Michael Ward is a New York based fashion designer and the co-creator of TheSalting, a luxury unisex clothing brand. He is the former interim Creative Director of Diane von Furstenberg, and also held positions at Rachel Zoe and Burberry.
Q: When did you know that you wanted to get into fashion?
A: At about 14. We had a school trip into [Manhattan] and I had the opportunity to see a lot of billboards, including the iconic Calvin Klein billboards. It kind of sucked me in, the glamour of the Calvin Klein advertising of the time. All of that was very appealing to me. I felt that was my calling. With all that I was studying in school...drawing and fashion had the most attraction. It’s just my soul.
Q: After that you went to Parson’s. What was that like?
A: It was incredible. I took a fashion course at Parson’s for the entire summer leading up to my senior year [of high school]. I kind of got my feet wet in draping and drawing, and a chance to meet some friends that I still have today. At Parson’s you had a one year foundation program where you’re doing all different kinds of applied arts, and then you declare your major in your sophomore year.
[Parson’s] had the full creative experience. It’s just a fantastic opportunity to build on all your talent, find out what you’re good at, and develop personal relationships with the faculty. They have a critic program where they pair you with a designer of accomplishment and you do projects with them and put on a fashion show. My junior year critic was Jeffrey Banks, who I’m still very good friends with. He’s a mentor, and he was actually a guest at my wedding last year. And for my senior year I had Donna Karan who’s…well, Donna Karan. I still benefit from some of the relationships, for example Lisa Smilor. She was the assistant chairwoman of the fashion department. She’s a big supporter of all that I do and now that I have my own brand, she comes to my openings and our market. So yeah, that’s Parson’s.
Q: Speaking of your brand, can you tell me a little bit more about TheSalting?
A: My last job was as the interim Creative Director of Diane von Furstenberg. I think it was the biggest challenge of my career in many ways. It was the highest volume and had all the bells and whistles that you want in a fashion brand. You have Diane herself, who is an extraordinary woman and philanthropist, and when you put on a fashion show you’re working with the best in hair, the best in makeup, the best in set design, music, casting...It was really a dream opportunity, and I loved it. I proved a lot to myself at that job.
After leaving there, I felt it was time for me to start my own business. I reached out to someone to be a partner, and we sat together and built the philosophy. We wanted a brand that doesn’t exist. When you fill a niche, you’re telling people that they need something they didn’t realize. That’s the success of a brand.
So we sat down and listed out some buzz points that we thought would be important to the brand. We wanted it to be simple, philanthropic; we wanted to challenge the industry. We were part of a lot of narratives of what’s wrong with fashion, what’s wrong with the industry, what’s wrong with how companies are growing. We wanted our brand to stand for quality...and we wanted that to be our first talking point. Unisex was the right step. There’s no reason why I can’t wear a few items that my girlfriends can wear. So we zeroed in on categories that we felt were chic and hit the mark. We focused on caftans, coats, and fedoras, and we wanted everything to be made in America. So we visualized...that in the warmer months you’re wearing a straw fedora and a caftan, and then in the cooler months you’re wearing a wool fedora and coat. So our product hugs you. That’s what we want our consumer to think of.
So we kinda talked the talk, we launched in February, and now we’re walking the walk. It’s been extraordinary...It doesn’t matter height, weight, sex, age. There’s something for everyone...You can bring a piece of TheSalting into who you already are. We don’t want to dress somebody head to toe or dictate that you have to wear us. We just want to be a part of where the industry is going. We want to be a voice for the future of fashion...a source for luxury clothing, made in America. We spent a lot of time in this theory of “Why does the world need another fashion brand?” And we came up with this philosophy.
Q: Your designs were on the cover of Oprah Magazine. What was that like for you?
A: It was completely nuts. We had our first market, and we were thrilled that O was one of the teams that came through and saw the collection. And following, they said, “We think Oprah would love if you could make a few caftans and hats.” So of course we did.
We worked with her studio and with our hat manufacturer—which is the oldest hat manufacturer in America—and we made custom fedoras and caftans. We also made some really beautiful white shirts. So we sent them over, did our work and followed up with them, and tried to engage them in conversation. There was a time when they said it was for a possible August cover, and we were like, “Oh my gosh! That’s wonderful!” But August came, went, and nothing really happened. We were like, “Oh well, we don’t regret making the pieces.” And then one day we got an email from Adam Glassman, who’s the head of Oprah Magazine, and the title line was, “I hope this makes you smile.” We clicked on it, and it was the September cover! It was just extraordinary. We’re so grateful. There’s this tiny video of [Oprah] dancing at the shoot, which the world got to see. You can’t wish for more than that. It really fueled the business to keep its momentum going upward.
Q: One last question for you. What advice do you have for young people who are interested in going into the fashion industry?
A: I definitely think you have to pay your dues. That’s super important. Every job that I’ve had made me the designer I am today. So my advice is to jump in, make mistakes, learn, be respectful, be humble. You can’t have too much of an ego. You have to be ready for criticism. Get ready to be pushed down and stand up again if you believe in the vision. Work on having a very strong inner voice...and a very humble voice when you’re working within a team. That’s my advice.
Ward can be found on Instagram @michaelwardnyc or on his brand’s website, thesalting.com.
Photography by Dasha German and Stephanie Purifoy