Melissa Barrera Considers Her Clothes Very Carefully

The In the Heights star shares her fashion icons and why she wouldn’t mind interning at Chanel.

Melissa Barrera wears Chanel throughout. Photography by Julien Mignot.

Melissa Barrera has a newfound appreciation for the craft of fashion. This month, the Scream and In the Heights star jetted to Madrid shortly after attending Paris Fashion Week (a delayed honeymoon of sorts, with her husband Paco Zazueta), but before she entered full vacation mode, she took a trip to 19M, the Chanel Métiers d'art building filled with seven floors of the maison’s ateliers and named after Coco Chanel (her birthday was August 19, and the “M” stands for métiers, mode, mains, manufacturers, and maisons). Inside the design space, Barrera learned all about the process of hand-making each piece that ends up on the runway, from shoes to buttons to jackets and everything in between.

“I'm so honored that I got to see all of the hard work and understand the craftsmanship that goes into everything that they do,” the actress told W after her visit to 19M. “There are so many people behind one piece that you see on the runway or that you see in a store, and [seeing the process] leads to understanding the effort and the human hands that are working on something for so many hours so you can own a piece of art.” Below, read on for more of the star’s trip to Paris, her personal style tips, and her favorite fashion moments in pop culture.

What drew you to visit Chanel’s ateliers at 19M in Paris?

I'm always interested in seeing behind-the-scenes of how things are done. It just gives you a better appreciation for the craft of anything. Chanel invited me to go and see how it's done and I jumped on it. While I was there, I was like, it would be a dream to come work here. I’m crafty, I like to work with my hands. So seeing how they make the shoes and the detail and the time that goes into it, how they embroider the buttons and the patterns, it was mind blowing. I was like, can I come intern here? I would just love to be here for a few months and learn how to do something.

Photographed by Julien Mignot

Had you ever been inside of an atelier or sewing workshop before?

I guess I have in Mexico. I used to go to a seamstress a lot and she had her whole setup. I saw how she would fix my mom's dresses and mine. It was always super interesting and I always wondered why my mom didn't know how to sew, because I feel like if she knew then I would know. You run into little emergencies here and there, and I never learned how to use a needle. So I was always very drawn to that, but I hadn’t been to a workshop of this size.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your visit?

I was very surprised to see how young the people working there are. I don't know why I had this misconception that I was going to see older, mostly women at this place. I asked the shoemakers if this was something you do that runs in the family, and how you become interested in becoming a shoemaker. One of the guys said that he just walked into an atelier once and really liked the vibe of the place and the energy, and that it was so quiet and peaceful. That's how he got into it.

Photograph by Julien Mignot
Photograph by Julien Mignot

Did you learn anything specific about crafting footwear?

This guy that I was talking to, and I'm blanking on his name, he was making a pair of white satin shoes and he was hammering nails on the sole, pasting the satin and stretching the fabric so it stays there. Then they remove the nails and he had to have the cleanest hands because anything stains that satin, you know. It was nerve wracking in a way, but also therapy to watch. I was just mesmerized.

How big was the space?

Gigantic! It’s a triangular building and each side has different ateliers in each floor. Everyone has a lot of space to work in. I was like, I need to come back and get some custom shoes made for me because just imagine how amazing it would be to have shoes that are made exactly for your type of arch, for how you carry your weight! Imagine how much pain we could avoid in life! We wear generic shoes that are mass produced and that are not made for us specifically, but having your own custom pair of shoes must be life changing.

Photograph by Julien Mignot

You mentioned being very crafty. How would you describe your personal style?

I am very comfort driven, especially after the last few years. But I also like to look presentable and chic when I can. I’ve been learning a lot from my stylist about how to style my wardrobe better and make more interesting choices with the types of fabrics that I combine, and the types of colors, and taking a little more risk in a way that also feels like me. I'm not a very loud dresser. There was a time in my life where I would just care about how I looked, and I couldn't pee for eight hours if I was in a dress, or eat because you feel like your belly is gonna show if you like take a sip of a margarita or whatever. I wanna enjoy myself when I’m out! I need to be able to like sit crosslegged on the floor with everything that I'm wearing. I feel like that's a rule.

What was your style like as a teenager?

I went from being like a full tomboy. I wore basketball shorts and I basically dressed like Billie Eilish before Billie Eilish. I played basketball my entire life, and I just thought that that was the coolest thing to wear and it was very comfortable. Then I started liking boys when I was like 12 and noticing what the popular girls were wearing. I went from basketball shorts to the really tiny shorts that Limited Too used to sell. I went from one extreme to the other. But I've always been very simple in the way that I dress, wearing black, white, neutral colors. My mom used to say that if you wore a lot of black, you were subconsciously mourning someone. My mom is a very interesting person; she used to say that I ate my twin in the womb and that I was mourning her my entire life, which is kind of creepy.

Photograph by Julien Mignot

What’s the best fashion advice you ever received?

I don’t remember who told me this, but when I moved to New York for college, the best fashion advice was always carry a pair of comfortable shoes in your purse wherever you go. Uncomfortable shoes can ruin your night. Ballerina slippers, flip flops, sneakers—carry whatever is comfortable for you.

What’s your favorite ensemble that you’ve worn on screen?

I really enjoyed my opening outfit for In the Heights. It was a sports bra with a yankees cap and fishnet tights under baggy, ripped jeans, and these really cool boots that were neon orange with animal print.

Do you have a favorite fashion moment from pop culture?

Salma Hayek has had some really good ones. When she had the butterfly stickers on her at the VMAs in 1999, it was stunning. And when I think of fashion pop culture moments, the picture that comes to my brain is always Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake wearing denim. That was so monumental.

Do you have a style icon?

I love everything that Zendaya wears. She and her stylist clearly have a long relationship and they've just built this great style together for her. Every time that she turns up on a carpet, it's a moment. And I love that.

I feel like your next role has to be a seamstress or designer now that you’ve seen how the clothes are made.

Honestly, I thought while I was there, why isn't there a show about this world? This building is an entire TV show that I would watch! I would watch a reality show of them just doing their thing, or videos of them sewing for five hours and I would be fully entertained.

Photograph by Julien Mignot