New York Observer

June 11, 2001

Swathed in Prada, Armani, Gucci, It's Label Boy Matthew Melinger

The Front Page; Front Page 4  
1702 Words  

by Deborah Netburn

On a recent summer afternoon, Matthew Melinger, a stocky 16-year-old with a deep tan, was dressed in one of his favorite outfits: black Prada sandals, three-quarter-length Burberry pants, a black DKNY T-shirt and a red jean jacket from Dolce & Gabbana. Big Gucci sunglasses were perched on top of his dark, gelled hair. He was in a good mood, because he was about to do his favorite thing: go shopping at Barneys. And he'd just had a three-hour facial.

Mr. Melinger likes clothes. In fact, he probably thinks about clothes more often than any other young man in Manhattan. "A lot of my friends have this thing, 'Bros before hos' -- like your friends come before your girlfriends," he said while sipping an iced cappuccino at Fred's, the restaurant at Barneys. "So I say, 'Clothes before hos.'" He started laughing. "I know, it is complete weirdo."

This was the fourth time Mr. Melinger had been at Barneys that week. And he was not the youngest person having a pricey lunch. He spotted a sandy-haired 14-year-old boy in a yellow polo shirt sitting with two teen girls. "His Gucci sunglasses are real," said Matthew.

Even though it's no longer unusual to see New York City private-school boys comparing the "G" logos on their Gucci belts, Mr. Melinger, a student at Columbia Preparatory School, stands out. "I'm not going to lie," he said. "I get noticed a lot for what I'm wearing. You can pick me out of a crowd a mile away because everyone else looks the same. No guy in my school would be caught dead in these pants."

Mr. Melinger said he occasionally gets teased because of his style, and that some people at school call him gay. "That's probably the biggest insult I've been hearing since seventh grade," he said. "But I just say, 'O.K., you obviously don't know who I am.' I'm not even thinking about that, but they think, 'No straight guy could ever want to pull that off.'"

He said the teasing has recently calmed down, "now that people realize the kid knows what he's talking about.

"It is just something I do. A lot of guys like to play baseball; I like making people look good. No matter what they look like, I'll take someone who is not exactly the best-looking person in the world and I'll buy them an outfit for the night. I help them with their makeup and their hair, and all of a sudden they look incredible."

Meredith Weinberg met Mr. Melinger in music-history class -- he complimented her on her jacket. Now she goes shopping with him almost every weekend. "I'm not even kidding," she said. "He's a bad influence. I needed to get shoes, and he was looking at Manolo Blahnik and he's like, 'Get them!' And I was like, 'I don't really need spiky heels -- let me get my shoes and let's go.' 

"It's at the point where he knows everything I'm talking about like a girl would," she said. "He uses Kiehl's like all the girls do, and all the girls borrow his sunglasses. He has the best sunglasses."

Ms. Weinberg said she's noticed that Mr. Melinger has been saying "yum" a lot. "He said it a million times the last time we went shopping," she said. "He's like, 'Yum, yum.' I said, 'What, are you hungry?' He's like, 'Yum! This is perfect for you.'"

Another friend Mr. Melinger takes shopping is Brett Joseph, a 16-year-old from Great Neck, Long Island, whom he met on a teen tour on the West Coast. "He definitely helped me find a few nice things," said Mr. Joseph. "But I can't go shopping with Matt unless I save up a lot of money ahead of time.

"Matt is the kind of kid who, on the last night of our teen tour, had his parents specially ship a pair of pants so he could wear something nobody had ever seen before," said Mr. Joseph.

Mr. Melinger's wardrobe includes more than 30 pairs of shoes, six jean jackets, an Armani overcoat ("Very Cruel Intentions," he said), a giant Burberry-plaid rain coat ("It is like a big tent; I love it") and a pair of D&G pants that are khaki on the front and jean on the back. ("It looks like I couldn't decide what to wear.") There is, however, at least one teenager in New York who can challenge Mr. Melinger's clotheshorsemanship -- a shadowy figure named Ben Green, whose girlfriend attends Columbia Prep with Mr. Melinger.

"Ben Green has more labels than I do," said Mr. Melinger. "I see him all the time at Barneys and stuff; he just spends extraneous amounts on clothing. I don't know him very well, but we'll say, 'Hi, I like your pants.' But we both know what we're wearing and who it is by."

Lunch over, Mr. Melinger was ready to start shopping. Energized and giddy, he moved expertly through the racks of clothing, pausing briefly at the Comme des Garcons section and then on to Theory. "This is the kind of stuff that I like," he said, holding a pair of hot pink tweed pants with zippers on the side. "I love anything with zippers. If I ever become a designer, I'm going to put zippers on everything."

He looked at a hat display. "I'm not a hat person -- I hate hats," he said. Then he came to a corner where several pairs of jeans were hung. He paused dramatically. "This is my dream corner," he said. "Helmut Lang makes the best-fitting jeans in the world." He indicated several pairs in multiple shades. "Here they all are," he said. "I love them all."

He stopped at another rack of pants. He pulled out a pair with embroidery on the back leg. "I bought these pink ones. So cute, I had to have them."

A pair of sandblasted leather jeans stopped him in his tracks. "Ben Green has these," he said.

'But Is It Harmful?'

Mr. Melinger became interested in fashion in seventh grade. He and his best friend Kate started designing clothes during class. "She and I would come up with the concepts, and I would draw them out," he said. "It was like this whole joke, but then I started getting really serious about it and I'd do it in my spare time. I'd do it instead of homework. Then our friendship kind of went downhill and I stopped for a while."

That year, Mr. Melinger threw away the baggy pants everybody else was wearing and started dressing in Banana Republic and Polo Sport: khakis, sweaters and pea coats.

"People used to look at me and say, 'What the hell is he doing? He's not supposed to dress like that,'" he said.

Along came the Style Channel. "I started watching the fashion shows -- Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs and the Gucci family and the whole Gianni Versace thing," he said. "And it kind of hit me: 'This is what you have to do. This is something that's you. You have a good sense of color, you have a good sense of style -- just put your head to it and it will take you places.'"

His favorite shopping partner is his mother.

"I like clothes," said Judy Melinger. "And I'm the kind of person who dresses -- I'm not going to say 'cutting-edge,' that's not the right word, but I'll wear something different. I don't have to look like everybody else; I'm not afraid to wear flower pants or a wild top. I don't need to be in the traditional blacks and whites of Manhattan, although I have all that also."

Mr. Melinger's father Andrew is an endodontist. "My dad thinks the whole thing is ridiculous," said Mr. Melinger. "He thinks I'm 16 and I shouldn't be wearing these clothes."

"Well, my husband is a traditional male," said Ms. Melinger. "He wears jeans or slacks. He thinks it's ridiculous because it is not him, but he never puts it down. He rolls with it, as long as it is within the limits of reality. That's part of being a parent, I guess."

On the day he turned 16, Mr. Melinger got a job at GC Williams, a high-end children's clothing store on 85th Street and Madison Avenue. "My mom was basically like, 'If you want nice clothes, go make your own money, because I can't buy you everything you want,'" said Mr. Melinger.

"I think it is an addiction," said Ms. Melinger of her son's fondness for fashion. "I think his shoes are definitely an addiction, and we talk about it. But is it harmful? Is it drugs? Is he out on the streets? Is he drinking? Is he going to clubs until two in the morning? No. I think 16-year-olds go through periods of intensity where they zero in on something, and this is his thing, and it will probably mellow out and evolve into who he is, and it will probably be a crucial part of his life always."

"Eww!" Mr. Melinger squealed. He had come to Barneys' shoe section. "I really want these khaki Diesel shoes. Denim loafers are me," he said.

"I'm obsessed with shoes," he said. "Whenever I get a new pair of shoes and I look down and see them on my feet, I get a little adrenaline surge. It is like, 'Wow! This looks good.'" The shoe thing began last year with a pair of Prada sneakers made of red patent leather and silver mesh. "They get a special place in my closet because they are my first pair," he said.

His closet, Mr. Melinger said, is "the neatest thing in the world ... I have my jeans arranged by shade and length, and then crazy jeans, and the rest of my pants are arranged by color. When something gets out of place, I go nuts."

Mr. Melinger said he just cannot dress badly, even when he tries.

"Sometimes I want to look like a schlub and I can't," he said. "One day I came in wearing warm-up pants, like doctor scrubs, and a jean jacket, and a T-shirt with the number 37, like a vintage print, and everyone was like, 'That's so cool!' I'm like, 'I'm wearing hospital scrubs.' They're like, 'Where did you get them?'"

He handed two pairs of shoes, both marked down twice, to a Barneys sales clerk and sat down.

"With my brown Prada boots that I bought a size too small, I went through a month of excruciating pain to stretch them out," he said, pointing to his feet, which still have visible scars. "These are the remnants of torture -- the pain doesn't even bother me anymore."

If all teens suffer, why not suffer for fashion? Ms. Weinberg said she'd heard a rumor that Ben Green doesn't even have a bed, that he sleeps on an air mattress on the floor of his room.

"Matthew once told me that he would give up his bed if he could have Ben Green's wardrobe," she said.