Looking back: 30 years of Wheels & Dollbaby


This year, Wheels & Dollbaby is celebrating 30 years of iconic Australian fashion. 

Since opening up shop in the ’80s, founder Melanie Greensmith has grown her business from a small Surry Hills shop front into a globally renowned label. Today, Wheels & Dollbaby boasts a cult following internationally, a myriad of celebrity fans and a luxe boutique in Sydney. 

When asked if she ever expected the label to do this well, Melanie is quick to reply. 

“Oh god, no! I was just a kid. I was 20 and Surry Hills was not at all what it’s like now. I just found a really old, rundown shop and scraped all my pennies together. I’d been living in London and had some great ideas about what I wanted to do, but not really a clue how to do it.” 

Despite her minimal business experience, Melanie found her feet and success came quickly. The day before the shop’s opening, a jacket in the window caught the eye of Michael Jackson. 

“We had just painted the store and were putting out all the stock,” she remembers. “We didn’t have much stuff but we did have this great leather jacket in the window – all studded and just amazing, like an old vintage rocker one. It was just in the window to tell people that we were opening. Suddenly I got a knock on the glass doors and there were three guys and I thought ‘Oh, god. at guy looks like Michael Jackson.’ And one of the guys said ‘Michael would like to come in.’ It was amazing, I mean he spent a fortune, bought the jacket in the window and helped me pay the rent for the next month. Because that’s all you really thought about back then (laughs).” 

It didn’t take long for word to spread and within a few years, Melanie had a clientele of celebrities that included Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, The Divinyls and INXS. 

“We used to screenprint the T-shirts ourselves out the back and I used to sew mini skirts at night. It was such hard work but so exciting, that it didn’t matter.” 

Wheels & Dollbaby’s first big hurdle came in 1992, as the grunge movement hit Australia and with it, a culture of dressing down. The time was pivotal for Melanie, as she tried to navigate the new trend. 

“You went from people buying cowboy boots and leather jackets and pants, and then suddenly, overnight, Nirvana came out. And all anyone wanted to wear was op-shop pieces and flannies. It was anti-fashion, you couldn’t be seen to be fashionable. So we started making flannelette shirts with big prints on the back. And somehow, we got through it.” 

Around this time, Courtney Love was spotted wearing Wheels & Dollbaby. Her influence propelled Melanie’s brand onto the international market. 

Then came the early 2000s, which saw the brand receive huge, unparalleled success in England. Over the next five years, Wheels & Dollbaby became the biggest Australian fashion house in the UK, with Melanie paving the way for Australian fashion on a global scale. 

“I didn’t really have a strategy, I just went to the buyers at Harvey Nichols at the same time as Sass & Bide and I think it gave them an interest in Australian fashion. I thought, ‘I’ll start at the top and if I don’t get in there, I’ll try some other places.’ But I got in and it was huge. I think we had 30 concessions throughout England – in Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. It was great to do that in England because to me, making it there is really hard.” 

Throughout the decade, Wheels & Dollbaby was famously spotted on Kate Moss at Glastonbury, as well as Daisy Lowe, Kelly Osbourne, Scarlett Johansson and Katy Perry. Melanie also made a friend in Dita Von Teese, which saw the pair collaborate on an embroidered cardigan that today spans over 22 colourways (and counting). 

In 2008, Melanie decided to redirect her focus back to the Australian market and opened a luxe boutique in Perth. 

“I’ve been very lucky in the fact that I own my company and can choose how I want to do it. I’ve always kept it that way, so if ever I feel like I’m doing too much, I don’t have to.” 

Moving forward, Melanie has her sights set on the US market. In the meantime, she’s set to celebrate 30 years of Wheels & Dollbaby with a concert and fashion show at the Crown Pyramid in Perth. I ask her where she hopes the brand will be in another 10 years and her response is simple. 

“Hopefully just as relevant,” she says. 

“Nowadays, I get people’s daughters coming in, whose mothers used to shop with us. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?” 


This feature was originally published in Fashion Journal 171. You can read it here.

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