by By Robb Young, New York Times
Cheap, cheerful and totally disposable, the plastic jelly shoe is about as ubiquitous as footwear gets. Ask any woman 40 or younger and, at some point between preschool and puberty, she had a pair or two kicking around. Half ballerina slipper, half sandal and in 101 colors, they were part of growing up.
In countries like Brazil, where the open shoe keeps feet ventilated and gritty beach sand from clinging, it is little wonder that humble jellies are big business. There, they are as much a part of the lifestyle as the bikini. So where else could a single jelly shoe brand seduce design snobs, fashionistas and the masses alike – to the tune of about 2.3 million pairs a year.
In mom-and-pop style stalls on the outskirts of São Paulo’s favelas, Melissa is the status-bearing brand among the many rival plastic sandals and flip-flops in the bargain bins. Yet just up in the hill at Melissa’s flagship concept boutique in the luxury triangle of Oscar Freire, customers spending 50 times as much for crystal-studded versions eagerly await the release of new styles created by the world’s most provocative architects and fashion designers.
How is a brand that started by selling plastic packaging for wine crates able to straddle both worlds and defy the business caveat that you can’t be everything to everyone?
“Many companies around the world produce plastic shoes and this category is extremely popular. But our way of positioning Melissa as an authentic design object is through its intellectual value,” said Edson Matsuo, the brand’s creative director, who pointed out that the more exclusive ranges of Melissa are now found around the world in fashion retail meccas like Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York and Dover Street Market in London.
Pushing the PVC material Melflex to its design limits, the company now makes wedges, pumps, kitten heels, oxfords and virtually every shoe shape and combination in between. Specially developed finishings, patterns, textures and surfaces are all given the Melissa signature by injecting the malleable plastic into constantly updated molds.
Long before H&M bagged Karl Lagerfeld, making theirs the benchmark of high- and low-design collaborations, Melissa also courted household names in the fashion world. In 1983, when Brazil was no more relevant to European designers than as a holiday destination, Melissa coaxed Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler to do a show in São Paulo using their shoes.
The arrangement resulted in a series of plastic sandals designed by the emblematic ’80s names and the beginning of a marketing strategy that would see Melissa team up with Brazil’s own leading designers to create co-branded merchandise years later.
Alexandre Herchcovitch, Cavalera, Isabela Capeto and many more have added a touch of their creative visions to Melissa’s ranges since the company met stiff competition from similar brands 10 years ago. Constant exposure in the country’s most anticipated catwalk shows has led to valuable associations among luxury consumers. And most co-branded ranges are distributed by both Melissa and the designer, so market penetration is doubly wide.
Even braver partnerships followed the opening of the Melissa concept store, which is completely redesigned every three months by some of Latin America’s most celebrated architects and artists, and the subsequent attention during São Paulo Fashion Week by the international fashion industry.
International industrial and furniture designers like Karim Rashid and the Campana Brothers put their stamp on the brand, and last month Vivienne Westwood revealed two of her classic shoe styles reinterpreted in Melissa’s plastic. Next up is the architect Zaha Hadid, whose tentacled sandal prototype is already causing a stir among design maniacs.
According to the Brazilian fashion analyst and journalist Gloria Kalil, Melissa is a different spin on the “affordable luxury” trend.
“Now it’s cool to personalize your look with something unexpected, inexpensive and audacious. Melissa is a popular brand that sells a product attached to a big designer name to make it upmarket,” she said.
But the fact that a commodity like ordinary plastic can enter elite wardrobes through a little value-added marketing and design says as much about the evolving definition of luxury as it does about the ambitious chameleon of a brand behind it.
“There is nothing more ‘ordinary’ than a Coca-Cola bottle or a can of Campbell’s soup, but properly portrayed in Andy Warhol’s work and it became refined pop art. We use similar reasoning behind Melissa’s strategy,” Matsuo said.
“Why should modern design and taste only be characterized by expensive products for the wealthy classes?”