Melissa Odabash - the queen of the perfectly cut costume - is sitting between her two daughters Alaia and Avalon (named after her favourite designer and the Roxy Music song) at her imposing Hyde Park home. “This is the first time I’ve seen you two talking - see how nice it is being together?” she says as the girls laugh at their mother affectionately...
It would be easy to forget amidst all the celebrity vacations and poolside posing required while running a multi-million-pound swimwear label that Melissa is also a mother – albiet a very high-octane one. Her “other husband” is fashion designer Julien Macdonald (her real one is Spanish internet entrepreneur Nicolas De Santis) and outside her dressing room suite is a wall of pictures with every star you can imagine. At one point our shoot is put on pause while Melissa posts a picture of Jennifer Lawrence wearing one of her swimsuits in the film Passengers, and she just happens to let slip that she has just got back from LA to visit Kris Jenner.
“Yes, I was lucky enough to be invited out to LA by Kris and had a crazy time!” she enthuses. “I love all of them; they are a great family very nice, thoughtful, and polite and so much fun. I have so much respect for Kris, she’s created such a close family, they all look after each other and I love their curves, they make everything so sexy!”. Then again it’s hard not to feel good in Melissa’s designs. Her whole collection, which now includes ready-to-wear and oozes ease and sunshine, is much like the designer herself. Stylish, upbeat, fun – it’s as if vitamin D runs in her veins (she’s hospitable to boot and orders in pizzas at the end of the shoot for all of the crew).
It’s hard to believe that her career began going door-to-door in Rome (she was scouted as a model in her hometown in New Jersey) with 10 bikini samples hoping people would buy them. “I was even too scared to admit I was the designer,” she says. Now nearly 20 years later Melissa Odabash sells in 58 countries, has two London boutiques, a host of pop-up shops, two factories, 50 staff worldwide and multiple collections and collaborations every year – most notably her mastectomy swimwear line launched in collaboration with the breast cancer charity Future Dreams. “I feel very fortunate to have gotten this far,” she says.
We sat down with her to find out what life is like on planet Odabash.
Words: Claire Brayford | Photography: Lauren Michelle | Go to www.odabash.com
Can you tell us about your childhood in New Jersey?
I remember that I was always outside with friends, family and neighbours either doing sport or playing games – we lived on a cul-de-sac and every house had kids my age so there was a great community. My mother would ring a bell at 6pm, which meant it was dinnertime and the fun was over [ha ha] – it was an amazing place to grow up, I have great memories.
And tell us about your own mother and what she’s taught you?
My mother, Lois, is one of the most lovable and calm people I know. She taught us to always give back, appreciate how lucky we are and to be kind to everyone we meet and those are values I’ve tried to carry with me and teach to my kids too. Both of my parents did so much charity work, we even have our own Odabash charity fund, which helps less fortunate families in our area. My mother also taught me everything I know about fashion, she has always loved clothes and had fabulous style as well as being able to sew – she is an incredible artist.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
My mother without a doubt! We would watch all the European fashion shows on CNN when I was a kid and she would get WWD every day and read me the stories. When I was eight she taught me to sew and every year she would go away with my father to Saint Martin in the Caribbean and bring back French bikinis and hand-made crochet shorts for my sisters and I – I guess that’s what sparked my swimwear obsession.
Tell us about your days as a model?
Let’s just say I was 18 and living in Paris, so there was a lot of partying, [ha ha]. I was very lucky, as I never liked drugs or alcohol, but I loved to dance, so I got to have so much fun and never paid for it with a hangover the next day. After that I moved to Italy where I worked with a lot of the big designers doing their shows or fittings, which was an amazing experience.
When have you felt most comfortable about your body?
I took up running when I was around 23 and, as I’ve kept it up, I’m still just as comfortable in my body now. I’m very fortunate that I never gain weight and have never felt insecure about my body – not even now! I’m around beautiful top models who are naked and trying on bikinis most the time, so you can’t really be in this business if you’re not happy in yourself. You just realise it’s not worth worrying about.
How did you first get your foot in the notoriously difficult to open fashion door?
My friend Barrie was going to the USA for some shoots and I convinced her to take my sample line… she got me into Sports Illustrated magazine! All of the top models at the time Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum etc were all suddenly wearing my product and that was what launched my brand.
You have met some amazing people in your career – who has been one of your favourites?
I love David Furnish and Elton John, they are close friends of mine, and they do amazing charity work relentlessly – no matter how crazy their schedules are. I have total respect for that.
Why have you decided to move more into ready-to-wear?
I travel non-stop and so I always need adaptable dresses that are easy to wear and that you can just throw in your suitcase. I felt like there was a gap for chic but versatile resort-wear and I decided to fill it and make these kinds of dresses myself.
Why did you choose Australian model Natasha Oakley to model the collection?
Tash is a hard-working and driven entrepreneur who’s created a worldwide brand based around swimwear – just like myself. After getting the chance to meet in London last year, we’ve gone on to become good friends, so it only felt natural for us to work together. I’d been looking high and low for a stunning model with healthy, natural curves and she’s exactly the look I wanted.
What has been your career highlight?
There are too many to list. But this year I accepted the Humanitarian Award from the Future Dreams Breast cancer charity for my Mastectomy swimwear line. It’s all about what you give back.
What has motherhood taught you so far?
There is nothing more important than my kids. They constantly keep your reality in check. I had Justin Beiber show up at a catwalk show I did in Monaco, I was so excited to tell them and let them know I was cool, but then they both said ‘aghhhh he’s so passé’. I was gutted!
What are your secrets for a strong marriage?
Have a gay best friend to do all the fun things that your husband won’t do with you – mine is Julien Macdonald!
“ Have a gay best friend to do all the fun things that your husband won’t do with you - mine is Julien Macdonald! ”
How do you juggle your work commitments with being a mother? Do you find it stressful?
Yes, at times it can be tough, but I’m a very calm person and I just seem to manage a lot of juggling. I actually forgot to pick my daughter up from school yesterday; I ended up showing up 45 minutes late with a big chocolate lolly to say sorry – you can’t beat yourself up over it!
What are some of the challenges of raising teenage daughters?
I’ve been there and done everything, so I know every trick in the book and so it will be impossible to get away with anything. I’m also really open with them both, so they tell me everything anyway and even if it kills me inside, I just play it cool, give them advice. It’s so important to have that honesty between mothers and daughters.
What do you love to do together?
I love travelling with my older daughter. She can get herself around in any country; she’s just so savvy and street smart. She’s so easy to travel with and loves food almost as much as I do, so she’ll try anything – unlike my younger daughter who is really fussy about food. We love to do active stuff together like roller-skating or skiing instead.
Is it lovely now that Alaia is a little older to get ready for special nights out together?
Yes, I can now bring her along to events I’m invited to. She holds herself very well, she’s very mature in some ways, but she knows how to have fun. As she’s travelled with me and helps with things like shows and sample sales she’s learnt to be very good around adults.
What kind of role model do you hope to be to them?
I always try to be someone who is kind to everyone, no matter what their job or their background is. Helping those in need is another key thing I communicate to both my girls – I make them work at a lot of my charity events so that they understand that not everyone is as fortunate as they are and they can see that first hand. Thanks to the fact I started my own business, I’ve always shown them the need to work hard and be self-sufficient – depending on someone else is not the way to go. It’s worked well, they are good kids and I’m really proud of them both.
What about Instagram – what do you love about social media?
OMG, it’s so much fun. I am a very visual person, so I love being able to share my trips with people and I’m always snapping away wherever in the world I am, whether it’s at work in London, doing sports at my home in Florida or visiting a new pop-up shop in the Maldives. Social media is also a great way to meet creative people and it shows your clients how you want them to see your product.
What has been your most popular post?
There were a few videos that I reposted of a Swedish girl doing a workout in my swimsuit on a skateboard that had 40,000 views. Kris Jenner did a post on me with all my beachwear and I got so many followers from her it was mad – my phone was going crazy. I’m very fortunate because I work with a lot of the A-list, so it helps my posts reach a wide audience and appeal to lots of swimwear fans.
Why do you think people love following you so much?
I don’t take myself too seriously, people always love to see what’s going on behind the scenes and I’m promoting a feel-good product. Swimsuits and bikinis make people think of holidays and help them to imagine they are on sun-filled trip, plus they can choose their wardrobe through my Instagram.
How would you describe your interiors style?
I love old Halston and Tom Ford interiors from his movie ‘A Single Man’ but I also love bright rooms. My good friend Kelly Hoppen kindly found the time in her schedule to do my kitchen a few years ago, but then the rest of the house didn’t look great, so I hired Caroline Le Grand and she helped me transform all of the rooms. We shopped a lot in Miami at vintage furniture stores and got some great deals!
What are some of the most treasured pieces in your home?
I love the black lacquered cabinets and table, they remind me of the 1970s and are so timeless and chic.
Where do you like to relax at home?
If I want to relax I head straight to my bathtub. I put a TV in there to help me create a little sanctuary where I can get away from everyone, but they still manage to come in non-stop – even the cat.
What are your fashion essentials?
My style is quite relaxed and boho, I live in jeans and T-shirts with leather bomber jackets in the daytime and I love dresses at night. If it’s a black tie event I wear only Julien Macdonald couture dresses, Jimmy Choo heels are always my shoe of choice and YSL bomber jackets finish off my look.
How do you keep fit?
Running, rollerblading, water skiing – you name it! I love to do anything outdoors, but I can’t stand gyms. I need fresh air, which isn’t that easy in London, so I bought a house in Florida that is my retreat and where I often go with my family in school holidays to escape, relax and recharge.
Do you try to eat well?
I eat super healthy! I try to stick to an alkaline diet, so I have Elle Macpherson’s Super Elixir powder in a shake every morning, I avoid meat and I try to eat a vegetarian meal at every opportunity.
Do you like to cook or entertain?
I’m the worst cook. I can do about five amazing pasta dishes, but when I lived in Italy every boyfriend I had cooked, so I never went in the kitchen and learnt for myself – but I do love having friends over.
What beauty essentials do you swear by?
Dr Rita Rakus SPF 50 moisturiser – it’s the best. Guerlain Super Aqua eye patches, REN’s Rose body oil, YSL Touché Eclat is a lifesaver and for my hair I use SHOW Beauty’s heat protection spray whenever I use my GHD curling iron.
Melissa’s quick-fire questions:
Coffee or tea: Coffee in the am, Green tea in the afternoon.
Typical breakfast: A protein shake with Welleco’s The Super Elixir powder.
On your bedside table you’ll find: An iPad, magazines and lip balm.
Exercise of choice: Jogging or cycling.
Book you’re currently reading: Diane von Furstenberg ‘The Woman I Wanted To Be’.
Heels or flats: Flats in the day, heels at night.
Tidy or messy: Both
Dream travel destination: Tiamo Island in Bahamas, it’s a mix of the Maldives and Out of Africa – the food there is some of the best I’ve ever eaten!