It began with a mesh T-shirt.
Madonna was set to play a Pride party at the Boom Boom Room in June — in the blissful window of New York nightlight post-vaccine and pre-Delta-variant, where people were ecstatic to be able to go out again — and the icon and her stylist Rita Melssen wanted to make the night a real New York moment.
Melssen’s first thought was of Hood by Air, in celebration of New York’s LGBTQ fashion community, and of Procell, the vintage store on Delancey Street specializing in 1990s items. Melssen started working with Jess Gonsalves, owner of Procell, at what was the beginning of an ongoing relationship that has resulted in Madonna being one of the most vintage-adorned celebrities at the moment.
“That was when I started transitioning more into ‘Wait, we need to tap into vintage way more heavily than we have been,’” Melssen says of the Boom Boom look. “Honestly, I’m just not really impressed with a lot of what I see out there. I feel like things are really subpar.”
For the Pride party Madonna, or “M,” as Melssen exclusively calls her, wore a mesh T-shirt meant to evoke old school rave shirts, “which now she’s obsessed with, and has me restocking all the time,” Melssen says. The 29-year-old stylist, who had some previous styling experience with artists like Kim Petras but was very much plucked from obscurity of the fashion world for the job with Madonna, finds herself more and more inspired by vintage pieces these days, and has created a wardrobe for Madonna that draws heavily on the archives — perfect for a woman known for her reinventions.
“We were thinking about how in the past, M has always recreated herself. So we took reference from the different phases she has gone through before and I think sometimes the only way to highlight that is to dig in the archives” Melssen says.
In addition to Procell, some of her New York vintage favorites include Front General Store in Brooklyn and Morphew in Midtown. She has worked with Madonna for roughly two and a half years. They got close quickly: initially they were on tour together, and when the pandemic hit they quarantined together at the beginning.
“I think that’s why she trusts me so much. We really got to know each other, and then the creative process just happened so naturally. We were just bored during quarantine and I was like ‘Try this on, try this on.’ I was like we don’t need to wait for stores or magazines to start — we just started doing stuff on Instagram.”
Believe it or not, Melssen started working for Madonna through a recruiter. She was looking for work, having been a personal shopper for a few years, and was asked if she’d be interested in being Madonna’s creative assistant while she geared up for her Madame X tour. After two years on the job, Melssen came to Madonna and told her she was wanting to focus more on her creative craft of styling, and was met with overwhelming positivity.
“I’ve learned so much about fit and construction from working with M, because it’s just always the highest quality. Everything needs to be done at a certain level, always,” she says. “With M it’s been such a blessing because she’s so freaky. She’s so down to get crazy sometimes and try something new. That idea of the changing of personas, to me it’s like working in editorial, because we’re always coming up with something new.”
Working with vintage pieces “came from more of a need than anything else,” Melssen says, adding that while she doesn’t mean disrespect to new designs, she finds herself uninspired — especially for someone who demands creativity like Madonna. “I don’t want to sound shady, but the reality is I would look through everything and there was very little that I found that would work with somebody that has an even remotely curvy body. We came out of COVID[-19] and what I found was a lot of brands didn’t want to take too many risks.”
Melssen, a New Jersey native who briefly attended LIM in New York before dropping out to begin working, didn’t grow up a huge Madonna fan, but now that she’s up close and personal with the star has to pinch herself every now and again.
“Sometimes I look at her and I’m like ‘This is crazy. You’re the last of a really iconic group of artists,’” Melssen says. “It’s crazy to sit next to her and hear her talk about when she moved to New York and seeing photos of Basquiat and her and the parties she went to with Andy Warhol.”
That, and the closets in her house aren’t bad for playing dress-up, either.
“I will go through her closet and I will be like ‘Girl!’”