You Magazine - 22nd May 2016

'So what is your secret, Melissa?' Melissa Odabash Interview

Melissa Odabash Interview

Article Type: Press

Publication: You Magazine

Published: 22/May/2016

So what is your secret, Melissa? It was the big question after a bikini-buff snap of designer Melissa Odabash, 45, went viral. She reveals all in our exclusive interview.

By Amy E Williams For You Magazine

‘I may have been a model, but like every other woman, I hate myself in photographs. I hate my nose, I hate this, I hate that. But now Instagram has come along and suddenly I can’t avoid it,' says Melissa

Melissa Odabash spends most of her life in a state of semi-undress.

At the Mayfair HQ of her multimillion-pound swimwear business, she can often be found padding about in a bikini, or sitting at her desk in nothing but her bra and pants.

‘I’d say in my office I am naked most of the time,’ she jokes, as we meet over a glass of lunchtime champagne at a restaurant next door. (For the record, she is fully clothed in a black turtleneck, which she pulls as high as it will go.)

‘I am my own fit-model: we fit everything to me first, so I have to try on every single bikini and one-piece we make.

'Sometimes I don’t bother to put all my clothes back on, because I only have to take them off again!’ she says.

‘I’d say in my office I am naked most of the time. I am my own fit-model: we fit everything to me first, so I have to try on every single bikini and one-piece we make,' says Melissa

For the rest of us, this sounds like some sort of nightmare. But for Melissa, who is 45, swimwear has been a de facto uniform for more than two decades. The Duchess of Cambridge, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Elle Macpherson and Rihanna are all fans of her designs.

Melissa grew up in a middle-class suburb in New Jersey, where, aged 18, she was scouted by a modelling agent while swimming in her neighbour’s pool.

As in all great discovery tales, this led to a trip to Paris and then gigs working as a fit-model in Italy for the likes of Valentino and Fendi.

‘My job was to stand in my underwear all day and have clothes pinned on to me,’ she says. ‘Wearing very little became kind of normal.’

But then we’d all feel much happier wearing very little if we looked more like ultra-slim, 5ft 10in Melissa. Her eponymous empire has been built on her being the brand’s best ambassador, a fact that has really come into its own in the Instagram age.

‘I may have been a model, but like every other woman, I hate myself in photographs,’ she insists.

‘I hate my nose, I hate this, I hate that. But now Instagram has come along and suddenly I can’t avoid it. My team tell me I have to keep posting photos.’

And with good reason: according to the staff in her Notting Hill boutique, when Melissa posts a photo wearing something from the collection, there will follow a steady flow of customers clutching iPhones with screenshots of her feed. Selfies on the beach (beachies?) have therefore become a necessary part of the Melissa Odabash business plan.

It helps that she spends a large part of her year in Palm Beach, Florida, where she has a home.

When she posted a photo of herself in a sporty one-piece last December, she looked so sensational that the Daily Mail turned it into a splashy story under the headline ‘What is swimwear guru Melissa Odabash’s secret?’

‘That was the funniest thing,’ she says modestly. ‘I was jetlagged, but I wanted to show one of our sports-luxe pieces because I know it doesn’t have much hanger appeal but looks great on.

'Next thing I know, I get a text from David Furnish, who is a great friend of mine, which just read, “Nice photo in the newspaper!”’

We agree that at least with your own Instagram photos you have the benefit of adding a flattering filter and taking it a few times to get it right – you don’t get so lucky with pap shots.

‘I was at Soho Beach House in Miami for New Year and all the British cool crowd were there – you know, Rita Ora, Alexa Chung and crew – so the beach was swarming with paparazzi,’ Melissa says.

‘I was with Julien [Macdonald, the designer and Melissa’s best friend] and I refused to walk to the water in case the paps got a shot of my thighs in the midday sun.’

It seems unimaginable that Melissa has to worry about her thighs (she tells me she has always struggled to keep weight on) but she is acutely aware of the gossip columns’ penchant for photos of beautiful bikini-clad women who display even a suggestion of cellulite.

‘Trust me, even Gisele [Bündchen] would have a problem if she was being photographed in full daylight,’ she says.

‘It’s silly, but we are all so used to seeing such touched-up images that when we see shots of beautiful women it’s, like, “OK, so they are human after all!”

'We should really be celebrating other women, not criticising them. What happened to women supporting women?’ She pauses. ‘From now on, I’m just going to walk straight into that water!’

I suggest that if you’re in danger of being papped on Miami Beach yourself, wearing a Melissa Odabash bikini may just help you feel better about the situation.

She has become the queen of the perfect-fitting two-piece – and in more recent times swimsuits, too, as they continue to enjoy a renaissance – and her designs are considered some of the most flattering and long-lasting around.

Melissa launched her first collection in 1998, after becoming frustrated with the ill-made bikinis she so often found herself wearing on modelling assignments in Italy. It may not seem that long ago, but in swimwear terms it was practically the dark ages.

‘When I started, I think there were about 15 brands in the whole world producing swimwear. No one was doing it well and very few were selling at any time other than holiday season,’ explains Melissa.

Though she started the business in Italy, learning everything on the go and using a tiny workshop where a mother-and-son team made her designs on out-of-date sewing machines, it was the UK where she would make her mark.

She moved here from Rome after meeting her half-Italian, half-Spanish but London-based boyfriend (now husband) Nicolas de Santis, who is a brand strategist, during a weekend trip to the capital in 1998. It all happened pretty fast when, three months into the relationship, she discovered she was pregnant.

‘There I was, moving countries to live with a guy I didn’t even know,’ she laughs. ‘But it was the best thing that could have happened to me. If it wasn’t for the UK, I would never have got where I am.’

Despite having some early success when her second set of samples ended up being modelled by Tyra Banks for Sports Illustrated, her big break came when Harvey Nichols agreed to stock her collection.

This was only after she’d blagged her way into a meeting by claiming to know the editor of Vogue (when she’d just name-checked the magazine’s masthead).

Now, hers is one of the department store’s bestselling brands. Harvey Nichols has calculated – specially for this article – that if all the Melissa Odabash bikinis they have sold were laid out in a line, it would reach the top of The Shard 24 times over.

‘There was not a week when I didn’t want to give up the whole idea,’ Melissa says of the early days of her business.

‘And I am no good with anxiety – I started getting panic attacks. But you just have to keep going.’

Melissa helped convince fashion editors in New York and London that swimwear should be considered a fashion item.

‘I’d say to people, “Think how many weeks a year your readers spend on vacation. I can pretty much guarantee they are spending more time in my swimsuits than they are in Gucci coats!”’

Of course, she also had to convince people that something so itsy-bitsy was worthy of its not-so-teeny-weeny price tag.

Her popular Cancun triangle bikini, for instance, costs £91 for the top and £91 for the bottoms (all Melissa’s two-piece designs are sold on a mix-and-match basis, handy when you’re big below and small up top, or vice versa), and few people would not question why three pieces of fabric held together by stretchy ties should cost near-on £200.

‘I use really high-end fabrics and they are all lined with the same material, too. There is no skimping on lining, there is no skimping on anything,’ she says, used to defending her prices.

‘You can buy several cheaper bikinis but you’ll have to buy three more next year. Buy one high-quality bikini that fits and flatters you perfectly, and you can wear it for ten years,’ she says.

‘Though, of course, I want people to buy several.’

It is important to point out that, unlike most high-street versions, many of Melissa’s designs are now made in the UK.

‘I opened a factory in Leicester and I am employing British people, so the costs of production are high, but it is important for me to do that. I want to support manufacturing in this country.’

Mary Portas would be proud.

‘Yes, she tweeted me. She said, “Well done you!”’ But Mary may not be so proud of the fact that Melissa has never set foot on a British beach.

‘I know, can you believe it?’ she laughs. ‘I mean, I hear Cornwall is beautiful.’

Despite living a jet-set existence, giving back is an essential part of the Odabash ethos. She recalls her father, a businessman, secretly donating money through the local church to pay the college fees or heating bills of less well-off families in the community where she grew up.

‘My father was one of the most giving men in the world. It was only after he died that people found out he’d been everyone’s secret Santa.’

Designing a mastectomy range in conjunction with breast cancer charity Future Dreams has been a vital part of Melissa’s recent work (a second collaboration collection is due out early next year).

‘My sister Jamie has had breast cancer, so it is an issue close to me. The response has been incredible.

'The range sold out on Net-A-Porter straight away. It has been such an inspiring experience; I have met women with breast cancer and they are so positive – and I think, “I will never complain again.”’

She also impresses her philosophy on her two daughters, Alaia, 17, and Avalon, 13.

‘I am drilling them all the time that if you see someone living on the street, you give them a pound.

'I make Alaia a packed lunch to stop her spending her pocket money in Starbucks and she came home recently and told me she’d given £5 to a homeless person.

'So I gave her an extra £5 for giving it away.’

Melissa is not sure if they’ll follow her into the swimwear biz.

‘They’re not that interested and they don’t think I’m cool. I’m only cool if I can get them free Lady Gaga tickets.’

Melissa, Nicolas and their family split their time between Bayswater, London, and Palm Beach, where they own a home in a private, palm-tree-lined gated complex. The relationship may have begun as a whirlwind but it has stood the test of time.

‘The trick is to never give up work,’ Melissa says.

She is fiercely independent and jokes that she spends more time with Julien Macdonald than with Nicolas.

‘Julien is my other husband,’ she says. ‘He’s the party one – but I also try to take care of myself. I take 25 vitamins a day. I eat healthily, and I eat lots.

'Every morning I have a smoothie with kale and kiwi and things like that, but also two scoops of peanut butter.

'My downfall is giant pretzels and chocolate chip cookies, but that’s fine. I tell my girls, “Eat what you want.” I’m careful to do that.’

In the brand’s catalogue and on her website, Melissa is wary of choosing models who might be considered too thin.

‘It is all about curvy girls; I am pro healthy-looking models.

'Take the Kardashians – they are curvy, they like food, they look great. You can say what you like about them but they are not promoting eating disorders – and there are plenty of young girls out there worrying about these things.’

She is also a fan of swimwear bloggers such as Natasha Oakley – an Australian model who, though ludicrously beautiful and petite, looks healthy.

‘I try not to worry about ageing either,’ Melissa adds. ‘I’d rather do it naturally. I love spa treatments. I get regular hydra facials with Dr Rita Rakus in Knightsbridge.'

'I used to get Botox but I think people are overdoing it. So many women are starting to look older than they are, especially when you start playing around with your face when you are young.’

And – good news, in a post-Helen-Mirren-in-that-red-bikini world – Melissa believes there is no age limit to wearing a bikini.

‘I can’t even tell how old anyone is any more, can you? And if you go to the South of France there are women of all ages in bikinis.

'We don’t live in a world where a grandmother is someone with grey hair and rollers, so why shouldn’t they wear a fabulous bikini any more?’

One thing is certain, Melissa Odabash is going to be spotted on Miami Beach in one for decades to come.