Fashion

Jimmy Choo Co-Founder Tamara Mellon Puts On Her Revenge Boots


Jimmy Choo Co-Founder Tamara Mellon Puts On Her Revenge Boots

Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek

For fifteen years, Tamara Mellon was the muse, face, and legs of Jimmy Choo, the luxury shoe company she co-founded in London with her parents’ money in 1996. The stilettos regularly appeared on Sex and the City and quickly became an object of desire; wearing them suggested a life of carefree glamour. Eventually, she says, Jimmy Choo became a $900 million business. Mellon had an extravagant clothing allowance, and a make-up artist and hair stylist on call, too. She was photographed at store openings and celebrity-filled parties, on the red carpet, on vacation in St. Bart’s, in her closet, in the nude. Her 2000 wedding to Matthew Mellon, an heir to the banking fortune, was photographed for British Vogue

It turns out, though, that for much of this time, Mellon felt aggrieved. She says she was unappreciated by executives at the company and exploited by the private equity investors who funded its expansion. She was betrayed by those close to her. She had night sweats and panic attacks and was always exhausted. She left Jimmy Choo in 2011 with a reported $135 million and enough resentment to fill a book. It’s called In My Shoes and went on sale Tuesday. “To me the truth is always the best way,” she says.

This autumn, Mellon, who’s 46, is launching her own line of clothes and shoes. It’s called Tamara Mellon. On an afternoon in late September, she sits amid racks of sleek dresses, skirts and jackets in her Manhattan office as her staff prepare for fashion week in Paris. Louis Vuitton suitcases are open on the floor. Mellon is calm, almost still, and sits very straight with her hands in her lap. Her hair is pulled back into a tight pony tail. She’s wearing a deep blue wool skirt and vest with a black cashmere turtleneck from her label. Her black suede boots are thigh-high and, like all of the shoes in her collection, are made in the same Italian factories as Jimmy Choo stilettos. She named the boots Sweet Revenge; they will sell for $1,995.

Mellon says the idea for her new line had been percolating while she was at Jimmy Choo: she will introduce new items every month, instead of a new collection every season. Most luxury brands still sell only four collections a year; they’re shown months before they’re in stores. The knockoffs, of course, arrive much sooner. “I guess you could say this is fast fashion for luxury. That’s where we are. We want new things and we want them in season,” she says. “What she wants to do is hard. But I think it has real potential,” says Howard Davidowitz, the chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investing firm. “In the fashion business, speed is life.”

Photograph by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg BusinessweekThat her memoir often comes off as the rant someone might write to an ex-boyfriend or boss—and then never send—would seem to complicate the prospects for her new project. That’s not the case, she says. “I have the luxury now to choose who I have in my business. I’ve chosen people with good ethics and values. It’s very different.” One of them is Ronald Perelman, the billionaire investor who is friends with Mellon and has taken a small stake in her company. “I trust her implicitly, her judgment and loyalty and on top of it I think she’s a fun girl, a great girl.”

Notably, the targets in her book do not include the people she now depends on: her new investors; Fritz Winans, her chief executive; the stores that will carry her line. “You never want to make enemies when you’re starting a company,” says Milton Pedraza, the head of the Luxury Institute, a research and consulting firm. “The fact that she expresses a hard-edge point of view might give her the notoriety she needs to get a brand going. Look at Donald Trump: He’s negative about almost everyone and he still seems to have a thriving business.”
 
 
Mellon met Jimmy Choo in the early 1990s. She, the daughter of privilege who had gone to finishing school in Switzerland, was an accessories editor at British Vogue who often needed custom-made shoes for photo shoots on short notice. He was a young Malaysian shoemaker living in London’s East End, a technical master with uncompromising work habits. Soon discerning Vogue readers were tracking down Choo and placing orders of their own. Mellon, meanwhile, was using drugs and staying out all night with London’s other “It girls.” After she was fired from the magazine, she entered rehab. Six weeks later she emerged with a business plan: a Jimmy Choo line of ready-to-wear shoes.

“I had my share of demons. One of them was, of course, my mother and the enigma of why she’d always despised me so,” Mellon writes. “But the other force at play was a demonic drive for the financial security I hoped would keep me out of her clutches.” Elsewhere, Mellon describes her mother, Ann Yeardye, as a narcissist, a sociopath, and an alcoholic who’s responsible for Mellon’s adolescent depression, adult addictions, and sense of victimization. Yeardye, through her son Gregory, declined to comment on Mellon’s depiction of her or their family. Gregory, a real estate agent and developer in Beverly Hills, is three years younger than Tamara. “I don’t recall my mother being a raging lunatic,” he says. “It’s hard for me to understand where Tamara is coming from. I think a lot of it is sensationalism to sell the book.”

Jimmy Choo started as a family business. Mellon’s father, Tom Yeardye, had been the money man behind the Vidal Sassoon empire and turned out to be the only investor Mellon could find who believed starting a luxury brand from scratch made sense. The Yeardyes took a 50 percent stake in the company; Jimmy Choo owned the other half. Trouble soon emerged. Mellon says that Choo was incapable of putting together a collection; she and Sandra Choi, the shoemaker’s niece and apprentice, were the real designers. “I had set up a business with a ‘creative head’ who, in fact, had no creativity,” Mellon writes. “The few times Jimmy had anything to say about design, it was with a complaint that I was making the heels too high.”

Five years after starting the company, Mellon and her father offered to buy Choo’s half, but he wouldn’t sell, she says. They turned to a private equity firm, Phoenix Equity Partners, that bought out Choo for $13 million and claimed a 51 percent stake. Choo also had to agree to never speak publicly about the company without permission—a deal the current owners likely wish they were able to extract from Mellon.

Phoenix turned out to be the first of three private equity firms that would own and flip Jimmy Choo over the course of a decade. During that time, the company grew from four stores to 110 and its valuation increased from about $29 million in 2001 to nearly $900 million in 2011. Yet it was certainly disruptive, and stressful, for the company to be sold every three or four years. For Mellon, it seemed worse: twice, she was almost pushed out. “Private equity will use you, suck every ounce of blood, and then kick you to the curb when they exit,” she says. “They are the sociopaths of investment banking.”
 
 
During those ten years, Robert Bensoussan served first as chief executive, then as a board member. He had run Christian Lacroix and Gianfranco Ferrè and he built the managerial and strategic infrastructure that made Jimmy Choo’s rapid growth possible. Mellon, though, resented what she considered interference in the creative side and questioned many of his business decisions. When conflicts arose, it was Mellon’s father who helped resolve them. But he died suddenly in 2004, leaving the company without a mediator and Mellon without a confidante. “Robert was very effective at opening stores and in bringing in partners, but that skill set was replicable,” Mellon writes in one of the less emotional passages about Bensoussan. Elsewhere, she describes him as insecure, small-minded, and stingy. Also: “an obstructive, pain-in-the-ass employee who could be replaced.”

Bensoussan calls this “rubbish,” and says he feels more sadness than anger toward Mellon. He also says he hasn’t read the whole book yet. “She always wanted something bigger for herself, she wants to be a celebrity, another Tom Ford,” he says. “But she’s starting by tarnishing the Jimmy Choo story. And I wonder if she’s tarnishing herself, too… It’s not very elegant.”

Lyndon Lea, a partner at Lion Capital, the second firm to own Jimmy Choo, says that the company’s performance speaks for itself. “The results were due to the strong leadership of Robert Bensoussan and the hard work of many people in the organization,” he wrote in an email. Towerbrook Partners, which owned Jimmy Choo from 2007 to 2011, offered similar praise for Bensoussan, noting his outstanding reputation in the industry. Phoenix didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mellon’s home life was often tumultuous, too. She met Matthew at a London Narcotics Anonymous meeting in 1998; six months later they were engaged.  She says he was bipolar; soon after their wedding he began taking drugs again and disappearing for days. Becoming a father didn’t change his behavior. “We had a board meeting at my house a week after I gave birth and all the while I was worried my husband might be freebasing in the kitchen,” she writes. Their divorce in 2005 received as much press as their wedding did. The Mellons are on friendly terms now; Matthew didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Around that same time, the Yeardye family began feuding. Tom’s death had precipitated the sale of their stake to Lion Capital. That led to confusion among everyone but Mellon about some of the money they received. The fight between Mellon and her mother, over some $7 million, eventually ended up in court, in the Isle of Jersey, in 2009. During the trial, which Mellon attended with her therapist, her mother withdrew the case.

Jimmy Choo was sold to its current owners, the private equity firm Labelux, in May of 2011 for almost $900 million. Three months later, Mellon resigned as chief creative officer. She says Labelux refused to allow some designers and marketers to move to New York, where she had relocated with her daughter. Nor was it paying her enough. The final insult: No one tried to stop her from leaving. The company issued a statement about Mellon that says in part: “We note comments made by Tamara in conjunction with the promotion of her autobiography. We remain ever grateful for the start she gave to Jimmy Choo and confirm that her legacy lives on.”
 
 
“Me and Francesco, the most amazing last shoe maker. Back in the factories!” Mellon tweeted from Italy on May 15. She says she’s using the same factories Jimmy Choo uses and the same quality fabrics as other designers, but she’ll reduce her margins to keep prices down: Dresses will sell for $800 or so; a cashmere T-shirt goes for $295; a pony skin leopard-print trench coat is $4,500. “Tamara is the customer. That’s what she’s always based her business on,” says Robert Burke, the founder of consulting firm Robert Burke Associates. “It will be interesting to see how she differentiates her shoes from Jimmy Choo,” says Jane Kellock, a senior vice president at Stylus.com, a research and advisory firm. “She claims she was Jimmy Choo. Now she’ll have to reinvent that.”

Mellon has gathered a cozy group around her. Her investors are all friends: in addition to Perelman, Tory Burch has a stake. Mellon raised $22 million in total, she says, and put in some of her own money. She has a majority stake in the company and will be the creative director. Mellon has known her artistic director, Charlotte Pilcher, for decades. Winans, her chief executive, came recommended by friends. (He also came from Hudson Bay.) “It’s not necessarily that I can trust them because I know them. It’s that we want the same things,” she says. Should they worry about providing material for her second book? “I don’t think they have anything to worry about,” she laughs. “I expect to have a much easier working relationship with them.” Perelman says he won’t be involved in the company. “I’m a small investor. Even if I were a big investor I have such confidence in her that I would just close my eyes and let her do whatever she wants to do.”

The line will be sold in Bergdorf Goodman, where the one Jimmy Choo executive she got along with, Joshua Schulman, is president. It will be in Neiman Marcus, which owns Bergdorf, and Harrods. It will also be available on Net-a-Porter, the website that sells luxury designer clothes. Back in 2000, Jimmy Choo was the first brand to agree to sell on the site. Mellon hopes to introduce her own website, as well as boutiques in London and New York, next year. “If she’s successful, she’ll get more money when she needs it,” says Davidowitz. “All is forgiven if you make money, nothing is forgiven if you lose money.”

Susan-berfield-photo-200x200
Berfield writes about retailers, restaurants, and other consumer companies for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @susanberfield.

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