Sharp Elegance

Emily Melville's timeless designs

Like the emerald trees surrounding her Graton art studio, fashion designer Emily Melville creates clothing that is simple, elegant and timeless. Her dresses, skirts and coats are artfully built objects of beauty, imbued with the thoughtful dedication to craftsmanship that Melville herself holds dear.

“It’s about creating heirlooms, creating timeless fashion,” says Melville, who finds inspiration in the elegance and poise of the 1950s and 1960s—but spins it with a modern sensibility. Not a girl who dreamed of going into fashion (“I didn’t know anything about it in high school,” she says), the University of Virginia graduate majored instead in . . . biology. After college, she moved to California, and it was then, after her apartment burned down and she lost everything, that the creative impulse took over. Her interest in design germinated creating costumes for Burning Man and reggae festivals, and eventually she refined her skills through classes in sewing and patternmaking at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“I’m interested in the construction of clothes,” says Melville, who takes an architectural approach to her designs, much like one of her inspirations, Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga. “The creation of form around the body is kind of a building. There is a science to it,” she says.

Encouraged by her husband, Melville studied toward an MFA in fashion design from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. She debuted her senior thesis project, which took nearly a year to complete, on the runaway at Bryant Park during Fashion Week in New York. The same designs—structured wool coats and a sleek silk dress, all in one-of-a-kind prints—were later selected by Neiman Marcus for San Francisco’s Fashion Night Out.

A new baby has put Melville’s spring-summer collection on hold, but she continues to teach a class on fabric and form at the Academy of Art. Melville says she’s moving toward creating clothing that’s more wearable and a “little less artsy,” but her continued vision is to create clothing that’s custom-designed and intricately crafted—and to be handed down generation after generation.

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