Fashion statement for gun control

Designer Melanie C. Brandon has made jewelry from a machine gun and pistols seized in Phila. and melted down.

Posted: September 10, 2007

NEW YORK - After reading about yet another murder of a young girl last spring, aspiring designer Melanie C. Brandon wanted to find a symbolic way to dispose of the guns that she felt were the cause of Philadelphia's soaring murder rate.

So she turned to what she knew: fashion.

The spring 2008 collection of Brandon's clothing line Melani Von Alexandria, which debuted at a SoHo art gallery Thursday as part of New York's Fashion Week, featured items fashioned out of real guns that have been collected by Philadelphia sheriff's deputies, melted down and sculpted into cuffed bracelets, dangling necklaces and pendants.

Her tagline: With each piece made, another gun is taken off the street.

"I just wanted to take something destructive and turn it into something creative," Brandon said in front of the Jonathan Shorr Art Gallery minutes after her presentation ended.

"Something had to be done. . . . I woke up one day and realized it could be me," said Brandon, who lives in Mount Airy. "I could be shot and killed."

The twice-yearly shows in September and February are the biggest weeks of the year for U.S. fashion. More than 100 designers, from Oscar de la Renta to Tommy Hilfiger, showcase the upcoming seasons' looks to generate sales and buzz. Many of the shows are at the Bryant Park Tents, but several are at trendy galleries and loft spaces throughout the city.

Fashion Week is never without its causes. But many tend to be global - fighting AIDS and the genocide in Darfur - or have a chic factor, such as pink ribbons for breast cancer. Violence in the inner city has rarely, if ever, been addressed.

So Brandon, 34, is trying to break ground. In addition to her humanitarian aspirations, she knows strong seasons have made many a fashion designer. (Look at former University of Pennsylvania student Stacey Bendett of alice + olivia, who has gone from a simple collection to full-fledged boutiques in five years, as well as Main Liner Tory Burch, who became hot based on tunics.)

But it's tough, and this is Brandon's fifth season showing during Fashion Week. Her fashions were scheduled to be part of another show yesterday at the Hudson Hotel. She will host another show locally at the German Society of Pennsylvania on Sept. 21.

"Melanie is a wonderful designer who's extremely talented," said Cheryl Ann Wadlington, an editor for Brides Noir Magazine and a Philadelphia-based fashion consultant. Wadlington featured one of Brandon's early works in Brides Noir. "And her mission with this particular line of clothing is a good one."

It's a breezy late-summer evening and hipster revelers drink Becks beer as they wait for Brandon's show to start. Her photographer/agent Ken Thurlbeck is on hand along with Herbert Fox, president of the New York-based Stop the Violence Through Achievement and Entertainment.

A few specialty store buyers are in the audience. An overhead projector shows a documentary of Brandon getting ready for her show.

The Melani Von Alexandria line is similar to a lot of the pieces seen so far this season. It included about 18 pieces made from sheer fabrics, with lots of draping and ruching. Colors ranged from pastels to earth tones, easy on the eyes. Dancers look like they could wear the clothing; one dress included a tulle tutu. Brandon expects to sell pieces from the Von Alexandria line for between $500 to $1,000.

Instead of the shimmery metallics that other designers have used this season, Brandon prettied up her line with muted pieces of gunmetal. The gobs have been shaped into dangling necklaces and belts. Some of the pieces were attached to the hip, others were just attached to the back of flowing shirts.

The five guns that Brandon used were selected by the Philadelphia Sheriff's Department. She went to Deputy Paris Washington last summer with a proposal that she named Melting Weapons of Violence into Accessories.

Washington said his department agreed almost immediately to the proposal, which included a promise from Brandon that she would donate a portion of the proceeds to the Philadelphia School District.

"We participated because we believed that changing the weapons of destruction into something positive would in some way contribute to the future of young people in this city," Washington said.

Washington chose the guns - one machine gun and four handguns. All had been used in a domestic assault. Last month, he escorted Brandon to Daniel Petraitis Gallery in Kensington, where the weapons were melted down.

"It was amazing seeing something that was used for so much violence, hurt and destruction, to watch its power being taken away," Brandon said. "This really hits so close to home."

Brandon grew up in Mount Airy, mostly raised by her mother who worked as a claims authorizer for the Social Security Administration. After graduating from the Creative and Performing Arts High School, she attended Delaware's Brandywine University, where she earned an associate degree in fashion marketing.

She made her first collection in 1999, a grouping of fitted jumpsuits and palazzo pants in chocolate and ivory shades. While she didn't sell anything from this collection, some of her subsequent pieces have been sold at a few boutiques, including Patricia Fields, the Greenwich Village shop run by the former Sex and the City stylist.

A break came in 2003, when Brandon met New York-based fashion-show producer Ron Smith through Wadlington. Smith loved Brandon's designs and featured her in his Showroom 30 spring showcase that year.

In the following years, in between caring for sick family members and working full time for a commercial real-estate company, Brandon has managed to be in four shows.

"It has not been easy for me by any means," Brandon said. "I have been trying to get my career and work on this cause without even a car. It's been hard."

So far Brandon has spent close to $10,000 on this year's collections, money she raised through a combination of her savings and silent investors. If this collection goes well, she plans to keep working with confiscated gunmetal - after all, gun violence won't go away with a new fashion season.

Seconds after the last model walked down the runway, Brandon walked out to the crowd. Holding a dozen red roses in her hand, she nervously stood on the cobblestones as the crowd clapped wildly.

Some felt the collection was beautiful. All praised Brandon for taking up the cause.

"What Melanie is doing is drawing attention to the fact that things aren't always what they seem," said Jonathan Shorr, the owner of the gallery. "There is always room for a creative outlet. Maybe people can take negative things and turn them into something positive."


For more information on the Philadelphia show, contact Melanie C. Brandon at 215-681-6910 or e-mail her at m@melanivonalexandria.com.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704. To read her recent work, log on to http://go.philly.com/elizabethwellington.


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