The Guardian profile: Tamara Mellon
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The society princess who spotted a gap in the luxury shoe market has transformed herself into a fashion mogul. As Jimmy Choo, the label she built, eyes the stock market, is its president ready to relinquish the reins?
When stiletto moguldom was still only a glimpse in her eye, a young but precociously prescient Tamara Mellon mused, “At the end of the day, the person who has the money has the control.” Going by such logic, Mellon could be about to have a lot of control indeed. On Monday it was announced that Jimmy Choo, the shoe label she has presided over for almost a decade and by whose commendable efforts has been made essential for the fashion-conscious (though decidedly not the price-conscious – a pair of sandals will set you back around £250, boots £500), is considering selling or floating itself on the stock market. If she does relinquish control over her shoe empire, one she built from pretty much nothing, Mellon could find a seven-figure sum worth of power coming her way soon.But Mellon has never been exactly lacking, either in money or control. In regards to the latter, as the head of the label her merest whims and musings determine whether this year’s luxe footwear look will be pastel ankle boots or strappy black stilettos. For those unimpressed by shoe fashion trends, consider this: in 1996 Mellon sank in an investment stake of £150,000, borrowed from her father, into a label that at the time that few had heard of; this week the company was valued by at around £100m and is a global phenomenon. Its success has been so pronounced in the past three years, thanks largely to Jimmy Choo boutiques mushrooming around the world and its successful foray into bags (average price £700), that the company has hired Rothschild Bank to review its financial options.
Few would have predicted this level of success, either from Mellon or from the label itself. Less than 10 years ago Mellon was known mainly as the London-based, American-raised accessory editor at Vogue. Jimmy Choo was a cobbler in Hackney, worlds away from the label’s South Kensington base now. Mellon spotted a gap in the market for another luxury shoe label to compete with Manolo Blahnik, and quickly pushed Choo himself out of the equation (he is under licence from Jimmy Choo Ltd to make Jimmy Choo Couture shoes). It is now one of the most successful fashion labels to have launched from Britain.
Zoe Appleyard, the managing director of private equities company Life Ventures, and who co-hosted a Jimmy Choo event with Mellon this year, says: “Tamara has always had a great understanding of and vision for her product. But she has also been extremely clever about surrounding herself with the best people, so the business side of the company has always been equally solid.”
But despite Mellon’s impressive financial coup, she is probably better known to readers of society pages than business sections. Ever since she launched the company Mellon has shrewdly capitalised on her paparazzi appeal to consolidate the label’s luxury image. Her wedding to Matthew Mellon II, from the hugely wealthy American banking family, involved Blenheim Palace, a huge cake and 50 doves. Revelations about which diet she favours (Atkins), which holiday destination she prefers (St Barts) and what London restaurants she patronises (Drones Club, though she also has a soft spot for San Lorenzo) are recorded in newspaper diary sections. She and her husband are part of a particular west London set. When the Mellons fancy having a few mates round for dinner (catered, naturally), their prospective guestlist would probably include Hugh Grant, Jemima Khan and Claudia Schiffer. An interview in the Telegraph with the Mellons three years ago described at length “the jet-setty, Ferrari-driving, yacht-chartering world of Tam’n’Matt”. The couple have a two-year-old daughter, Araminta.
“She is a very good ambassador for the brand; she makes people want to be like her,” says Kim Hersov, editor-at-large at Harpers & Queen. “But the products have to be strong enough to stand on their own, and hers are. Also, she doesn’t stereotype her customer into one particular image. If she did, she wouldn’t have been able to build a worldwide brand. So she offers fashion-led shoes that please the magazines and play to the image, but then also more everyday shoes for a more traditional customer. She has been extremely clever about that, and I’m sure she learned that from her time as a fashion editor.”
But over the past year, articles about Mellon have focused more on a tumultuous personal life than the absolutely fabulous image. First there was the revelation last year that she was having an affair with Oscar Humphries, the 22-year-old son of Barry Humphries. Mellon’s husband defended her, saying the affair was his fault because he had slipped back into drug addiction during a holiday in Ibiza. The couple briefly separated but are now said to be on amicable terms. This was followed by the death last April of her father, the London-born Tommy Yeardye, a former chairman of Jimmy Choo and co-founder of the Vidal Sassoon empire. Newspaper obituaries brought to the fore the long-whispered tales about Yeardye, namely, his suspected involvement with the Kray brothers and the rest of the 1960s gangster world of London, that he built his enormous personal fortune with his “fists like bricks” and that he stole from his former fiancee, Diana Dors. Mellon fiercely denied all the allegations, although the origins of Yeardye’s enormous wealth have never been fully explained.
But it would be unfair to dismiss Mellon as mere gossip fodder for dentist office magazines; an exotic figurehead for the SW3 set with £300 haircuts and a personal trainer on speed dial. In the past decade she has revealed a formidable layer of business nous that few could have predicted of this former It girl (as a twentysomething her close friends were Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and Tamara Beckwith). In interviews, her “gaze” is repeatedly described as “steely”, her “tone” always seems to be “level”. Vassi Chamberlain, the features director of Tatler magazine and a close friend of Mellon’s for more than 20 years, says much of this comes from her father: “He was an enormous inspiration to her. They were incredibly close and she has the same kind of determination that he did.” Certainly, it requires a kind of steeliness to move in on a company, overthrow its namesake and (adding salt to wounds) retain the founder’s niece, Sandra Choi, as designer, as Mellon did to Choo. And while her fans coo over how a pair of Jimmy Choos will make them look thinner/sexier/cooler, Mellon recently cited a tellingly different benefit: “I feel so empowered when I put on a pair of heels. I like to be taller, to look a guy in the eye.”
It certainly takes a particular blend of social, fashion and business acumen to spot that there is room in the market for more than one shoe label which charges an average £400 for a pair of strappy sandals. Chamberlain says: “She knows that she has to present herself in a certain way. She has cleverly realised that people look at her and that inspires the people who buy the range. Tamara is her own company’s muse. But her image gained its own momentum once the business was a success; it was her eye for business and style that really got it started.”
Mellon works tirelessly on the brand’s behalf, hosting countless events, making endless PR appearances. She uses her personal charm to get those lucrative celebrity product placements: she does personal fittings every year with Academy Award nominees and on Sex and the City – the show that took expensive shoe fetishism to the mainstream – the characters namedropped the label frequently.
But that television show finished last year, and perhaps Mellon is similarly feeling her job is done. Some have suggested that she may want to return with her daughter to the US, which is where her husband is said to spend the majority of his time. But friends doubt that Mellon would ever be able to let go of the reins, take her millions and live a life of luxurious leisure. Chamberlain says: “I think even if it were bought that would not be the end we hear of Tamara Mellon and Jimmy Choo. The business is now in her blood.”
Life in short
· Born near Winkfield in Berkshire 35 years ago. Daughter of Vidal Sassoon co-founder Tommy Yeardye and a former Chanel model, Anne Davis. Moved with her family to Los Angeles
· Attended Marymount high school on Sunset Boulevard before being sent to Heathfield school in Berkshire and finishing school in Switzerland
· Started work at 17 as a shop assistant in the Azzedine Alaia department of Browns, South Molton Street. Worked at Mirabella before moving to Vogue as accessories editor. With her father’s help invested in Jimmy Choo. After feuding between Choo and Mellon, Robert Bensoussan of Equinox Luxury Holdings bought out Choo’s share and is now the CEO. Mellon is president and Choo’s niece, Sandra Choi, is creative director
· In May 2000, she married Matthew Mellon II at Blenheim Palace. They have one daughter. She lives in Chelsea