Melanie James wanted a mod-style dress for a night out in Leicester as a teenager. So, she asked her mum to make one, and it was the start of a love affair with sewing and all things '60s. Becky Jones finds out about her new clothing line.
Dressmaker Melanie James wasn't born until the 1970s but, for her, no other decade compares to the swinging '60s.
It's a love she's inherited from her parents, who brought her up on a musical diet of The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks.
"I went through a phase of listening to chart music but there was something about 60s soul music that grabbed me from a really young age," she says. "I rarely listen to anything else now.
"There's something so free about the 60s. Everything was really strict before that. It was the first generation where people were so expressive, with their fashion and their music. I don't think anything's really been the same since then."
It's fitting then, that the 36-year-old is becoming renowned for her fabulous 60s-inspired mini-dresses, each bearing a name popular in the decade, such as Nancy, Cynthia and Jacky.
Having previously sold all of her creations on eBay, Melanie is now supplying her "Love Her Madly" dresses to shops, including Mod For It, in Leicester's Silver Arcade.
With their figure-hugging tunic style, short hemline and largely monochrome design, Melanie's dresses epitomise the 60s. You can almost imagine them being worn by the likes of Twiggy and Cilla as they strutted down Carnaby Street at the height of their fame.
What makes the dresses all the more impressive is the fact that they've been made by someone who, until eight years ago, had never used a sewing machine.
At school, Melanie chose to study ceramics rather than textiles and, at home, though her mum and sister enjoyed sewing, she simply wasn't interested.
"My mum had a sewing machine and just looking at it filled me with fear," she smiles.
As a teen, Melanie didn't know what she wanted to do with her life, so rather than "pick a course just because it sounded like a fancy one to do" she opted to leave school at the age of 16.
"I liked the idea of freedom and having money," says Melanie, who got a job working in a restaurant bar.
"I knew I wanted to do something creative but I didn't know what that was."
Despite the fact her mum and aunt worked in the hosiery industry, pursuing a career in fashion wasn't something that occurred to her. Her dramatic change in career, from bar worker to dressmaker, came about after a night out at the University of Leicester.
"I was 27, I'd quit my job, I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn't want to carry on working in a bar," she says.
"There used to be a night at Leicester Uni called Brighton Beach and I used to go to that. I desperately wanted a Mod-style vintage dress to wear there, but I couldn't find one anywhere, so I asked my mum to make me one.
"She used to make all her own clothes in the 60s.
"She made me this little black and white dress and that night I had so many girls come up to me and ask where I'd got it from. They said if they could buy something like it, they definitely would."
That, says Melanie, was her light bulb moment.
She may not have been interested in sewing before – but here was a way to explore her creativity, indulge her love of the 60s and make a living.
"I got my mum to teach me how to make a dress. We got an old pattern and adapted it a bit and she helped me cut out the fabric.
"I just completely fell in love with it and picked it up so easily. I never thought I'd be able to do it, but it went really well – apart from the second dress I made, where I sewed the arm on to the neck."
After a number of lessons from her mum and aunt, and many hours of practice, Love Her Madly was born.
Well, sort of.
"Love Her Madly was the name on my eBay account, which I opened before I started making dresses. I was 21, completely in love with Jim Morrison and thought it sounded like a cool name for an eBay handle.
"When I started making dresses, I used the name 'Moddest' for them, but everyone said Love Her Madly was a much better name – and I agreed."
Eight years on, Melanie can't imagine a life without dressmaking.
She works in a converted studio in Braunstone, weaving her magic using a vintage Frister and Rossmann sewing machine.
She uses 60s patterns and takes inspiration from old music videos and footage from Carnaby Street and other famous 60s hangouts.
"For the first year-and-a-half I made a point of never making the same dress twice, so every single dress was completely different, but I got to the point where I was exhausting myself of ideas and the designs became so popular I had to start making them again," she says.
Melanie mainly uses a colour palette of black, white, red and navy.
"Occasionally, coming into summer, I might find some fabric in other colours, but I like those colours and they suit me so I tend to stick to them."
All the fabric is sourced from Leicester Market, while the buttons and zips are bought from local haberdashery shops such as Button Boutique, in Malcolm Arcade.
"Its important to keep it local," says Melanie. Mod For It, with its similar attachment to the Mod subculture, is a perfect fit with Love Her Madly, she says.
And she's pleased it's in her hometown.
Two London shops have now signed up to sell Melanie's creations: Dolly Mix, just off Brick Lane, and Sherry's, off Carnaby Street. "I've been selling on eBay for eight years (during which time she's sold more than 2,000 dresses) and although it's great because I can get to a massive market worldwide, it's nice to be able to actually see my dresses in a shop," she says. "It feels more serious.
"I felt quite nervous seeing them in a shop for the first time, to be honest."
Dresses cost about £40 – which for a handmade, bespoke dress, sounds like a bargain.
What's next for Love Her Madly?
"I don't want to become a massive big brand.
"If I was going to have my own shop, I'd have to go to somewhere like London or Brighton, where there's a bigger scene.
"The stuff I do is so specific.
"I like the idea of it just being in a few exclusive shops. Who knows what will happen in the future, though."