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”
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.