ROCK CHIC

AS THE ICONIC WHEELS & DOLL­BABY LABEL TURNS 30, ITS FOUNDER RE­MEM­BERS THE ROCK STARS AND HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS THAT IN­SPIRED HER SUC­CESS “On our first day Michael Jack­son drove past. I get a knock and I look up… and there he was”

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy SAM RUTTYN Words VICTORIA HANNAFORD

Me­lanie Green­smith cel­e­brates 30 years of Wheels & Doll­baby.baby.

Me­lanie Green­smith struts into her shop look­ing ev­ery inch the star. The founder of Wheels & Doll­baby is ready for her close-up, pos­ing for Stel­lar in her retro-chic bou­tique in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills, sur­rounded by leop­ard print, satin and vel­vet.

Her store has a poster of screen icon Rita Hay­worth on the wall, Michael Jack­son is play­ing through the speak­ers and a page from a mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing Blondie’s Deb­bie Harry is on the front counter.

This con­flu­ence of celebri­ties is no co­in­ci­dence; each has had their role in the suc­cess of Wheels & Doll­baby, which Green­smith es­tab­lished 30 years ago. She says the in­spi­ra­tion for her clothes, with their vin­tage flair and hour­glass sil­hou­ettes, came from film icons such as Hay­worth.

“I al­ways just wanted to look like Ava Gard­ner and those great screen god­desses from that era,” she says.

Green­smith, who was born in Lon­don but raised in Perth by her English par­ents – her mother was a show­girl and her fa­ther a crick­eter – left school at 15 and moved to Syd­ney, fall­ing in with a mu­sic crowd that in­cluded Tex Perkins and Nick Cave. At 18, she went back to Lon­don to live for a few years, and the trip proved fate­ful.

“It was a time just after punk and I learnt so much – [mu­sic and fashion] were very much to­gether, and I loved English fashion,” she says. “Kens­ing­ton Mar­ket, which I thought was fab­u­lous, was there; John Gal­liano had a stall, Vivi­enne West­wood was there.”

She hit upon the idea of mak­ing belts with Tri­umph mo­tor­cy­cle badges, and then sold them to bou­tiques on the fash­ion­able King’s Road in Chelsea. She made a lit­tle money, and then de­cided to re­turn home to start up her label in 1987.

Right from the start, the self-taught de­signer was de­ter­mined to stay true to her style – whether or not it was in fashion: “Ev­ery­one here was wear­ing white T-shirts, Levi’s and Dr. Martens. I turned up; I had rub­ber dresses, cow­boy boots with spi­der webs all over them from Mex­ico and stud­ded leather jack­ets.”

And it was the King Of Pop who was her first cus­tomer, knock­ing on the door of her bou­tique in Syd­ney’s in­ner city one night as she was set­ting up for her first day of trad­ing.

“I had this fab­u­lous jacket that we’d made and Michael Jack­son drove past; com­ing in for the Bad tour. I’m in there paint­ing and I get a knock and I look up and I just go, ‘Oh my f*ck­ing god,’ and there he was,” she says.

Green­smith opened her doors, and Jack­son bought the jacket he’d seen in the win­dow. The sale paid her rent for the month, but the de­signer was also canny enough to know she could turn the pur­chase into pub­lic­ity. She called up MTV, they brought their cam­eras to her store to do a story on Wheels & Doll­baby, and the as­so­ci­a­tion with her label and rock’n’roll was ce­mented.

Green­smith went on to sell clothes to some of the big­gest stars of that era. “Divinyls, INXS and John Cougar Mel­len­camp – all of them were com­ing,” she says.

She also found love with Mark Mcen­tee, then-gui­tarist with the Divinyls, and the pair be­came a cou­ple 16 years ago. “We got to­gether and he kind of opened a lot of doors for me,” she says.

He in­tro­duced her to Deb­bie Harry, whom she col­lab­o­rated with, and Green­smith says the Blondie singer gave her great ad­vice – and cred­i­bil­ity.

“She was re­ally kind to me and taught me a few things. Deb­bie re­ally helped my ca­reer be­cause once she worked with me, then [other stars] wanted to. She gave me the star pull that [meant] they took me se­ri­ously.”

Green­smith went on to col­lab­o­rate with Dita Von Teese and has re­cently cre­ated tour out­fits for The Pre­tenders front­woman Chrissie Hynde. Her celebrity clien­tele has also con­tin­ued to grow: Jerry Hall, Bob Dy­lan, Court­ney Love, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son and Katy Perry have all worn her de­signs.

There have been as many peaks as troughs along the way. Grunge, which ar­rived in the early 1990s with its anti-fashion aes­thetic, was a low point for the label. But when Kate Moss and Sadie Frost were pic­tured by pa­parazzi wear­ing Wheels & Doll­baby in the early 2000s, the label gained global trac­tion. Ma­jor UK depart­ment stores, in­clud­ing Har­rods and Har­vey Ni­chols, were clam­our­ing for Green­smith’s stock. She says the or­ders were lu­cra­tive, but threat­ened to over­whelm the busi­ness.

“We had nowhere to pack. I had to hire an old shed, it was about 40 de­grees and all my staff were pack­ing the or­der. I sold a Gretsch gui­tar with Bob Dy­lan’s au­to­graph that he’d given me – I sold ev­ery­thing – to get the money to build the or­der, and then I was away,” she says.

Nev­er­the­less, in 2008, after five years com­mut­ing be­tween Aus­tralia and Lon­don, Green­smith de­cided to sim­plify her busi­ness and bring it all back to Aus­tralia, and sell to in­ter­na­tional cus­tomers via her web­site.

“I was ab­so­lutely shat­tered, I was fly­ing here and there,” she says. “I had tucked away some money and I needed a bit of a chill-out.”

Since then, she has opened and closed a bou­tique in Perth, where she has a home, to fo­cus on the Surry Hills bou­tique where it all be­gan. In a dif­fi­cult en­vi­ron­ment for lo­cal fashion brands – David Lawrence, Col­lette Din­ni­gan, Marcs, Lisa Ho and Eas­ton Pear­son are just some of the es­tab­lished busi­nesses that have gone into ad­min­is­tra­tion or closed com­pletely in re­cent years – Green­smith, who wholly owns her Aus­tralian-man­u­fac­tured label, re­mains mod­est about her suc­cess.

“There’s no recipe; I love the hus­tle of build­ing some­thing and sell­ing it. I just kept it re­ally sim­ple: pay as you owe, don’t bor­row too much, put a lit­tle bit away for a rainy day.

“Now we’re a her­itage brand. I’m not a great de­signer by any means, but I know how to make a girl look her best. I want a girl to walk into a party and own the room in one of my dresses.”

DOLLED UP (clock­wise from left) Me­lanie Green­smith at her rock-glam Wheels & Doll­baby bou­tique; the de­signer (left) with Jerry Hall; star fans Deb­bie Harry, the Divinyls and Dita Von Teese.

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