being heard. It's easy to understand why so many people that don't fit the stereotypical industry mold are drawn to her.
And it's not just others that she treats this way, but herself, too. Spirituality is an important part of her life — she describes it as her real home inside of herself, "the place I can go and really explore myself and find what I need and then be able to operate in the world with that real knowledge of who I am.” Particularly during this last year, it’s helped her stay centered, keep things in perspective, and focus on her trajectory — which, we’re glad to see, seems only to continue to rise. “It's like surrendering myself to something bigger, and then asking for that thing that's bigger than me to show me my path, to help me to be of the greatest amount of service I can be, whatever that looks like.”