The agent of iconic artists writes a vivid novel about the ugliness and beauty in the fashion business.
For more than three decades, Eugenia Melián worked as an agent in the fashion industry, launching or managing careers such as the ones of the iconic illustrator Tony Viramontes, the photographer David LaChapelle or, the also photographer and director, Peggy Sirota. Beyond the fashion world, she represented talents like the avant-garde music artist Matthew Herbert or the contemporary dancer Blanca Li. Then, one day, a few years ago, she lost her “mojo” and gave a radical turn to her career, becoming a full-time writer. “I wrote for three years, I wrote all day, every day, I wrote Saturdays and I wrote Sundays.” The result of that titanic effort was Wildchilds, a novel where “beautiful people do ugly things,” a fiction, “because with fiction you can tell the truth.”
Text: Nicanor J. Cardeñosa.
Image: Eugenia Melian by Ethan James Green.
The afternoon is ending and yet the heat is still unbearable. Eugenia Melian laments the forest fires. “One of the most beautiful landscapes in the world is being destroyed, it’s devastating,” then she sips a coffee cup. While she talks, a few crows come to peck at the door of one of the terraces of the home.” Go away! Shoo! Get out!” she yells at them, angry because the birds are stealing the food of her “poor squirrels.” As my gaze lifts from the floor it is impossible not to notice the enormous neck sticking out from the garden vegetation.” Is that a pink giraffe?” The microworld in which Eugenia Melian wrote Wildchilds, in this small area in the East Bay of San Francisco turns around on his own axis.
On.Ignorance: Who was this “mystery man” in your life: Tony Viramontes?
Eugenia Melián: Tony became in his time an icon to fashion magazines because he came after the illustrator Antonio Lopez, who glamorized his models, who were beautiful and posed in a very glamorous way. Women like Pat Cleveland and Mounia. Then, Tony was the one who started making ugly girls actually look beautiful, or made beautiful girls look ugly. What he wanted was the “jolie laide, the beautiful ugly girl.”
OI: Where did his models come from?
E.M.We would sometimes cast girls outside nightclubs, he would look for interesting faces and then he would transform them, he would cut their hair… shave their hair, he would put on them a lot of makeup, make them do very ugly poses, because whenever he was illustrating he needed girls to be in full makeup, hair, and outfit; so the girls were taught by Tony how to pose and how to make themselves ugly. It was also Tony who started that whole thing of girls looking like boys, boys looking like girls, he would put makeup on boys, he would dress boys as girls. He liked to dress me as a boy.
O.I.: Was anybody doing something similar at that moment?
E.M.: No, nobody. Nobody. He was the first. He really was the first.
O.I.: How did you meet him?
E.M.: I was working at a fashion forecast office… he showed up with his portfolio. I decided to quit my job and start representing him.
O.I.: Valentino was one of your first major clients…
E.M.: Yes. First. He became one of our major clients. He commissioned us twice a year for the Haute Couture issue, a big portfolio inside Italian Vogue. About 50, 60 pages of illustrations.
OI: Fifty pages of just illustrations?
E.M.: Yes. Valentino would bring him to Rome, move him into the Hotel de la Ville, in a suite, and Tony would draw and illustrate for a whole month, flying in models on the Concorde just for one day but, of course, the girls were having such a good time that they did not want to leave…
O.I.: But he did fashion photography too…
E.M.: All the work that he did for Valentino was as a fashion illustrator. As a fashion photographer, we had various contracts: Genie, Complice… Janet Jackson… we did also album covers… We did the work that launched him in advertising, which was for the Genius Group; again a groupage of fifteen pages which the Italian Vogue, Lei and Per Lui, ran twice a year… That was the campaign that really launched his career in an international, commercial way.
O.I.: He died young… did that affected his influence…?
E.M.: Tony Viramontes is well known in the fashion crowd, but not known well enough for how important he was. But if you go to Pinterest, more and more people are putting his work into their pages. So… There is also a very good book by Dean Rhys-Morgan named Bold, Beautiful and Damned. When it was published, Bergdorf Goodman did their windows on Tony and there were a fair amount of shows featuring his work.
OI: What would you say was the Viramontes “signature”?
E.M.: Adriano Goldschmied of the Genius Group didn’t want him to do illustration for the campaign, he wanted him to do a new concept. So Tony rented one of the only two large-format Polaroid cameras in the world, which were giant, giant cameras that came from Polaroid in Germany with two operators, and Tony would make these huge gorgeous Polaroids that, actually, looked very flat. So, what he did, was to rip them apart, stack them all together and, on top of that, he would do graffitis. And that was a technique that he invented. Then, he would go completely crazy with insane artistic hair and makeup. That whole package, the hair, that makeup, the crazy faces, the Polaroids, the graffiti, the collage… all that made the Tony Viramontes look.
O.I.: You worked at the Yves Saint Laurent studio before meeting Viramontes. Did you ever meet Saint Laurent in person?
E.M.: Yes, of course. I met him. I met him so many, many times… We never said hello, Saint Laurent was very shy, and I was very shy. I went to work there when I was 19 and I was working as an assistant to the assistant to the head of the PR for the haute couture in Paris. So, my office was the office next to the design studio where Monsieur worked every day with Loulou de la Falaise, Madame Muñoz… creating the dresses right there, in front of us.
O.I.: What will you say you learned from seeing him working?
E.M.: That it takes a team. That was what I learned. He had a very good team of very creative strong people around him that were constantly giving him choices, mood boards, the fabrics, accessories… The house models were there in full hair and makeup all day long waiting to be fitted or waiting for the couture clients to come. All that was a team. I think I learned also how hard and meticulous was the work. I don’t like when someone tries to compress a lot of information about fashion, making it look like everything is very easy. It’s not. Making a dress does not take five minutes, the process is actually very hard… working on the perfect fold, working on the perfect fall…
Saint Laurent was very shy, and I was very shy. I went to work there when I was 19
.I.: How did you meet David LaChapelle?
E.M.: I met David through a friend of mine who was a producer. He was trying to make films, videos, commercials, etcetera, and she represented a big video director… of course, I cannot remember the name… Marcus Nispel. So she had met David during the New York days of Studio 54. They were hanging out in a nightclub and he said he wanted to do fashion and especially mentioned he wanted to work in Paris. At the time he was doing a lot of work for Andy Warhol, for Interview magazine… So, she said, “oh I got a friend who lives in Paris, she’s an agent, I’ll ask her.” He sent me his book with photographs of boys with big angel wings… I decided on the spot to represent him. “ I want to represent you.”
OI: Without ever meeting him before?
E.M.: Of course we met before. I went to his studio in New York, on Saint Mark’s place, on top of the theater, in the East Village. And It was love at first sight. I was alone, he had one assistant back then, sort of, to cover him, but was not there. I mean it was a very small joint, it was a very small situation, he was doing mainly artwork. It was later when he started putting together bigger things, and he started hiring people and everything. But at the time he was struggling. I used to advance him money to pay his gas bills.
O.I.: How difficult was to get him going in fashion?
E.M.: At the time he was doing portraits of celebrities but the Paris advertising agencies would go, “oh! this is so kitsch, oh!, this is so American…” It was the moment of grunge, all the girls looking very pale and very skinny, the “heroin chic” look, and David’s angels and portraits of celebrities where all about joy and color and happiness… Not easy.
O.I.: And with magazines?
E.M.: I wanted him to do advertising first… and change a bit the general opinion, but then, I sent the book to a couple of magazines… I think Glamour was our first little assignment, and, then, I felt ready because there was a change in French Vogue. A new editor-in-chief who was this fantastic woman called Joan Juliet Buck, now a big friend, who was a very good writer and she came from America. She was very camp and she knew Lauren Hutton and Malcolm McLaren. So they told me about her and I called and I said, “there is a new direction at French Vogue, so maybe you’re interested in David?” And when she saw his work immediately, immediately, commissioned him a job, his first job, which was the Haute Couture for French Vogue. That was major.
OI: How long it took from A to Z, from the meeting in New York to those assignments?
E.M.: Six years!! It took six years to launch his career. Six years of work, of going to places with his book, of sending the portfolio. But now, he was at French Vogue and at Glamour at the same time and that validated him. I remember he also did an assignment for Spanish designer Pedro del Hierro, a catalog, black and white, with all my friends because we couldn’t afford models. That also validated David because of being able to also do very chic, very beautiful, very sophisticated black and white; the opposite of the loud, colorful aesthetics that were his signature.
O.I.: …Why a novel?
E.M.: Why a novel… Because I have never read a novel about the fashion industry that was what I wanted to read, because from my experience, the fashion world is a very professional, very serious industry in many ways and it attracts a lot of people and most of then they have no idea about how difficult it is to get in, the kind of sacrifices you have to make, the moral standards you could compromise. I wanted to show the fashion industry in a very raw and deep way because I think one of the main aspects of the industry is the love of the surface, and I wanted to go deep, I wanted to understand and show why people are so fascinated by it, why there are drawn to it and why people go so crazy when they start working in the industry.
O.I.: And to do that, nonfiction wouldn’t work?
E.M.: I choose fiction because with fiction I could tell the truth. With nonfiction, you get sued. Plus, the truth, is not just facts, it’s something more complicated.
how difficult it is to get in, the kind of sacrifices you have to make, the moral standards you could compromise
O.I.: Will the industry recognize characters and situations?
E.M.: No. Every character is a mixture of four or five other characters, every situation is a situation inside another situation that expands over three decades; people I have met and things that I have witnessed first person. No, I don’t think they will recognize anybody.
O.I.: And how much of your own story is in the novel?
E.M.: A hundred percent.
O.I.: Is Iris -your main character- yourself? Is Gus de Santos Tony Viramontes?
E.M.: No, not in that way. Many things that happened to Iris didn´t happen to me. Others yes. Same with Gus, Joan, Lou and all the other characters. Of course, there is someone I had in mind when I created Kitti or Saskia, and they probably will have fun with the novel because they will know it is an “echo” of our experiences together.
O.I.: Would you call yourself a reader?
E.M.: I’m a reader. I read “Bonjour Tristesse” from Françoise Sagan, every two or three years. She wrote it when she was eighteen. It’s one of my favorite books in the whole entire world. Because it is a coming of age of a young girl who has a very special relationship with her father and she is a bit it evil and she turns out to be very a complex character in the way that she slowly destroyed her own life and destroys her father’s life by destroying his lovers. Of course, I didn´t relate to the character because I thought, “ oh my God, how can you be so evil?” but I was fascinated by this girl and the world that Françoise Sagan created in this house where they spent two months of that summer.
O.I.: You decided to self-publish Wildchilds…
E.M.: You know, it’s a luxury -she says picking up the novel from the table and opening it-, it is a luxury to have this font, in this size, these big white margins that make your eyes relax and be comfortable… A publisher can chop all that just to save paper… I got everything the way I liked it, the title, the cover picture by Ethan James Green who got total creative freedom. I got to choose the models… Shawn Stussy designed the cover! I cannot imagine anyone better to get that feeling of the 80’s, and the punk, the lo-fi and I mixed the generations. It took three years of my life and a lot of pain to write this novel… No, I was not willing to compromise so[FS12] … Yes, self-publishing one hundred percent. We are already way long into the Twenty-First Century, aren’t we? Nothing will be the same.