Being a citizen of the world makes Melissa Eakin—artist, illustrator, fashion designer and former licensed hairstylist—a creative force destined for recognition. Born in Denver with Guatemalan roots, Eakin had a multicultural childhood that helped define her visual palate. She’s been a serial fashion intern, too, stitching for designers such as Alexander McQueen, Proenza Schouler and Vivienne Westwood—who, she says, “munch[es] on your yummy treats without asking if you have any lying out on your desk.”
Currently based in London, Eakin debuted her womenswear collection at the University of Westminster graduate show this year in homage to her grandfather Teto: “He taught me to have confidence in my own taste, whether the outcome is ugly or not.” Six bodacious looks of warped proportions and cowboy origins clashed prints with textural accents and razor cut lines, all complemented by footwear sculpted from dental compression plaster. No matter where her international smile may take her, “ugly” does the job.
You were born in Denver. Did you grow up there? What were you like as a teenager? And what’s life like in Colorado as a girl with Latino roots?
Yes, I grew up there! I spent a lot of time by myself making art, going to Taco Bell drive-thru with my best friend Frances, and hanging out with my mom. I went to school in a “liberal” but actually segregated upper middle class city outside of Denver full of blondes in Ugg boots and North Face jackets. I not only wore tons of black, and had facial piercings, but I was a brown girl that seemed to make kids uncomfortable around me because I didn’t relate to my peers. I remember struggling to prove to teachers that I was smart enough to be in advanced classes with the other white kids and didn’t need lower levels just because I was Latina. I knew high school was a pathetic segregated bubble, so I couldn’t wait to get out! Still, there’s a massive community of Latinos—predominantly Mexicans—in the US, so I grew up immersed in Spanglish and Latin culture. When you are of a minority (in my case Guatemalan) you learn to identify parts of yourself with whatever is closest, but mostly I have been very independent in my interests and taste. My upbringing was very multicultural, thanks to my mom, who made friends with everyone and always had travellers from around the world stay with us. I never felt like being Latina was what made me stand out until I came to London.
When did you first pick up the paintbrush and realised your potential? Or were you always dreaming about becoming a fashion designer?
When people started to approach me interested in purchasing my pieces. I have always painted just because it helps me process my mind. In terms of design, I always knew that it was what I was going to do, and I don’t know why. I recently found so many sketches I did when I was six or seven of shoes and “99% angel baby” printed dress with prices listed next to them. I guess I was already working out line sheets? Hah!
You have worked for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Proenza Schouler and Faustine Steinmetz. What’s the most important thing you’ve taken from these internships? Do you have any exciting insider stories to spill?
A lot of people would tell me to shut up, but the most important thing I have taken from these experiences is not to allow people to walk all over you and exploit you just because you are an intern! Yes, dedicate time and expect to work hard, but never feel like you have to keep quiet or stay a million hours overtime if someone is mistreating you. There are always other opportunities, and people will respect you more when you have boundaries.
The first thing that comes to mind: Vivienne loves snacking on our food, so if you have a chance to work there be prepared for her to munch on your yummy treats without asking if you have any laying out on your desk!
As an artist and illustrator, what message do you want to visually communicate in your work? Where do you dream of seeing your canvas hung?
I don’t have a specific message except a message to myself—to paint as raw and honest as possible no matter the ugliness of each scenario, and to make sure I’m being playful with it. I’d love to have my pieces in Valeria Napoleane’s home, or fashion campaigns, or products and big museums. I’ll take it all!
How, where and when did your fascination with the devil begin? Are you religious? And (hard question!) do you think there’s such a thing as ‘sin’?
Devilbabe is a specific character I made for a painting series She Ugly It Turns Me On where she’s heartbroken and sexualised, but then dominates every situation. The devil is such an enticing and sexy character despite being equated to evil. But I believe that these “evil” horrible experiences ultimately teach us the most valuable lessons and build our character. So, I paint the devil with a lot of playfulness and love for her! I don’t believe in sin and don’t practice a religion, but I believe in energies and karma—life will keep handing us certain situations until we are able to work through ourselves.
You’ve just finished your BA Womenswear degree at Westminster University. How did it feel to debut your designs at the graduation show?
It was a mixture of feelings. Most of the time you are just trying to make sure that it looks true to your vision, and that you don’t forget a single thing on zero hours of sleep. Then the show is over in a blink of an eye. I didn’t really have time to appreciate it until I’ve had some time for sleep and recovery.
The collection was inspired by your Guatemalan grandfather Teto! Could you tell us how you’ve incorporated his spirit into shapes and fabrics?
Teto is his nickname—shortened from Perfecto! Through living with Teto most my childhood I witnessed his craftiness and how he mixed and matched whatever he wanted. He visited flea markets, dollar stores and bike shops with his broken English just repeating the word “horse,” looking for plastic horses, picking up some bicycle chains, printed terry cloth horse print towels, screws, etcetera, and then making these odd horse bracelets, patchwork jackets, and such. By seeing him use materials designed for a certain purpose in a completely different way, I learned to source and develop my pieces in the same nature, in my approach to colour palettes, shapes, and layering. One example is how I used materials that my dentist gave me to build the shape of the shoes in my collection. Teto taught me to have confidence in my own taste whether the outcome is ugly or not.
We were completely taken by the oversized, twisted puffball silhouettes, juxtaposing the elongated silicone cowboy boots. How did you craft such a feat of texture?
I have a fascination with textures and sense of touch. I prefer to work into my artworks by adding some depth so it’s not just a flat digital image on fabric. Rich texture has always been so crucial in my paintings, so I naturally carry that over into my designs.
Do you have a hidden talent we should really know about?
Not sure if it’s a talent anymore because I am SO out of practice but at one point in my life I trained and became licensed as a hairstylist—cut, colour, perms—you name it!
What’s your ultimate soundtrack to summer? Why?
An eclectic mix of classic Spanish boleros like Rocio Durcal and Juan Gabriel, old rancheras, a little bit of disco, and last but not least lots of Hole, Third Eye Blind, Pixies and other 90s alternative rock and grunge. I’m a dramatic romantic Latina and still a weird ass American girl.