Designer of the Moment Tony Melillo Learns to Get Happy

From Gucci’s $3,000-plus beaded lavender pants to the Gap’s swinging ads for khakis, the vibe in fashion these days is “Happy” as in, “Come on and get …” The colorful rich hippie look is in, black clothes are out, and stylist-turned-designer Tony Melillo, this year’s local fashion Wunderkind , says he just learned to dance.

“Of course, I’d go to these clubs, but I never knew what to do. I’d stand there and be miserable because I was looking at everyone else who seemed so happy dancing,” he said. “‘If I could only get myself onto the dance floor,’ I told myself. Well, I finally did a few months ago. Now I have to hold myself back.”

Mr. Melillo, the designer of Nova U.S.A. men’s wear, has plenty to celebrate. Last summer, he opened Nova, a boutique at 100 Stanton Street at the corner of Ludlow Street. Since then, he has dressed Leonardo DiCaprio for his new film, The Beach , based on the novel by Alex Garland. Cameron Diaz, Helena Christensen and Scary Spice are cross-dressing in Nova’s sexy drawstring pants. Mr. Melillo was nominated for the Perry Ellis Best New Men’s Wear Talent Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. (The awards will be given out on June 2.) Colette, the fashion-forward shop in Paris, is giving a party for the designer during the French men’s shows in July. In August, he will open his second Nova store at 250 10th Avenue, near 24th Street, next to Bottino, the popular fashion and media restaurant-hangout. Come September, during the next New York fashion week, Mr. Melillo will present his first women’s collection with his next men’s line.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world when you’ve hit on something you love so much,” said the 34-year-old designer, taking a break outside his all-glass storefront on April 15.

There were kids in T-shirts with cropped sleeves. Judo pants rolled at the knee or above the ankle, sneakers, suede Converse flip-flops. The occasional mistake was last year’s silver nose hoop. (Replace with stud made from healing mineral this season.)

In his front windows, there are poster-sized Kelly Klein photographs of models in Nova clothes. Ms. Klein is one of Mr. Melillo’s closest friends. Their intimate circle also includes locations scout Jenny Landey, stylist Victoria Brynner, Creative Artists Agency agent Kevin Huvane, his wife Ruth-Ann Huvane and his brother Steven Huvane.

“I don’t like the look of our clothes on hangers,” said Mr. Melillo looking inside Nova’s windows as a tourist might. Clothes are displayed in boxy shelves stacked on top of one another or on a large table in the center of the space. “I think this way the feeling is friendlier. We’re not expensive. We’re sort of fairly disposable.” The most expensive item is a $93 cotton baseball jacket.

When Mr. Melillo leased the store, some of the neighbors were outraged. He pointed to a spray-painted message that lingers on the sidewalk. “Corporate America” it reads. “I don’t know why they were so upset,” said Mr. Melillo. “This used to be a crack house and was all boarded up when we got here. ‘Go Back to SoHo’ was written over the store. I think they thought we were yuppie scum. But after we opened, they never bothered us again.”

In February, Mr. Melillo–who quit the styling business about three years ago when he was style director at Esquire –staged his spring men’s 2000 show nearby at the Lower East Side Preparatory School. “All my years as a stylist I found fashion shows so tedious. Models on runways, more models on runways. I wanted to convey a life style: cool kids in cool clothes, like this neighborhood.” He cast models with a “street” look and hired a lighting person from Twilo, the dance club, and got Jackie Christie to deejay. Editors and retailers sat on school chairs in an auditorium. Most thought it was great fun and good clothes.

“Some retailers thought it was too dark and they couldn’t see the clothes,” Mr. Melillo shrugged. “The idea was bad boys at parochial school.” The idea for his first women’s collection is “Gidget goes to Saint Tropez.” California beach girl with a sexy, European twist. In both collections, Mr. Melillo will achieve his look the same way: “cutting athletic-inspired casual clothes so they are sexy, not sloppy,” he said. For women, that may translate as “great version tennis dresses, wrap skirts, Capri trousers but in leather with elastic waists.”

More than 45 stores around the world have bought the men’s fall collection. They include Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Selfridges, and Browns in London; 10 Corso Como in Milan and Colette in Paris. Mr. Melillo is cautious about his distribution in the United States.

“Specialty stores here generally aren’t as cool,” he explained. I’d rather open my own stores. That way, you can get your image across and not have to worry about how the stores aren’t displaying the clothes the way we’d like. I love Kal [Ruttenstein], so we’re at Bloomingdale’s, but that’s pretty much it.” Ron Herman-Fred Segal in Los Angeles, Rollo in San Francisco, Louis of Boston also sell Nova. “The way we’re doing it, opening stores in the locations we seek, won’t cost us a fortune.” He paused. “I hope.”

Mr. Melillo led the way to his office in the basement. House music pumped from the sound system in the sunny store. Downstairs it was simple and tidy: a couple of computers, phones, a copier, and one skateboard for him and two employees. “It’s tough. We’re poor. We’ll make it,” said Mr. Melillo.

His first fashion moment happened at age 16, growing up in Westchester, Pa. His father worked as a director of urban renewal. “I worked in a pizza parlor. One time, this girl I worked with and I came to New York to go to Studio 54. We got in, but I didn’t look as cool as everyone else.” He decided it was time to get out of Pennsylvania. Mr. Melillo, who is dyslexic, wasn’t enamored of schooling. “I’m not a great reader, but I love pictures.” At 19, he came to New York and got his first fashion job at Williwear.

“Basically, my job was to get the staff into nightclubs,” he said. That is, until fashion editor Jenny Capitain came to an appointment at the Williwear showroom and, in need of an assistant, offered Mr. Melillo the job. “I had no idea how to be a stylist,” he recalled. “Jenny was working at Vogue then, and she told me to get a certain Patrick Kelly dress. I had no idea how you did this. I wound up at Bergdorf’s buying one with my own money for this lady who absolutely needed this dress for a shoot. I was, like, ‘this is pathetic,’ but I did it. Eventually, I figured a few things out.”

He may not go home much anymore, but his parents, now retired, visit him often at his small apartment here. “We’re a very normal Italian family,” said Mr. Melillo. “My mom cooks great Italian food in Pennsylvania and brings it to me to eat in the West Village.”

Billy’s List: Quiz time!

1. What is the latest venture for the house of Versace?

a. Suzy Menkes is writing an authorized biography of Gianni Versace.

b. According to Women’s Wear Daily , Donatella Versace is writing a hostess book, just like Hillary Clinton.

c. The fashion firm will build six swank Palazzo Versace hotels, the first opening next year in Australia.

2. According to the Learning Channel’s Intimate Universe: The Human Body , how long will your hair grow in an average lifetime?

a. 590 miles.

b. 482 feet.

c. 78 feet.

3. What’s the problem with those picturesque acrylic nails some ladies just adore?

a. The methyl methacrylate used to sculpture the fakes is highly toxic.

b. They’re almost impossible to remove.

c. They won’t help you land that job at Vogue .

Answers: (1) c; (2) a; (3) all of the above.