In The Magazine

Turning on Her Heels

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Given her stormy past, and given the scorched-earth honesty about that past in her autobiography, not to mention the way she photographs with blue eyes blazing in a gaze that could cut diamonds, one might expect meeting Tamara Mellon to be quite a formidable proposition, like bumping gloves with a gorgeous prizefighter, perhaps.

But she seems to be at peace these days, and she’ll happily tell you the reasons why. When we meet she is padding around her sunny house in Bridgehampton where a lovely light beams around the high ceilings and the clean, uncluttered interior. It was 9 a.m. and the house was alive with a dozen strangers there to attend a photo session, and she was comfortable with the mix.

“I grew up in such chaos,” she says, sitting down to a goat-cheese omelet and coffee, her phone at hand and a Nicorette lozenge container within reach. “I always said I want my house to be a peaceful, nurturing kind of good environment.”

The life she’d led in the twenty years of becoming the empress of shoes in building the Jimmy Choo brand was anything but peaceful. But after stepping down in 2011 and selling out, she had a one-year noncompete clause that afforded her plenty of time for reflection, which animated the fiery autobiography called In My Shoes, written with William Patrick. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat it,” she smiles.

Unlike the business autobiographies that paint a rosy picture of the determined executive wading into the thickets and straightening everything out and achieving success, Tamara rips into the shortsighted greedheads who hound any creative enterprise into obsolescence. She names the names and hardly leaves any bottom unkicked.

“I’d say that writing it left me feeling calm,” she says, her large, aquarium-blue eyes engaged. She is a convivial, clear-speaking woman given to warm and frequent laughter. “When you grow up in the conditions I did with all the secrets, it was just great to get it all out there.

“You’re just as sick as your secrets, yeah. But I also wanted to write a book that would inspire women who wanted to get into business. Or inspire anybody who wanted to get sober. But I did want to inspire women.”

Tamara Mellon (then Yeardye) was a smart young woman working for British Vogue when her wild nightlife led right out of the magazine business and into rehab by the age of 27. After recovery, her entrepreneurial instincts took over. One of her tasks at the magazine had been to organize shoes and accessories for photo shoots. To get past the inevitable Manolo Blahniks, she tracked down Jimmy Choo, a Malaysian shoemaker working in the riskier precincts of London’s East End, in a tiny shop surrounded by barbed wire. From such a humble shop came shoes to fit on Princess Diana’s feet.

“I would get him to make things for shoes,” she recalls. “So if it was a Spartacus shoot, I’d say, right, I want a gladiator sandal,

I want straps here, a stud there, this and that. What I didn’t realize till later was that I was telling him what to make. So we’d photograph it and give him a credit line in Vogue.” Alert readers noted the credit, and Choo got more orders.

When Tamara suggested they go into business together, she could turn to the most important man in her life: her father, Tom Yeardye, once known in knockabout London circles as Tommy.

If ever there was the example of someone who fought his way (sometimes literally) up from nothing, it was Tommy. Broad-shouldered and six-foot-four, athletic enough to be a movie stunt double for Rock Hudson or Victor Mature, Tommy made his bones in the London club scene of the 1950s, squiring the likes of actress Diana Dors. The British tabloids would later have fun connecting him to London underworld figures, but the evidence suggests that it was his observation of the hard boys that persuaded him to move out of the club scene and into other businesses, such as the Glenby hair-curler kit appreciated by bouffant ladies of the day. As hairstyles changed, Tommy hooked up with another London beauty-shop guy struggling to create a new image, Vidal Sassoon. Tommy would run the international Sassoon organization and get rich.

Tommy and his wife, former model Ann Davis, had three children and lived in England’s Berkshire countryside before decamping for Beverly Hills, which is where their first-born, Tamara, now a grade-schooler, gained a sudden appreciation of fast-moving wealth and glitzy shops. “Then at 14,” Tamara

recalls, smiling widely, “I went to boarding school in England. You couldn’t get two more completely different cultures if you tried. It was definitely a culture shock, but it gave me a rounder, bigger worldview. I understood how to adapt.”

At Heathfield School, telephone usage was limited to one call home per week. “The big thing was letters. We all used to run to the letter box every morning. If there was a letter from a boy, we’d all sit around reading it over and over!”

Daydreams about the future came hard because she was “such a contradiction. I wasn’t good in school and nobody thought I’d do anything. But at the same time I had this secret, hidden, internal drive that nobody saw. I guess my dad was the only one who saw it.”

Tamara describes her father as a kind and thoughtful gentleman. In the stormy Yeardye household (Tamara blames her mother for the endless storms), Tommy was the negotiator. “He was always elegant and well-mannered. He was like the velvet glove with the iron fist underneath.”

As she grew up, business was always being discussed at the table. Thus when she sought her father’s advice on the 

Jimmy Choo partnership, he was able to loan her $250,000 to get it started and propose himself as the first chairman.

Within a decade it was a $200 million business, and eventually her own worth would top $100 million. She would meet the queen, earn an OBE and have a love life splashed across the newspapers. But why did her shoe designs catch on?

Women might claim that her fierce, Italian-made shoes were exceptionally comfortable, but Tamara just thinks it was her sense of fun.

“The focus then wasn’t on accessories—it was on ready-to-wear, and accessories were considered boring. There weren’t the details or sense of fun. So we started doing crazy things like putting feathers on the shoes and having more fun with it. We made the shoe the focus of the outfit.”

Then there was her willingness to do whatever it took. For the 1999 Academy Awards, she camped out in Beverly Hills with a pile of white satin shoes and a bathroom racked with dyes, then sent out the word to indecisive starlets that her company would match the shoes to anyone’s dress.

There came to be more than fifty Jimmy Choo outlets, and the next lucky break came when author Candace Bushnell walked into the London shop. She ended up making Tamara’s shoes an object of affection, if not deification, in Sex and the City, as critical to modern living as Candace’s beloved cosmo martinis.

With all that kind of attention coming her way, Tamara didn’t mind the various buzzes of high-profile attention. She dated actors, singers, racing-team owners. When she married Matthew Mellon, descendant of the famed Pittsburgh banker, the wedding ceremony took place in Blenheim Palace.

The fairytale turned dark in 2004 when her father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. The next year, after witnessing a monstrous amount of substance abuse by her husband, she got a divorce, taking with her the most beloved charm of her life, her daughter Araminta (“Minty”).

What makes her recent story very interesting is the ferocious series of battles she endured with her partners. When Choo sold his 51 percent of the company in 2001, Tamara found herself sitting on boards facing ten men in suits. There followed a series of hostile takeovers that had her constantly at the battlements, pouring hot oil on the raiding infidels. In her descriptions, never has the private equity firm been discussed in such scathing language. “Vulture” is one of her kinder terms. Sociopaths.

Feedlot farmers. Men who miss the emotional connection to a product. Men who are afraid of creativity because it can’t be controlled. PE firms are, she says, emblematic of why the world’s economy is at risk.

“The ones I dealt with were guys just starting out and trying to make it. It was very important for them to buy and sell companies and get a track record. So they were solely focused on profits where they were squeezing everything, squeezing the blood out of the stone. They burn your team out, they underpay you, they ask you to lower the quality of the leather you’re purchasing to increase the margins. And when you’re the owner of a company, you take a long-term view. You want to pay your people properly, you want happy employees. You want your customers to be happy.”

But not the private equity partners. “They’re not looking for the long-term viability of the company. They just want to maximize it right now, and they don’t care if they destroy it in the process.”

When asked what she wishes she knew then that she knows now, she says, “Just to be able to speak up. And move swifter on decisions.

“It’s funny. I was 27 when I started Jimmy Choo. And as a young woman, you don’t know to use your voice. What a woman does is work herself to death and hope someone notices. Rather than speak up. Today I’m much more vocal.”

One of the continuing battles in her life has been with her mother, with whom she hasn’t spoken in years. Just as her father was perpetually supportive, her mother was, she says, unendingly negative. After he died, there was no one to

negotiate the family dramas. The warfare escalated and climaxed with a protracted trial after Tamara felt that thousands of Jimmy Choo shares had been unfairly moved to her mother’s account. Tamara won the case and moved forward.

Replacing that tension is the easy affection she feels for Minty, who strolls in after a while. A slender girl of 13, she spends most of her day at a stable down the road with her beloved horse, Ratatouille. Mother and daughter seem more like best friends. “She’s been everywhere with me,” she says, fondly stroking her daughter’s hair.

In 2011, Tamara sold out for good and cut all ties from the Jimmy Choo brand she created. Now based in Manhattan and Bridgehampton, she took the required one year away from the business to regroup and recall, write the book, make plans for what would become the Tamara Mellon brand, and attend

to Minty.

The new brand is growing strong. When asked if it’s possible to avoid the compromises that seem inevitable with success, her eyes turn to steel. She responds: “Control is called 51 percent.”

The difficulties in dealing with competitive men have not gone away. “It still happens to me. I took a meeting the other day, and even after selling Jimmy Choo for $850 million, I was still being spoken to as”—here she adopts a patronizing tone—“‘Well, dear, to run a business you have to do this and this.’ And somebody at the meeting said, ‘She’s really bright, get on here.’

“It was really surprising for me.”

If there is one business heavyweight who treats her with proper respect, it would be Michael Ovitz, former Hollywood macher. The founder of the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and briefly the head of Disney, he was known for his, ahem, “drive.” Once called the Most Powerful Man in Hollywood, he suffered a  Shakespearean fall from grace, and then learned what it took to remake a shattered life. They met at a Tony Burch party in Aspen when he walked up and suggested they have a drink. Two decades her senior, he had witnessed every sort of deeply felt litigation there was, and they bonded.

Asked today who her best friend is, she responds readily. “That person today is Michael Ovitz. He’s the person who gets all the calls my dad used to get.” Having said this, she breaks out in loud laughter: it’s all just too obvious.

“Yeah, he gets three or four of those a day. He understands the creative process, and the way a creative brain works differently than a numbers brain. So it’s great to be able to talk to him.” They won’t get married, she says, but he did give her a ring to symbolize a lifetime commitment.

“Another thing is, he understands the product. A number of people can walk into the showroom and they have no idea if it’s good or bad. He’ll walk in and he knows that’s good, that’s not so good, that’s great. His eye for design is off the charts.” Tutored in art by Arne Glimcher of the Pace Gallery, Ovitz now guides her through the art world, which she thinks can be more intimidating than the fashion world.

Now a habitué of Palo Alto, Ovitz leads a social life packed with people from the tech world, which makes for dinner-table conversations that Tamara finds thrilling. “They see the world in a different way.”

This is doubly thrilling for Tamara as she seeks to build a new business model for her new company. While her lines of shoes and accessories and clothes can be found in the best stores, the future, she thinks lays down a different path.

“No one is going into department stories anymore. My daughter has never asked me to go. She gets everything online. I think physical presence is important, but the next big brand is going to be built with its own e-commerce and its own retail.”

Seasonal lines, she believes, are also out. No more having the fall line getting pushed in stores in July. “Women today, they want to buy it today and wear it tomorrow. The customer has moved on but the businesses haven’t caught up with the customer yet. A lot of businesses, it’s like trying to turn the Titanic. So I think in the next three to five years we’re going to see an enormous shift in the business.”

Still, she remains the hands-on boss, and gleefully hauls out her phone to show off pictures of her hunched over on the shoe-factory floor in Italy, goggles on, working with the leather trimmer. No doubt it’s the same in Hong Kong, where her clothes are produced.

“You can’t make products unless you’re right there with the cutters. A sketch can be interpreted any which way. You have to be there with them. And I love it.”

This was the Tamara Mellon that the private-equity boys just did not see. They would hear her honesty, but they likely did not see the woman on the factory floor, wielding a large pair of scissors, living and breathing her creations.

Tamara’s greatest creation is, of course, herself. It was time for her and Minty to get dolled up and pose for pictures in the backyard pool. The photo crew was swarming. It was a fine, sunny, summer day and the breeze off the Atlantic was bracing. For Tamara, the future should certainly be considered equally sunny and clear.


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