Best Foot Forward

Tamara Mellon transformed Jimmy Choo from a small enterprise into a global shoe empire. Now, as she embraces her latest namesake venture, she talks about reinvigorating the luxury experience, and reveals her passion for combining design with philanthropy.

Best Foot Forward

Photography by Amanda Friedman

“Can we talk on the way to JFK?” asks Tamara Mellon, who never misses an opportunity to multitask, especially during a 60-minute private-car trek from Manhattan to New York’s busiest airport. Mellon may have shifted her life from the duality of London and New York to a more stable and laid-back home base in Los Angeles, but her travels exhibit few signs of waning. This particular jaunt finds her returning to L.A. from New York, where the day before she was overseeing photography of the latest shoes from her eponymous collection, styles she’ll roll out at a measured pace over the next six months. Mellon’s schedule may not be as rife with visits to the Italian factories where her shoes are crafted, but that’s primarily because she feels an implicit trust in the team she’s developed over several years. “I’m very lucky: My production team that I had at Jimmy Choo came with me,” she explains. “They do a fantastic job of checking quality, and they know me so well, it’s like second nature at this point.”

Jimmy Choo, the footwear label Mellon founded in 1996 with the Malaysian-born designer and craftsman who lent the company his now legendary name, was at peak popularity, among consumers and A-list celebrities alike, when she made the decision in 2011 to step away from the brand. “I had built Jimmy Choo over 16 years, and I was ready to move on,” Mellon says. “I had been through four private-equity deals with it, and I simply wanted a new challenge. I still loved designing shoes; I wasn’t done with that. But I found myself getting really excited about how to build a luxury brand for the future.”

As she planned her next move, what struck Mellon was how the international fashion schedule—with its focus on major presentations of Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter debuts, with smaller “pre-collections” interspersed throughout the year—no longer jibed with the way women liked to shop. “When I started to think about how the industry operates, I realized it’s really archaic. Fashion is still operating on a 60-year-old business model,” she points out.

In the latter half of those six decades, the internet increasingly began to impact the industry’s time-honored schedule. The London-born Mellon, who served as accessories editor for British Vogue before making the transition into design, remembers the shift well. “When I was a young editor going to fashion shows, the audience was comprised primarily of editors, fashion buyers and VIP clients, and it wasn’t until six months later that you saw the product in magazines and on the shop floor. The product had this great reveal moment,” she notes. “Now, the second a product is introduced, it’s on someone’s Instagram, or a blogger review that’s instantly online and available all over the world. But it still takes six months for that product to reach the stores. The result is client fatigue; she has moved on.”

As a key component of introducing her own collection in 2013, Mellon explored the then novel concept of “see-now, buy-now,” fashion parlance for collections immediately available for sale following their debut to buyers and press. But consumers hadn’t yet caught on to the idea, especially coming from a high-end shoe brand. “People didn’t get it, and fashion labels were still selling women coats in August,” she says. Unable to sustain her original idea, Mellon filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Fast-forward just three years, and Tamara Mellon is back, fully confident in her second go-round with a self-titled collection, which is available for sale only via her website (and the occasional pop-up store, such as the installation produced in L.A. for the 2017 holiday season). And the timing couldn’t be better. Faced with the challenges of seemingly nonstop design schedules, coupled with consumer fatigue, several designers are embracing see-now, buy-now in varying degrees, including Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Burberry. In January, Alexander Wang announced he would depart the New York February and September fashion-show calendars to instead present his collections in June and December, months he believes are more compatible with his shipping schedule.

Mellon, meanwhile, already had been rethinking how to approach today’s consumer: Rather than two major collections, she would release smaller collections of new designs each month, while keeping a core group of classic styles available throughout the year. “I liken it to a pyramid,” she says. “At the top of the pyramid are those designs we release in more limited quantities—the innovative, fashion-forward pieces that create excitement. The bottom of the pyramid, meanwhile, are the beautiful basics available all the time. It’s smarter to produce fewer, better things.”

Like other direct-to-consumer fashion companies, forward-thinking brands such as Warby Parker and Everlane, Mellon’s intent this time also was focused on removing retailers from the equation. “Brick-and-mortar retail will never go away, especially in the luxury category, because people want and enjoy that personal experience,” she says. “But a lot of brands are still figuring out what that physical experience is going to be in the future.”

Mellon had always enjoyed meeting clients during her considerable calendar of personal appearances for Jimmy Choo, and with online shopping on the rise, why not foster a similar relationship? With that in mind, she’s created consumer-friendly touches, such as Cobbler Care, which allows clients to have their shoes repaired free of charge for up to two years from the date of purchase; Mellon’s company also will handle the shipping in both directions. “Can you imagine walking into a retailer two years after you’ve bought a pair of shoes and asking to have them repaired for free?” she asks.

Of course, Mellon’s direct-to-consumer model offers another distinct advantage. “By not doing wholesale, that meant I was removing the middleman, the retailer, from the equation, while giving my customer the same quality product,” she says. “My retail price is what my wholesale used to be; my customers are essentially getting the wholesale price.” At Jimmy Choo, a 100-millimeter pump sells for $595; on Tamara Mellon’s site, the Rebel 105, a patent-leather pump with 105-millimeter heel, retails for $350.

Which begs the question: Has her aesthetic changed from those high-profile Jimmy Choo days? “No. I take myself with me, after all,” she says. “If I still owned Jimmy Choo, what I’m designing now is what that brand would look like. It’s that combination of masculine and feminine, but I’m also very focused on how the shoes feel. Most shoe designers today are men, so they’re not as attuned to how a shoe feels, especially after you’ve been walking in it all day. It’s the same with the images we create for the site and for our campaigns: I want them to feel empowering for women. That’s a big aspect of what I want for this business: to be a real activist, both for my brand and for women in general. More than anything these days, your customer wants to understand what you believe.”

Selling direct to consumers also allows Mellon the latitude to explore another passion: philanthropy. “I love doing things that engage with a cause I believe in,” she says. For World AIDS Day in December, Mellon created a limited-edition version (just 100 pairs) of her best-selling Frontline sandal in red velvet, with 100 percent of the proceeds of the $425 shoe benefiting the Elton John AIDS Foundation. On March 8, Mellon releases her latest design to highlight International Women’s Day: Dubbed Kaleidoscope, the $495 shoe incorporates prints from antique scarves, which Mellon collected from L.A. vintage shops and the famed Rose Bowl Flea Market. As with other such initiatives, only 50 pairs will be produced—“but every shoe is one of a kind, because each scarf is unique.”

Exploring vintage haunts is just one way Mellon is embracing life in L.A., where she lives with Michael Ovitz, the cofounder of Creative Artists Agency. And Los Angeles likewise is catching up to Mellon’s sensibilities. “L.A. is enjoying a renaissance at the moment,” she says. “It used to be a one-industry town, but that’s completely changed. The art world is exploding, and it seems like there are 6,000 tech start-ups in Culver City, which has become known as Silicon Beach. When I was designing at Jimmy Choo, we used to fly from London to L.A. to go vintage shopping for inspiration. Now it’s right at my doorstep, which I love. And I’ve actually started yoga. To be honest it took a little adjustment for me—it’s a big change from London and New York—but I’ve come around.” It also doesn’t hurt that the clients who clamored for Mellon’s designs at Jimmy Choo are now close at hand to cultivate for red-carpet opportunities; Tracee Ellis Ross, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow are just a few spotted at recent events in Tamara Mellon shoes.

Ultimately, Mellon is wholly mindful that the lessons she’s learned throughout her career have led to this moment. “When I started Jimmy Choo, I was just 27 years old,” says Mellon, who turned 50 in July. “I only wanted to make beautiful shoes; I didn’t understand what I was going to face in the business world. But that worked out to my advantage, because now I’ve designed a business I can believe in, one that makes me happy and inspires me every day. How can you ask for more than that?”

 

Sole Mates

Tamara Mellon recommends three styles from her collection to add to your Spring 2018 wardrobe

For Evening

The Kaleidoscope

“It’s the big shoe we’re talking about; we’re only making 50 of them to bring attention to International Women’s Day. If you love vintage scarves, you’ll love this shoe.”


For Travel

The Frontline

“This is still our hero product. It really is the modern strappy sandal. I had started to feel the style in general was a bit dated, so I wanted to create something modern and edgy.”


For Day

The Icon

“The perfect boot, it goes with everything.”