Style Points is a weekly column about how fashion intersects with the wider world.
They say to never meet your heroes, but for Emma Gage, a chance encounter with Betsey Johnson at the Met was what helped launch her fashion career. Gage went up to the designer, who was renewing her museum membership, to tell her that she and her high school friends loved wearing Johnson’s clothes. “And she was like, ‘Oh, that’s great to hear, but what I want to know more is: did you have a good time in them? Did you enjoy yourself?’ And that’s something that always stuck with me.”
As a result of that fortuitous meeting, Gage began interning for Johnson, working on projects like a helmet for the Super Bowl and a Betsey Glinda doll for the anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. She also absorbed the sense of fashion-as-fun that Johnson made her signature, something she’d take with her into her later work.
By 2020, Gage had carved out a career in design, and she had been thinking about starting her own fashion label for a while. After being laid off during the pandemic, she retreated to her home state of Minnesota, where she sewed and made masks, then decided to take the leap and launch Melke. The name comes from her Midwestern pronunciation of the word “milk,” and it’s not the only way she’s drawn inspiration from the region. Her collection “49.0610° N, 94.8475° W, Lake of the Woods” drew on the family fishing trips she took in the northern part of the state, and she even used fishing lures passed down from her grandfather to adorn the clothes.
In the vein of designers like Elena Velez and Tracy Reese, Gage is proud of her Midwest roots and makes sure to incorporate the region into her designs. “Being from Minnesota is core to my identity and how I design,” she says. “It’s something that I want to share with people.” Gage has fond memories of her mother creating historical accessories to teach her art history students (and dressing a young Gage up in them), and of her grandmother getting her a design-your-own dress kit from FAO Schwarz.
Her fall 2023 collection, “Peaches and Pests,” was squarely in line with New York Fashion Week’s current quirky-art-girl moment (see also: Batsheva, Ella Emhoff, and Puppets and Puppets). Inspired by James and the Giant Peach, both the book and the 1996 Henry Selick film, she studded some looks with “peaches” handcrafted by an artisan in Brooklyn and worked with a Kyiv-based artisan on embroidered insects. Spring 2023’s egg and sausage motifs were a nod to the 1960s Czech film Daisies, directed by Vera Chytilová, in which the two madcap heroines chop up and devour those foods.
“I love sharing the inspiration with people,” starts Gage, “and saying, ‘This is the vibe that we’re going for. It’s fun; it’s a little weird. All of those quirky things that you’ve wanted to try.’”
ongoing wave of food-inspired fashion
Not only is Gage’s work part of the , it also literally incorporates food: she uses milk-based yarn, as well as pineapple and cactus leather. Her commitment to sustainability extends to the labor side of the issue just as much as it does the environmental components. She was shaped by her involvement in a family foundation that worked to combat human trafficking, and is hyper-conscious of the exploitation that can occur in fashion. “All of our knitwear is done out of India with a group that focuses on economic sustainability and consistency,” she says. “I started with trying to focus on where my production is and how well I know the people that are working with me. Then, from there, I started to think about the materials. And if I’m caring about people and the environments that they’re living in and working in, I don’t want them working around harsh chemicals or fabrics.”
The seriousness behind the process doesn’t mean that the clothes can’t be playful and fun. The brand’s Instagram bio describes her aesthetic as “seriously unhinged,” and much like her mentor Johnson, Gage has found success by leaning into whimsy. The label, she says proudly, “is really forming into this safe space [for] expression and weirdness and quirkiness.”
ELLE Fashion Features Director
Véronique Hyland is ELLE’s Fashion Features Director and the author of the book Dress Code, which was selected as one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of the Year. Her writing has previously appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, W, New York magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, and Condé Nast Traveler.