It wasn’t until a store placed an order for nearly everything on offer that Melissa Coker of LA-based label Wren realized she had a bona fide fashion line. The Illinois-raised, NYU-educated designer was working in the fashion industry for years before cutting her first pattern. Coker spent her early career in New York working in the magazine industry (for titles like Vogue and W no less), before relocating to LA. One day, a void in her wardrobe led Coker to design a few pieces of her own, which ended up being the start of her very own fashion label, and in 2007 Wren was born.
The label is named for literary character Jenny Wren, who the designer affectionately describes as “a winsome creature who makes dresses for dolls in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend—she emblemized the brand's air of free-spirited exuberance mixed with a tomboy's touch.” Coker manages to bring that nostalgic mood to her contemporary collections, a quality that has earned her fans in girls like Alexa Chung and Zooey Deschanel.
We caught up with Coker, who is now based in a spacious studio in downtown LA, where she produces her collections. Of course we were dying to know how one of our favorite indie labels grew from a hobby to a successful brand, and how Helmut Lang and Andre Leon Tally played a part. Read on to find out how Melissa Coker of Wren is making it...
What was your relationship like with fashion growing up? I loved watching 60s films like Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Graduate and then trying to copy the outfits...
Tell us about the start of your career in fashion. You did some time at Helmut Lang? My very first foray into fashion was at Helmut Lang right when he relocated from Paris to NY. It was a really exciting time to be there--a time when Helmut himself was actually at the helm. I learned a lot about not just fashion but art as well. It was my first introduction to artists like Louise Bourgeois and Jenny Holzer--he was using artwork in his advertisements and had works in the store.
You also worked in magazines, what was that experience like and how did it influence you? I worked under Alex White at W and Andre Leon Talley at Vogue. He was a mentor for me. He would give me books and tell me about films I should watch--things to expand my point of view and develop my eye.
Tell us about deciding to launch Wren. There were a few things that I wanted and couldn’t find in stores, so I had some friends set me up with pattern makers and I started making things for myself. I made ten pieces and realized that I basically had a small collection. I brought it to some stores and they bought everything. Wren was born!
How did you transition it into a career? At the time, I was working for big corporate apparel companies providing conceptual direction and that's where I got my first taste of design. But when Opening Ceremony picked up my entire first collection, that's when I knew this was what I needed to be doing and that it was the next step for me.
What were some of the early obstacles in starting your own label? The technical aspects, like finding the right sewers, pattern makers and factories in LA.
What is the ethos of the brand? Free spirited exuberance, restrained elegance and low-key sophistication
Was there a certain moment when when you felt the label was making it? One of the most exciting moments for me was when we sold our first item in our store. I was over the moon.
You have lived on both coasts—do they both influence you? New York has a very special energy and I always feel inspired when I'm there but I'm also incredibly inspired by the beach and nature of LA. I think it's the combination of these two aspects that really influence my collections.
Who are your muses and style icons? I love the style of girls like Gia Coppola, Tennessee Thomas and Alexa Chung, and I've always been into 60s style icons like Julie Christie, Catherine Deneuve, and Mia Farrow.
Do you have specific inspirations when starting your new collections? There's always a vague 60s thread and then we layer other inspirations on top--especially from film, books and girls I see on the street.
Do you follow the fashion world closely? Who are your favorite designers? I follow the fashion world to a certain degree, but not quite as closely as I once did. My favorite designers are Charles Anastase, Jerome Dreyfuss and Charlotte Olympia.
How do you describe your style philosophy? I'm most drawn to people who have their own sense of style -- they know what works for them, what they like and dress accordingly. That's the essence of my style philosophy. I try to resist things that are too trendy or I feel like I'll see on all sorts of other people.
Who would you love to dress? I would love to dress Florence Welch and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka)!
You've done a few collaborations, tell us about those and would you like to do more? We've worked with handbag designer Clare Vivier on a line of eco-friendly totes and clutches and Dana Lorenz of Fenton / Fallon on a capsule of jewelry. Currently, we are working on a very exciting collaboration with Minnetonka Moccasins, swimwear with the Lake & Stars and a special capsule with Leith Clark of Lula.
Any fun plans on the horizon you can share with us? Unveiling the new collaborations and premiering our fall video which stars Joanna Newsome--we shot it on a cliff top in Malibu with an eagle owl on hand.