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Dramas have not dampened fashion entrepreneur's will to succeed

Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon's life has been marked by drama and scandal, but it hasn't lessened her desire to succeed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 2:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 5:06pm

Cookie cutter is not how you would describe Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon's career. An open rift with her co-founder from whom the brand takes its name, stints in rehab, bitter family battles and a messy tabloid divorce from New York banking scion Matthew Mellon have made her well acquainted with scandal.

But her new book In My Shoes: A Memoir shows that she is eager to tell her side of the story. The memoir tells of her experiences building Jimmy Choo into a multimillion dollar business, leaving it, and goes on to talk about her part in the revival of 1970s brand Halston.

[The book] is the facts of what happened. I tried to be very honest about that
Tamara Mellon 

Talking over Skype, Mellon hopes the book will correct some misconceptions.

"People think I must be ruthless and difficult. Many people have come into write articles about me with the piece already written.

"They're just perpetuating those myths, so, hopefully, this book will be able to break some of that. I've been very honest about some of my own failings, as well as successes."

Mellon began writing the book shortly after her abrupt departure from Jimmy Choo in 2011. With a one-year non-compete contract, she was adjusting to life after 15 years at the helm of the company. There had also been another book written about the brand which she didn't co-operate with, which she dismisses as "boring and infactual".

Before finding success in business, Mellon was known as the privileged daughter of Tom Yeardye, the mogul behind Vidal Sassoon. At 27, she was fired from her job at British Vogue due to excessive partying, along with a cocaine and ecstasy habit.

She then teamed up with Jimmy Choo, a Malaysian-born cobbler whose customers included Princess Diana and many ladies of British high society. Choo was often called in to create custom-made shoes for Vogue shoots, and collaborated with Mellon when she was at the glossy. "I'd say [to Choo] we're doing a gladiator shoot, and I want the straps here, and this heel shape. He'd make it, and we'd take a photo of it and credit it in Vogue," she says.

Her father injected some cash, and Mellon and Choo took an equal stake in the business. But there were difficulties from the start.

"At that time, I didn't realise how much input I was having in the design of the shoe," Mellon says. "When we got into business, it became clear that Jimmy's skill was at making the shoe. He's technically great at making the shoe, but it's a different skill to have creative vision, to design a collection. That's where my skill came in."

In her book, she's much less diplomatic about the talents of Choo, and his designer niece Sandra Choi, who is creative director of Jimmy Choo. Mellon takes nearly 100 per cent of the creative credit for the brand.

When she found Choo, he was working out of a "hideous" little shop. He never created a single sketch, she claims, and he was hopeless in front of the press. As for Choi, Mellon writes she was initially manipulated by her uncle, but she became an upstart.

Mellon's court battles with her mother, who she claims is an alcoholic and a sociopath, and her fast-living ex-husband, are no less dramatic. But the most interesting power struggles are the ones Mellon had with private equity groups over control of the Jimmy Choo business.

Because Choo refused to sell his share to Mellon and her father, the company fell to the mercy of private equity investors. They focused on finding an exit from the company after two to three years, rather than considering the long-term health of the Choo brand.

Is she worried that she comes across as playing the victim in her book? "I think [the book] is the facts of what happened. I tried to be very honest about that, and my own failures," she says, pausing. "It's very difficult because I don't feel like a victim. I feel like a winner."

She remains estranged from her mother and her two brothers. Her father, who she idolised, died in 2004. But she is friends with her ex-husband, with whom she shares a daughter, Minty.

Moreover, with an estimated net worth of US$180 million, she's not a woman who readily evokes pity.

She's already onto her next venture: a range of ready-to-wear, shoes and accessories. This time it's named after her. Mellon's concept is to disrupt the fashion industry by going "seasonless".

Recognising there's a certain amount of fashion fatigue due to the six-month lag between when a collection is shown on the runways, and when it hits stores, her brand will put a new collection in stores each month.

"Women's lives have changed so much. They don't want to shop for a coat in July. We're too busy, and we don't want to think about our wardrobe four or five months ahead. If we buy something, we want to wear it tomorrow," she says.

Her buy now, wear now collection is available online at net-a-porter. She's still working with the factories she worked with at Jimmy Choo. She has brought the margins down, too.

"I worked hard on my pricing, so I can deliver luxury items at a better price point. On ready-to-wear, I'm doing more of a high contemporary."

In the aftermath of the Bangladesh garment factory tragedy, is she worried that the demand for clothing at faster rates will make the business cycle unsustainable?

"Those problems start when the company becomes a big corporation and you have hundreds of people working with you," she says. "When your company is my size, we're working with five factories at the most and we have visited ourselves, met the owners, and been on the factory floor."

"Fashion people do have a conscience," she adds. "Bangladesh certainly brought it to the top of everyone's mind. It's not a hidden problem any more."

tiffany.ap@scmp.com

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