In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Melissa Battifarano's career path in fashion certainly had its twists and turns before she landed at where she is today. Currently, she’s the Design Director for Rihanna's Fenty x Puma line, but past work experiences have taken Battifarano from New York to Boston and around the world, spanning across menswear, womenswear, activewear and the urban market. Getting to her dream job was a result of patience, tenacity and hard work.
Born and raised in New York, Battifarano attended FIT and studied knitwear. Throughout design school, she interned at Tommy Hilfiger, which eventually led to her first job for the brand's menswear department to work on knits and sweaters. At the time, through the late '90s and early aughts, the urban market was very popular, says Battifarano. And after reading a profile on Marc Eckō, founder of Eckō Enterprises and Complex Magazine, in The New York Times, she wrote him a letter — "I actually penned a letter," reiterated Battifarano — to say she was a fan of his brand. A few months later, he hired her as a designer for his fashion line, Eckō Unlimited.
From Eckō, Battifarano went to P. Diddy's Sean John line, which she remembers was a great experience that, in 2004, produced an award for CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year. "We had big budgets and got to travel to Italy, London, Tokyo," she says. "For a young designer, it really skyrocketed my career." But when a market hits its peak, it can often take a nosedive, which is what Battifarano experienced for urban fashion. From there, there were setbacks when it came to finding a new job elsewhere. "I wanted to make a clean-cut trajectory in my career and get into Ralph Lauren or the Gap," she says. "But I couldn't get hired because I was seen as an urban designer." She eventually "took a huge paycut, moved to Boston and worked for Puma" — her first glimpse into the activewear industry.
Over the next few years, she went on to design women's for Champion and men's for Ralph Lauren, eventually landing at Fila where she started to feel the itch for something new. "I really wanted to leave and be challenged," says Battifarano. Soon enough, she was hired to launch Tory Burch's athleisure line, Tory Sport, in 2015. "I realized I can really change as a men's designer or a women's designer,"she says. "It was a wonderful validation."
It was at Puma where Battifarano's old boss had reached out and mentioned a new opportunity with Rihanna's Fenty x Puma team. After an interview with the pop star, Battifarano was hired to help build the brand for its debut runway show at New York Fashion Week in February. And the hard work has been paying off: Since Rihanna partnered with Puma, the company has experienced a giant boost in sales among its female customers.
The day before Battifarano participated in a recent panel on personal style for The Other Festival in New York, the designer chatted with Fashionista about streetwear's influence on high fashion, the evolution of activewear and the fashion industry's (not-often-spoken-about) gender gap.
How does your designer role at Fenty x Puma differ from activewear brands like Champion and Tory Sport?
You just mentioned three very distinct brands, and I was at two of the three right as they were getting started. So I think working for a company like Champion, it's taking its legacy and reinventing it every season. But you can't stray too far from that because the customer is used to buying what they're used to buying.
When I was at Tory Sport, we were trying to figure out what we wanted to be. More technical? More fashion? What is the customer looking for? We managed to have a 50-50 split to the line. Half of it is performance-wear, and you can tell. You can run a marathon in those clothes. They had bonded seams, quick-dry, top-of-the-line active Italian fabrics. Conversely, it had a fashion component. It was more athleisure. You could wear it to the gym, after the gym. It's weekend-wear, but it still had a technical bend.
With my current position, it's definitely active-inspired fashion. You can work out in several pieces, for sure, but you're thinking of whose name is on the label. It's Rihanna. As the Creative Director of Puma, it's her vision and what she thinks of an active lifestyle. But it's fashion.
Are you seeing activewear influencing high fashion, too?
I had a minute to look at the resort shows and the first thing I looked at was Givenchy. You can't tell me it's not borderline activewear with the taping down the pants. Gucci resort had hoodies and shirts with a large classic logo. It's actually wild to look at. Jonathan Anderson's new collaboration with A$AP Rocky is a whole athleisure thing with tracksuits and graphic logos. The sky's the limit and it's really going to keep growing without any signs of stopping.
Streetwear is also having a huge moment in high fashion. Did you start seeing that catching on?
It changes from year to year, even four years ago. When streetwear started, you'd be talking about Diamond Supply, Prohibit, Mishka and those brands. I don't even know if they're even around anymore. What even is streetwear anymore? Is it Stussy? It's such an overarching term that it's hard to actually define streetwear. Is Public School streetwear? Is Kith streetwear? It's really fashion. It's just fashion.
Menswear is in such an interesting time, too. I was having a conversation with a designer who's very established in the womenswear market and wants to do men's. What does that mean? He has an after-five line, he does women's red carpet and cocktail dresses. He said he can't find clothes he wants to wear. Menswear is very interesting, and I think Public School is doing it really well. Coming from men's, it's cool to see. Nobody gave a shit about menswear before. It's definitely a changing landscape.
When you were working at menswear labels like Sean Jean, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. Was it often a male-centric work environment?
I was definitely the only female. I was the only female for a long time. Back in the day, it was a boys club.
Did you find that challenging?
I didn't really have that hard of a time fitting in. I was in my early 20s and I just pushed my way up as a designer. I had the mentality, “I'm from Jersey. This is what I think. I'm going to be loud and use that to my advantage.” And it worked.
Do you think there's better representation within the work environment at menswear labels now?
There's better representation, for sure. I think at that time, it was a lot more, like, I don't know how to say it, but church and state, very separate. The people that worked in that industry were mostly graphic designers and graphic design was also more male-dominated. It was definitely a different time. Now [menswear] is more diverse, thank God. It needed to change. When I started, people felt like you had to be a dude to design menswear.
But if you look at who's running womenswear lines or these big fashion houses, they're also mostly men.
I actually think it's sexist. It's crazy how most of these houses, nine out of 10 houses are designed by men. Save for Phoebe Philo, Stella [McCartney]... Every single one is run by a male designer. I mean, what kind of glass ceiling is that? You look at the creative directors, it's all dudes. Even still, you go to a company like Ralph and the board is all dudes. It's definitely still like that. We can talk about the financial ramifications and the salary gap, it's definitely still there. People don't want to talk about it in fashion, because it's so — it's not stuck in that gender gap that's usually associated with industries like banking or finance. But women still have to fight 10 times as hard I think [in fashion.]
Did you have any female mentors throughout your career?
I've actually worked with some really great women. One woman in particular is from my first womenswear job back at Champion. Her name is Denise Smith and she came from Nike and Adidas, these really great active companies. When I started, I was very unsure of myself. I'm a pretty loud, confident woman with a strong personality, and I was so nervous of making a mistake. Something she would always say to me is that you're not going to make a mistake and it's not the end of the world. It's clothes. She gave me the confidence to do my job, and if I make mistakes, I'll get it and understand for next time. She works back at Puma now, so it's almost gone full circle.
What's your advice for designers who want to move forward with their careers?
You have to keep challenging yourself. And you yourself are your worst critic: “I can only do this” or “I can only do men's sweaters.” How do you know unless you try it? In this industry, you can't stand stagnant. If you told me three years ago — when I was at Fila bored out of my mind — that in a year's time I would work with Rihanna, I would've said, “What are you talking about? I can't do that.” Strive and you can do it. Do the research, the legwork and you can do it. Anything you put your mind to, just keep saying yes to it and you'll do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.