Shoe exec in legal scuffle

Times Staff Writer

Tamara Mellon, the savvy entrepreneur who took Jimmy Choo shoes from a dodgy London neighborhood to the world's trendiest retail districts, has battled drug problems, a failed marriage and scandal-hungry reporters.

Now she's taking on her mother.

Mellon filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court last month that accuses her mother, Ann Yeardye of Beverly Hills, of improperly receiving about $8 million in proceeds from the sale of London-based Jimmy Choo in 2004.

The suit isn't expected to scuff the brand that found fame on the feet of "Sex and the City" heroine Carrie Bradshaw and stars such as Naomi Watts, Helen Mirren and Zhang Ziyi. It shouldn't affect the Choo domain, which has grown to more than 65 retail locations (a Rodeo Drive boutique opened in December) and is expanding into handbags, sunglasses and perfume.

But the case has brought to the surface the kind of family feud that is usually discreetly handled out of public view. In a measure of the bitterness lurking behind the legalese, Mellon's suit accuses her mother of keeping money intended for her 5-year-old granddaughter Araminta -- known as "Minty" -- so she can support her Beverly Hills lifestyle.

"I tried every means possible to settle what should have remained a private family matter away from a courthouse and out of the public eye. But my mother left me with no choice," Mellon, Jimmy Choo's president, said in a statement.

For her part, Yeardye had hoped "that this would be privately and amicably resolved" and "is very disappointed that the lawsuit was filed," her attorney, Alan Croll, said.

Mellon, 40, who reportedly was on a safari in Africa with actor boyfriend Christian Slater when the suit was filed, has lived an eventful life that has made her a media staple in her native England.

"Tamara has had more than her fair share of tabloid ink here, that's for sure," said Lauren Goldstein Crowe, a London-based journalist who is writing a book about the Jimmy Choo brand. "I think at this point, people are beginning to feel a bit sorry for her -- behind their envy."

In a sense, the suit is a hanging chad, a bit of unfinished business left over from the sale of the company Mellon founded in 1996 with a Malaysian cobbler named Jimmy Choo.

Back then, Choo was working in semi-obscurity, making bespoke shoes in a nondescript shop in London's East End. Fashion insiders and a few high-profile tastemakers, including Princess Diana, would pull up in their town cars to get their footwear fixes.

Mellon, a shoe-obsessed assistant at a British fashion magazine, was a Choo fan known at the time mostly for her exploits as a party girl. Her family background was decidedly fashion-forward. Her mother, the former Ann Davis, was a Chanel No. 5 model in the 1960s. Her father, Tom Yeardye, was a co-founder of the Vidal Sassoon hair care empire. Mellon spent much of her adolescence in Beverly Hills, where she frequented trendy clothing stores such as Camp Beverly Hills and Fiorucci.

Convinced that the Choo brand had global potential, Mellon borrowed $250,000 from her father and went into business with Choo and his niece, designer Sandra Choi. Building on its well-heeled fan base, the shoes became a hit in the world of luxury fashion, achieving icon status when a certain sex columnist made them a must-have accessory for her glamorous escapades around New York City.

" 'Sex and the City' established Choo as an aspirational product that women had to have," said Eli Portnoy, an L.A. brand strategist. "If you had a pair of those, you were sexy, you were hip, you were in -- and you were making a statement about yourself."

That kind of fantasy, due to be reinforced May 30 when the "Sex and the City" movie hits theaters, doesn't come cheap. A pair of acrylic-and-leather Jimmy Choo sandals (with marked flip-flop overtones) retails for around $430 at current exchange rates. A lace-and-suede sandal with a 4 1/2 -inch heel goes for $1,130 a pair.

In 2004, Mellon sold a majority stake in the company to a private investment firm in a deal that valued the enterprise at around $188 million. (The company was sold to another investment firm, London-based TowerBrook Capital, last year for about $362 million.)

After the 2004 sale, about $40 million, mostly in stock and Jimmy Choo corporate debt, was to be paid into a trust benefiting Mellon and her daughter, the lawsuit says. A trust set up for Yeardye, who owned a significant stake in Choo, was to receive an equal sum, but all in cash.

The suit claims that a sizable chunk of Choo stock somehow ended up in the Yeardye trust. The stock was later sold and the disputed $8 million in proceeds now reside in a frozen bank account.

"It's our position that, very clearly, she [Yeardye] was not entitled to the stock," said Bert Fields, Mellon's attorney. "And whether it was a mistake or a deliberate act, it should be returned."

Mellon is seeking at least $10 million in actual damages and unspecified punitive damages from her mother.

For Jimmy Choo aficionados, the legal battle doesn't mean much. "The majority of the women who buy those shoes," Portnoy said, "don't even know who she [Mellon] is."

That's not the case with celebrity-watchers in England. Before embarking on her business career, she was a fixture of London's celebrity party circuit, developing a cocaine and alcohol habit that eventually landed her in rehab.

Clean and sober and running a successful business, she was back in the spotlight with her 2000 marriage to Matthew Mellon II, a scion of the American oil and banking empire. By some accounts, the marriage was a disaster, with Matthew Mellon pursuing a lifestyle of drugs and parties while his wife tried to focus on running her rapidly growing shoe business. (It didn't help that Tamara's affair with a younger man was outed when her paramour published a thinly disguised -- too thinly, it turned out -- account in a London newspaper.)

Divorced in 2005, Mellon's personal life has continued to attract media attention, including reports, which she has denied, of romantic involvements with George Clooney and Kid Rock, among others. Friends have said she is happy in her current relationship with Slater.

Matthew Mellon, meanwhile, is standing behind his daughter and ex-wife in their legal fight, making an attempt last year to mediate a settlement.

Joshua Schulman, named chief executive of Jimmy Choo in June, declined to comment on the suit but said that Mellon was closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, which notched sales of about $171 million last year.

Said Crowe, the London-based writer: "Those that know of Tamara have stood behind her through numerous tabloid scandals far worse than this."

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