Life’s twists led Melinda Collis to open The Cat’s Meow.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Melinda Collis, owner of The Cat’s Meow, sits cross-legged at a register she created from the building’s original door. Wearing a form-fitting vintage brown skirt and faux fur shawl, she is an essential component of her shop’s atmosphere.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own boutique and design my own clothes,” she says.
The Cat’s Meow offers fashion hunting grounds to women and men chasing rare vintage looks and locally designed apparel – whether it be a Catholic school uniform transformed into a chic wool dress, shirts and sweaters bursting with a kaleidoscope of color, or a standard retro leather jacket. With antique tribal African masks, colorful Italian prints, geisha dolls and even maracas as décor, the character on the walls complements the one-of-a kind clothing on the hangers.
It’s a much different place than the one in which Collis grew up – a log cabin outside of the Chiloquin Native American Reservation near Klamath, Ore., with no running water or electricity and little exposure to fashion trends. But the rugged context meant Collis had to construct her own attire.
“I liked and still like taking old clothing, tearing them down and reinventing them,” she says as she pulls a wool skirt she purchased at Goodwill off its hanger, displaying a patchwork apple near its hem. “This represents New York. I’ve never been there, but I’d like to go,” she explains.
Like the clothing she designs and sells, Collis has lived multiple lives, reinventing herself several times before realizing her lifelong goal.
As a child, her Native American peers isolated her. With blonde hair and blue eyes, she was a peculiarity.
“At school I would pull up my socks in the bathroom stall so no one could see my white legs,” she says. “No one wants to get beat up in the bathroom.”
When Collis’ father passed away she was legally emancipated at 16. She supported herself with minimum wage jobs while excelling at Klamath High School, where she was president of the National Honor Society and a cheerleader.
Meanwhile, Collis researched fashion magazines, aching for the apparel her friends wore. She shopped at Goodwill and fabric stores and, with a borrowed sewing machine, made her own clothes.
“I didn’t have time to care about what people thought of me,” she says, “but there were some people who thought I was cool.”
After high school, Collis studied marine biology for three years at Oregon State University, working odd jobs (including construction) to support herself. In 1994, her fiancé was offered a job in Portland. Collis followed, working as an administrator at State Farm Insurance and Household Business Consulting. Meanwhile, she sold her refashioned clothing at consignment shops.
After the sudden death of her fiancé in 2003 due to an accidental overdose of prescribed medication, Collis relocated from Oregon to Monterey in 2004, taking a job as a senior business consultant at HBC. “I was climbing the corporate latter,” she sighs.
But she abruptly left Monterey to attend Oregon Institute of Technology – she says she was using school as an approach to coping with her grief. In 2005 she earned a degree in communications and a minor in business.
“Having a degree in business fits in nicely with being an entrepreneur,” she says. While studying, Collis preserved her dream by renting small corners in consignment shops in Oregon.
Three years later, she visited friends in Monterey, who reignited her dream – she credits Annette Kuhnert (a silent partner in The Cat’s Meow, which opened in August 2008 in Sand City) for supporting her vision.
In December, Collis opened The Cat’s Meow at its new location on Lighthouse Avenue. Loyal customers have followed, a substantial portion of whom are men.
“Men shop here because I offer [fashion] they want to see their girlfriends and wives wear.” she is planning to open a store for men, The Tiger’s Crawl, in the future. Right now she’s focused on channeling her creative drive and making women feel confident by “accentuating their best features with the right piece.”
Collis radiates pride as she describes how rewarding it is to see customers looking great and feeling great; she also beams when anticipating future projects. “I look at every piece [of clothing] and see a new opportunity,” she says.