For her second act, Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon thinks outside the shoe box
Inside a contemporary office in an unassuming Los Angeles building off Beverly Boulevard, Tamara Mellon — dressed this September workday in a sheer black blouse paired with jeans, a gold statement necklace, retro-style aviator glasses and black patent leather sandals of her own design — appeared relaxed, optimistic and determined about her latest chapter.
The soft-spoken, U.K.-born designer said she moved to Los Angeles “for love,” but now it’s her Beverly Grove-based, namesake footwear label that keeps her well-heeled feet firmly planted in Southern California. “This company was a total step in being courageous enough to think, ‘I’m going to start again,’” said the 52-year-old businesswoman, who launched the Tamara Mellon brand in 2013, long after she helped make luxe footwear label Jimmy Choo a household name.
Her self-named brand might not have the same status as Jimmy Choo, but things appear to be moving in a positive direction for her young brand, especially in the years following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing in 2015 and a subsequent restructuring. During this second time around, Mellon is taking a different approach and promoting more than a line of footwear. She’s selling an edgier, play-by-your-own-rules lifestyle — one that mirrors her own life. As a result, she’s seeing Los Angeles in a new way — and now stepping into a period of fashion successes.
In September, she and cannabis lifestyle brand Lord Jones released their High CBD Formula Stiletto Cream, which contains 200 milligrams of CBD (or cannabidiol, a compound found in cannabis plants). “I take CBD every day,” she said, adding that the foot cream was inspired by the number of hours that actresses tend to spend on red carpets.
This year, her brand teamed with fashion labels A.L.C. and Frame on exclusive footwear collaborations, and it launched a mobile shoe closet that is traveling across the country. (The mobile closet is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles in early December.)
The Tamara Mellon label also opened a bricks-and-mortar store at Palisades Village shopping center in Pacific Palisades.
Future plans for the label call for opening five Tamara Mellon stores by 2021, with locations in New York and San Francisco as possibilities. Although the brand is currently footwear-focused, two handbags have been released, and there is discussion about eventually branching into other categories.
Mellon said getting to this sweet spot requires having a good team in place — in an environment where people are inspired to work. “I wanted to create a company that I was proud of, and I wanted to support women,” said Mellon, sitting on a white modern couch inside a private room that included an orchid, plush rug and marble coffee table. The pristine space felt less like the conference room it was touted to be and more like a drawing room in a curated home in Bel-Air.
Make no mistake — it wasn’t Mellon’s lavish corner office. The designer sits at her desk alongside her team of 57 employees in an effort to foster a sense of community. It’s one example of how she’s continuing to shake things up.
Another big business shift is her label’s direct-to-consumer model, which cuts out the middle person (a.k.a. major department stores). She’s also embracing a more modern corporate culture and feminist initiatives.
Underscoring the latter, her brand is sponsoring the upcoming L.A. event Know Your Mellons, which will offer free mammograms on Oct. 21 and 22. Mellon is picking up the bill for the screenings for anyone who signs up in advance on her brand’s website.
“I was ready to create something different for women,” said Mellon, whose namesake shoe collection ranges from $350 for strappy metallic leather sandals to $1,695 for black suede waist-high boots.
Also important to Mellon in creating her brand was addressing the gender pay gap. She said she left Jimmy Choo in 2011 over a salary dispute. “I couldn’t get paid equally to the men who were actually working for me,” Mellon said, explaining that private equity deals led to an entirely male board of directors. “Even though I was the founder of the company and the creative director of the company, there was still a bias that a man’s work is more valuable. That was the deciding moment for me. … I was angry enough about it that I wanted to leave and set up a new company with completely different values — values that reflected me.”
I was angry enough about it that I wanted to leave and set up a new company with completely different values — values that reflected me.
Her own footwear label is led by women, with Jill Layfield as the brand’s co-founder and chief executive officer. Employees are afforded unlimited time off, and everyone has equity in the company. In June, Tamara Mellon raised $50 million in funding, bringing the brand’s total capital to $87 million.
Mellon said her initial approach — her see now, wear now concept — was too ahead of the curve for her contemporaries and led to her brand’s initial trouble. “I could see the writing on the wall for the fashion industry,” she said, “and what was going on in the industry is that a lot of people refused to see it was coming.”
Around 2016, fashion labels such as Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry and Rebecca Minkoff started unveiling immediately available in-season (a.k.a. see now, wear now) collections. Other brands, including Ralph Lauren and Kate Spade New York, also went in that direction. (Tom Ford and some of the other early adopters have since returned to a traditional retail model.)
When Mellon was testing the water, “nobody could wrap their head around what I was doing,” she said, adding that poor timing led her brand to have to file for bankruptcy protection. “It was the way forward. I had new investors that wanted to come in that believed in what I was doing, and it was the right path to get there.”
Mellon teamed up with Layfield for the brand re-launch in 2016 after being introduced by an investor who felt their contrasting backgrounds would complement each other.
“Tamara definitely has a pulse on fashion and luxury and design,” said Layfield, formerly chief executive officer of an online outdoor gear company. “She makes these beautiful shoes, and I sell them online. But we’re learning each other’s worlds.”
Layfield, a data and e-commerce expert, said she and Mellon bonded over a shared sense of fearlessness and the type of company they wanted to create. “We have an appetite for thinking about how to do things differently,” Layfield said, explaining that they rejected “prescriptive PTO policies” — paid time off — to motivate employees. “I want people aligned to our mission and willing to do whatever it takes to get there but for them to also have balance in their personal life,” she added.
The age-old work-life conundrum resonated with Mellon firsthand. After all, Mellon relocated from New York to L.A. to be closer to her longtime partner, Michael Ovitz, who co-founded Creative Artists Agency.
“I was moved,” Ovitz said by phone. “She upended her entire life to come out here. So that’s quite a commitment. I am fortunate to be with such a talented, gifted and beautiful woman. I couldn’t be happier.”
I am fortunate to be with such a talented, gifted and beautiful woman. I couldn’t be happier.
The couple met thanks to their late friend, Teddy Forstmann, during a business conference the billionaire financier held in Aspen, Colo., in 2011. Today they live in a 28,000-square-foot Beverly Hills mansion with Mellon’s 17-year-old daughter, Araminta “Minty” Mellon (from Mellon’s former marriage to Matthew Mellon).
“I was standing with Tory Burch,” Mellon said, retelling the story of meeting Ovitz, “and he walked up to us, and he just looked at me and went, ‘Are you Tamara Mellon?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I’d like to have a private drink with you.’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so bold.’”
Ovitz said he remembers the moment well. When he approached Mellon, all he could think about was, “What I was going to say when she said, ‘No,’” he said. Then he laughed before adding, “I was trying to come up with something clever as a second shot.”
Ovitz found he had much in common with Mellon. “Frankly, all of our interests are pretty much the same,” he said, explaining that the two share a love of art, architecture and design. “I had a deeper background in art than she did, and she has a much deeper background in fashion. So it’s been a learning experience for both of us.” The couple also bonded over an interest in tech and a shared work ethic.
“We discuss business a lot,” Ovitz said. “We bounce everything off each other, so I get advice from her as well on everything that I do and I give her advice when she asks for it.”
He remembers the first time Mellon mentioned her see now, wear now concept. Six years ago, they were in Capri, Italy, walking in 100-degree heat, and passed a store that had winter goods in the window. “She said, ‘This model doesn’t work anymore. We have to change it.’ She was really ahead of the curve,” Ovitz said, adding, ‘I’m impressed with her as a businessperson and as a creative person. Having spent so much time in business dealing with creative people, it’s a marvel to watch someone who is as good in business as they are creatively or vice versa. It’s hard to do, and she’s done a really good job.”
Mellon has long been a master of reinvention, and it’s made clear in her memoir, “In My Shoes” (Portfolio), which was released in 2013 and chronicles her roller-coaster rise to success.
After dropping out of high school at age 16, Mellon worked in retail. From there, the Londoner had a brief stint at a public relations agency before realizing she wanted to be the editor she had been pitching. She then landed at British Vogue and worked as an accessories editor for five years before she was fired.
By then, Mellon had garnered a reputation in the tabloids for being a party girl, an image underscored by a substance-abuse problem. Mellon checked herself into rehab, determined to get her life on track and to trade her editorial gig highlighting designers for a job as a designer.
During her time at British Vogue, Mellon met Jimmy Choo, who created bespoke footwear for the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales, and they started the luxe brand Jimmy Choo in 1996. (The footwear label’s status was solidified when Carrie Bradshaw famously said, “Wait, I lost my Choo” during a key moment on the third season of HBO’s “Sex and the City.”) Mellon remained at Jimmy Choo long after she and Choo parted ways.
Bound by a one-year non-compete clause after leaving Jimmy Choo, Mellon, who reportedly cashed out of the company for an estimated $135 million, used her hiatus to write her memoir. “It was very cathartic for me,” she said, adding that putting pen to paper allowed her to “put a lid on that chapter and move forward.”
The book also examined her dysfunctional childhood and her early 20s. Although her father was co-founder of Vidal Sassoon and her mother was once a Chanel model, her seemingly glamorous life was plagued by a much darker reality.
“I had a stressful home life,” Mellon said. “They now know that stress has an impact on the brain, and it’s hard to retain information, so if I look back at my childhood, that was clearly happening, and I did badly at school.”
Mellon was ambitious. The dream of launching a luxury shoe company kept her working toward recovery. “Shoes were my path to freedom,” she said. “Starting a business for me at that age was about my independence, my freedom, making my own decisions, never being dependent on a father or a husband and really being able to stand on my own two feet.”
Vogue’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, one of Mellon’s longtime friends, said the footwear designer is someone who “doesn’t see boundaries before her.” She credited Mellon’s open-book approach as a contribution to the designer’s ultimate success. “Tamara’s public persona is no different from her private one,” Wintour said in an email sent during Milan Fashion Week last month. “She’s essentially someone who exudes strength and vulnerability, glamour and self-deprecation, a drive to succeed and a belief that life and family should come first.”
Despite life’s ups and downs (for instance, her ex-husband died last year on his way to rehab in Cancun), Mellon herself has long been determined to be a positive example for Minty. “I’ve wanted to be a good role model for her,” Mellon said. “The way she sees the world and the way she talks about working — that makes me very proud. Particularly, when she was little, I had to travel a lot and I was a single parent. It’s hard.” She included her daughter in her work life by taking her to factories in Italy and design meetings in Paris and by exposing her to swatch books and materials between homework assignments.
She’s essentially someone who exudes strength and vulnerability, glamour and self-deprecation, a drive to succeed and a belief that life and family should come first.
It turns out Minty is interested in following in Mellon’s stilettoed footsteps — although she has slightly different aspirations from her mother. “She wants to be CEO of a fashion company,” Mellon said. “She makes me laugh. She’s like, ‘Mom, I just want you to understand [that] if I come into your office, I’m sitting with Jill because that’s my skill set. I’m not sitting with you.’” First, her daughter, a senior at Brentwood School, plans to attend college and eventually get an MBA. “She said, ‘I’m not working for you because that would be nepotism,’” Mellon said, laughing and throwing her hands up in the air.
Mellon’s Los Angeles move is also a full-circle moment. She spent much of her adolescence living between London and Beverly Hills for her father’s job, and she grew up next door to Nancy Sinatra in a home off Whittier Drive. Mellon said she routinely drives by her childhood home. However, L.A. and its neighboring communities have evolved — and so has she.
“L.A. is now the cultural center of the world if you think about what’s going on here with the explosion in the art world, the music businesses that moved here,” she said. “All the tech start-ups. Fashion. It’s an exciting place to be right now. ... I’m living the life that I wanted to create. I’m surrounded by a team of people that I love. I come in here every day proud of what we’re doing.” Mellon paused. “Yeah, it would be interesting to write the second book now.”
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