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Tamara Mellon's New Rules of Fashion

After launching her namesake label, the Jimmy Choo co-founder shares her strategy for disrupting fashion.
Tamara Mellon | Photo: Ethan Scott for BoF
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The fashion system is broken, says Tamara Mellon. So broken, in fact, that the Jimmy Choo co-founder — who left the footwear company in 2011 with a $100 million payout — has spent the last year trying to disrupt it. In September 2013, Mellon launched her namesake label, which rewrites the rules of how a fashion brand should be run.

The foundation of her strategy is “buy now, wear now,” an approach that dispenses with shows and aims to realign fashion’s retail seasons with the real seasons, meaning that winter coats hit stores in September, not July, and Spring dresses launch in the Spring. “The last thing that I feel like doing right now is trying on a Spring/Summer dress,” says Mellon on a wintry day at her penthouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Thanks to her track record at Jimmy Choo, Mellon was able to convince retailers — including Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus in the US, Holt Renfrew in Canada, and Harrods in the UK — to buy her wear-now looks. But while her shoes and accessories were always a safe bet, the designer's only ready-to-wear experience up until this point was a one-off collaboration with fast fashion giant H&M. What's perhaps most surprising, then, is that the business is currently split 50-50 between accessories and ready-to-wear.

“I make things that I want to wear and I guess that resonated with the customer,” reasons Mellon. Sales have been swift. Half of Net-a-Porter’s first order of Mellon’s $1,995 “Sweet Revenge” legging-boots was gone three hours after the product hit the site. Here, Mellon shares her new rules for disrupting fashion.

Take Lower Margins

While there are four-figure stilettos in Mellon’s product lineup — exotic skins are exotic, after all — most of Mellon’s product assortment, from shoes to bags to dresses to blazers, hovers around $800. “Nobody wants to spend thousands of dollars for an everyday dress. It’s not realistic,” she says. “I want to give my customer a better price for a better product.” She does this by cutting her margins. Of course, it also helps to have great relationships with factories, which she developed during her Jimmy Choo years.

Ignore Seasons

Most of Mellon’s pieces are seasonless, but her real goal is to ensure the clothes that she’s selling in-store match the weather outside. She sells four times a year and each collection is split into three deliveries, which means — much like a high street operation — there are new clothes available each month. “Now that it’s been on the floor and the retailers have seen the sell-through and how the customers respond, they’re coming back in with a lot more trust and placing bigger orders.”

Focus On E-Commerce

“When you write a business plan, everyone puts e-commerce in at 10 percent of turnover, which is way too small,” she says. “I think they’re looking at it the wrong way. They should be looking at [e-commerce] as a store in every prime location in the world. The volume of business is there and it’s only growing.” In the next five years, Mellon plans to launch as many as 60 brick-and-mortar stores, but expects to do up to half of her business online.

Don't Court Celebs

Mellon was highly successful in making Jimmy Choo a red carpet staple. “When I took Jimmy Choo to the Oscars, we were the first British brand to go — and the actresses wore them because they loved them,” she recalls. But today, “it’s not authentic. Stars get paid to wear brands. It doesn’t validate anything.” Instead, Mellon believes the best way to reach her audience is via social media. “I love having a direct conversation with the customer.”

Make It Personal

From the "Sweet Revenge" boot — a cheeky reference to her former employers — to the "Submission" sandal, a high-fashion take on
S&M style, each piece in Mellon's collection has a very specific, entirely original name. And that's, unsurprisingly, not without reason. "[At Jimmy Choo], it was all just women's names. The 'Emily' or the 'Jackie.' This time, we really thought about it and we wanted to have fun with it. We called the pump 'Addiction' because as soon as we saw it, we were like, 'I'm addicted to that pump, I have to have it in every colour.'"

Own It, Literally

“The magic number is 51 percent — never give up control,” says Mellon, who relinquished majority ownership of Jimmy Choo in 2004. “When you give up that equity, you might feel like a guest in your own house. People might be disrespectful of what you’ve done just to increase margins. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. That is a critical lesson I learned.”

XYZ The Business of Fashion, The Companies & Culture IssueOrder your copy of The Companies & Culture Issue, where this article originally appeared, for delivery anywhere in the world at shop.businessoffashion.com, or visit Browns (London), Colette (Paris), 10 Corso Como (Milan), En Inde (New Delhi), Holt Renfrew (Toronto, Vancouver, and Calgary), Lane Crawford (Hong Kong), Le Mill (Mumbai), Liberty (London), L’Éclaireur (Paris), Opening Ceremony (New York and London), and Sneakerboy (Sydney and Melbourne), Wardour News (London), Mulberry Iconic Magazines (New York).

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