August 5, 2013

In Her Shoes

If Tamara Mellon has her way—and when has the Jimmy Choo cofounder not?—her new namesake collection, with its buy-now, wear-now monthly deliveries, might just shake up the fashion system as we know it.

In Her Shoes

By Nicole Phelps

Last Monday, a sign on the glass doors at Pace announced the gallery was closed for a private event: the debut of Tamara Mellon’s new namesake brand. Inside, Diptyque candles burned. A beyond-belief-huge fox-fur throw was draped over a low-slung couch that sat behind a marble coffee table—all Mellon’s own. Richard Misrach’s On the Beach photo series, one of which is part of her personal collection, lined the walls. And perched on white Plexi boxes were the collection’s first offerings—shoes, boots, and bags in black, white, red, and leopard print (she adores leopard). Mellon, who walked away from Jimmy Choo in 2011 with what’s estimated at nearly $100 million, doesn’t do anything small. That goes for last week’s presentation, as well as the brand itself. She’s come up with a fairly revolutionary concept: monthly shipments of in-season merch. Warm coats in September, not July! Spring clothes in the spring, not February! Even better, she’s determined to put an end to the $2,000 dress. That’s enough to make headlines on its own, but what really made us sit up and take notice were the fabulous, why-hasn’t-anybody-else-come-up-with-that? ideas such as leather and suede legging boots, thin knits sold with matching cashmere bras, perfect stretchy turtlenecks that you’ve never been able to find. Woman-friendly is the rather unsexy term that comes to mind. Mellon herself puts it this way: “She’s glamorous, she’s a luxury woman, but she’s not buttoned up or uptight in any way. And she’s independent.” Here, the entrepreneur and designer sits down with to discuss the label’s genesis, where it’s going, and why she lives and works by these two rules: keeping pace with the modern consumer, and keeping control of your own company. 

NP: When did the idea for a namesake brand come to you? 

TM: A couple of years ago. I was toying with the idea of doing something under my own name, and I decided probably it was the right time. I could’ve stayed at Jimmy Choo for another five years, but I decided if I didn’t do it now, I’d never do it. I thought I’d take the risk.

I like the idea of doing something that gets away from the fashion system. Your idea of delivering every month is much more the way women and men want to shop these days. No one has quite done it yet. It’s exciting. 

If I’m going to go down, I might as well go down in flames. No, but personally, I got so sick of having to buy clothes in the wrong season. I don’t want to think about spring and summer clothes in February, and I don’t really want to buy a winter coat right now. It all started, really, when shows went online. The customer and the world have moved forward, but the fashion industry hasn’t moved forward. It hasn’t really thought about how to keep up with the consumer. When I started going to shows in the early nineties, when I was at British Vogue, nobody could see the clothes except the buyers and the press, and then the customer saw it when it came out in the magazine and the stores. Now, you have a show, it’s on, and as a consumer, I can look at those pictures for six months before the product gets into the store. When it finally does get there, I feel like it’s been overexposed. There’s sort of a fatigue to it. By the time it’s in the stores, she’s already seen the next collection, so she wants that. I want to create that excitement for the customer again, and also put clothes in the right season: what you want to wear when you want to wear it.

Zara does this. Why aren’t other higher-level brands doing this?

What they have to think about in their structure is being seasonless, and think about monthly, bimonthly deliveries. I’m making my shoes and bags in the same factories that I have for the last eighteen years, and they’re really happy producing this new way. I’m going to do limited wholesale. My business is really going to be based on my own retail. We’re opening two stores next year, New York and London, and online. The advantage I have is starting from scratch. I don’t have to change big old structures, but also there’s a lot of old thinking. We have to change the way the fashion business thinks. I love the hashtag that’s going around Twitter at the moment #DISRUPTFASHION.

I think you just gave us our headline.

The world’s moved on, but not the fashion industry. I want to buy something and wear it the next day. I don’t want to look at it for the next four months.

The line is a real mix of glamour and clever, woman-friendly wardrobe solutions. I’m thinking of the legging boots, or the thin cashmeres sold with bra tops. Is that your formula? 

Absolutely. I thought about the things I want to wear, the things that frustrate me that I can’t find, and the easy, non-stressful way I want to live my life. So I did a lot of transitional pieces you can wear day to night literally by just changing a boot or shoe or accessory. I just hate the whole thing of having to change. And then you can buy one dress that has two purposes.

People think of you as an accessory designer. What were the challenges of getting into ready-to-wear? 

I knew that people wouldn’t believe it until they saw it. So I just tried to remain confident in myself. Yeah, there were people who said, “Well, she doesn’t know anything about ready-to-wear,” but I had a vision, and I knew that I could execute it.

What was the feedback you got this week?

The press loved it. We had some squeals when the legging boot came out. And, actually, one of the other editors turned around and said, “Who geeked out?” That was my favorite moment. [In the planning stages] I probably spoke to about fifty women, and I did not have one response that was, “Oh, I’m not sure if I would shop like that.” It was a resounding “Please, do it.” Even friends who have personal shoppers, they said they dread the call in February when the personal shopper calls and says, “You have to start thinking about Spring/Summer.” Everyone was, “Please, do it.”

As an editor, I’ve heard designers say, “I want to do this,” for years.

No one’s had the balls to do it.

You’ve described the line as accessible luxury, and as in between high contemporary price points and entry-level designer. What sets it apart? 

It’s a hybrid because I’m making shoes and bags in the factories I’ve used for the last eighteen years, which are luxury factories. The quality of the product is luxury, but what I’m doing is taking a lower margin, because I want to deliver an excellent product for a better price. The ready-to-wear is at a contemporary price point, a dress is $800, a skirt or a jacket is $500/$600. The ready-to-wear would sit alongside Alexander Wang. So our shoes, bags, and ready-to-wear are all in the same price range. That’s how women want to buy, it’s the price point they like, and it’s the way they want to dress. Everybody likes to buy and wear good-quality shoes and bags, but at the same time, I don’t think they’re going to buy a $2,000 dress. I’m much more comfortable spending $800 for a great dress. I would call it attainable luxury. I think it’s pioneering.

Talking about pioneering. Can you discuss being a woman in a male-dominated business. Any challenges? 

You’re going to have to read my book. It’s called In My Shoes; it’s coming out October 1. There have been enormous struggles, and it’s across every industry, not just this industry. I had a double struggle because I was dealing with private equity, and there were no women in private equity at all. I had no women on my board except for me. Very much you get discounted. I would find I would say something, and it would get discounted, and then six months later they would realize, Oh, maybe she was correct. Getting pay equality is a massive struggle. There are a lot of gender issues. I’m starting a foundation to work on women’s rights for equal pay and gender discrimination. And I work with a domestic-violence center up here in Harlem.

Changing tack, how has the move to New York changed your point of view or your approach to fashion? 

It hasn’t at all. I think I very much still have a European sensibility—my aesthetic and the way I design and see product. I would say it hasn’t changed. But the thing I love about New York is you can be whoever you want to be and no one gives a damn. People here are not judgmental in that way.

I remember writing about your first forays into Hollywood with the Jimmy Choo brand, the way you dyed white satin shoes to match Cate Blanchett’s purple John Galliano dress. People say that was a breakthrough moment for the Choo brand. Do you have a piece in the new collection that you think is going to connect with customers like that? 

I think it’s the legging boot. I think they’re going to really understand that it’s a basic, that you can throw a big boyfriend sweater over, you can wear a long T-shirt and a jacket, that you can put it under a miniskirt. The world has changed so much since I started Jimmy Choo, and we caught a moment when accessories were exploding. And we caught a moment when celebrity was exploding, the magazines were changing from putting models on the covers to actresses. That’s why I took the brand to the Oscars, because I saw that early. But now I think the world has changed again, and what I love about the moment now is that you’re direct with the customer. For me, the celebrity thing is over. I think celebrities have been degraded so much with reality TV. Nobody watches movies anymore. The actresses have been completely demystified. We’re in a new world where we’re communicating directly with the customer.

What are your feelings about social media? 

I love Twitter. I’ve had Twitter wars with people…I love Instagram. I love Vine, which my 11-year-old daughter introduced me to. We can get immediate feedback from the customer that way. And I’m much more interested in having the authentic conversation than “Come Buy Now!” They know when it’s not authentic.

It must be so great to be part of a launch. Were there lessons that you took away from Jimmy Choo? 

Yes. Keep control of your business. And don’t do private equity unless you’re ready to sell your business 100 percent and walk away. Or if you do let them in, make sure you have control, because you won’t be happy with what happens to your business. And at the end of the day, it comes back to the product. If you have a good product, women will find you. The motto is, “It’s not in if you don’t love it.”

This is a question from our copy chief at I told the editors that I was meeting you today, and he asked, “Is she really going to use her name? People always said, ‘I love your Choos.’ Now what are they going to say, ‘I love your Mellons’?”

[Laughter] I got caught in the beach in the South of France, where it’s pretty normal not to wear a top. I mean, grandmas are doing it. But I happened to get photographed, and they ran a headline in the British press, “Mellon’s Melons.”

Phelps, Nicole. “In Her Shoes.”  Entrepreneur Tamara Mellon Launches a Namesake Label, Condé Nast, 13 August 2008.