Once a cocaine-snorting wild child who was fired from her editorial job at British Vogue, Tamara Mellon turned her life around and built up the multi-milliondollar high-fashion Jimmy Choo brand of shoes.
Two years after exiting the label in 2011, the 46-year-old launched her own eponymous range of bags, shoes and clothes this month and set the record straight about her life and business in a memoir.
In My Shoes, co-written with William Patrick, is published by Portfolio, an imprint of international publisher Penguin and retails here at $28.89. About 600 copies have been sold in Singapore since the book’s release last month.
Asked why she needed a co-author, she laughs. “Because I’m not a writer. I wanted someone to help me formulate my feelings,” she says in a 15-minute phone interview from her New York office, ahead of the launch of the Tamara Mellon brand.
Patrick is an American ghostwriter and freelance editor who shaped the memoirs of actor Sidney Poitier (The Measure Of A Man, 2000) and Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer (Hit Hard, 2009), as well as Legacy Of Ashes: The History Of The CIA (2007), which won America’s National Book Award for non-fiction in 2007.
Mellon’s memoir is a must-read for celebrity-gawkers and lovers of the signature stiletto “Choo”, which retails for $1,000 and more in Singapore.
Pages drip with references to Hollywood and British celebrities. Malaysian-born “cobbler to the upper crust” Jimmy Choo made shoes for Princess Diana and other British nobility before founding the ready-to-wear brand with Mellon in 1996.
To promote the shoes, Mellon had actresses such as Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore wear “Choos” on Oscar night, often dyeing each heel by hand in a hotel bathtub to match the celebrity’s chosen dress.
She is a tabloid headliner in her own right, first as the daughter of British entrepreneur Tom Yeardye and then for her much-publicised glamorous lifestyle, which she contends was pure advertising for the Choo brand.
She uses the surname of her former husband, American banking scion Matthew Mellon, 49, who she divorced in 2005 for his drug abuse and manic episodes chronicled bluntly in the memoir.
They have an 11-year-old daughter, Araminta, known as Minty, and relations between the pair are cordial, especially after she cleared him in 2007 of charges of allegedly snooping into her finances.
He was among several defendants accused of illegal snooping by the British government, following a Scotland Yard investigation. Mellon testified to his “lovable incompetence”, famously declaring in court: “Matthew cannot even read a comic let alone a legal document. There is absolutely no way he could do it.”
She is equally open about her own failings in her book and in the interview with Life!. There was her vodka-swilling, Ecstasy-popping lifestyle before going into rehabilitation in 1995, for instance.
She also comes clean about her relationships with celebrities such as actors Christian Slater (they parted after a massive row about how to parent Minty) and musician Kid Rock (they were just friends).
She is seeing art collector and millionaire Hollywood talent agent Michael Ovitz, 66.
Her mother, former Chanel model Ann Davis, is painted in the memoir as an alcoholic and described as a “sociopath”, notably after refusing to give back millions of dollars mistakenly transferred to her after the sale of Jimmy Choo to a private equity buyer.
Mellon took her to court in 2008 over this and recovered the money but is no longer on speaking terms with her mother.
Asked what made her willing to write about such painful events, she replies: “A lot of my friends knew I was going through a very difficult time but they didn’t know how difficult. I really wanted to inspire people and give people hope. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the world who’s gone through things.”
Her life has been compared to the plot of a potboiler Danielle Steele novel. She and her two younger brothers, Daniel and Gregory, grew up in England and California, as their father made his fortune taking Vidal Sassoon to America. Actors Michael Caine and Roger Moore were family friends.
Party girl fired into action
The lavish lifestyle did not translate into a loving home. While their father was affectionate, though distant, their mother’s alcoholism prevented Mellon from having close friends until she was packed off to boarding school Heathfield in Ascot.
After failing her O levels “with flying colours”, she was sent to Swiss finishing school, then took up rent-free residence in her parents’ basement in London. Her father got her her first job working the shop floor at the exclusive Brown’s boutique in London, after which she was a runner for noted public relations agent Phyllis Walters, joined fashion magazine Mirabella and when it died for lack of funds, moved on to British Vogue in 1990.
In her five years there, she rose to be accessories editor and began to work with Jimmy Choo (left), who had a reputation as the man who created bespoke shoes for society women. He was then a cobbler operating out of a small shop in a converted hospital, and could be counted on to deliver gladiator sandals or strappy shoes for photo shoots in a pinch.
Mellon was also then a die-hard party girl who would spend all night at clubs high on alcohol and cocaine and then drag herself to work at 11am the next day. When Vogue dismissed her in 1995, it was a wake-up call to enter rehabilitation.
After that, she channelled her love of shoes into a business plan for a ready-to-wear label. Seeing Choo and his reputation as key to her success, she spent three months hanging around his workshop, sweeping it out to convince him of her sincerity, and also taking design courses at the American University in London.
The label was launched in 1996, with her father providing the initial £150,000 capital. In early 1997, they made their first major sale to Saks on Fifth Avenue, and in 1998, Sarah Jessica Parker made “Choos” a household name when her character Carrie Bradshaw mourned the loss of her strappy feathered sandal on the TV series Sex And The City.
In Mellon’s memoir, Choo himself comes off as a penny-pinching eccentric whose “creative contribution was nil”. Shoes were designed by her and Choo’s niece Sandra Choi, who is still with the label as its creative director (and Mellon’s “greatest disappointment”, after Choi’s failed bid to oust her from her top spot at the label in the late noughties).
As the brand built up revenue, Mellon writes that Choo became more difficult to work with and was finally bought out in 2001 by the first of a few private-equity buyers. He now has his own brand of shoes and bags, Jimmy Choo Couture Limited, a bespoke brand which operates out of London.
Though Mellon made millions out of selling the brand four times to different buyers, she now considers these private-equity players the real villains of her story.
“‘Keep control of your business’ has been a big lesson,” she says in the interview, adding that after becoming a minority shareholder in the business, her opinion was disregarded and the all-boys network operated always to put her down. She was no longer able to take her design team on “inspiration trips”, for example, though they used to make it a point to shop around the world for ideas, visiting flea markets in places such as Morocco and Turkey.
“When I started Jimmy Choo, I didn’t know that, about the gender discrimination and challenges women face. It was really a lack of respect for women. It was just about being discounted, diminished.
“If a woman is a tough negotiator, she’s called difficult. If a man is, he’s great.”
In 2011, after private group Labelux acquired Jimmy Choo for a reported £500 million, Mellon decided to walk away – her then 17 per cent stake in the business was reportedly worth £85 million and she wanted to work on something of her own.
“It was frightening at first. Jimmy Choo was my baby, the company ran through my veins like my blood. I nurtured it,” she says. “But really, it’s been really fun for me to start from scratch.”
Held back by a one-year non-compete clause, she decided to work instead on this memoir. As a business ambassador for Britain, she also helps cement trade deals between British firms and those in markets such as China.
This year, she began putting together her own Tamara Mellon range of bags, clothes and shoes, which were launched earlier this month at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus in New York, Harrods in London and selected stores in Turkey and the Middle East.
New collections will be launched every month in defiance of the traditional fashion season-to-store model, which she says takes too long. “With fashion shows going online as soon as they happen, as a customer, I’m looking at this image for six months. It’s overexposure. I want to buy now, wear now.”
Her wardrobe still has around 3,000 pairs of shoes, all Jimmy Choos, but taking centre stage now are her own label’s strappy sandals, including a novel pair of suede legging-boots that she calls Sweet Revenge and retails for about US$2,000 (S$2,500). She is using the same Italian factories that make products for Jimmy Choo.
Asked about the name, she laughs and says only: “The things I design are things I want to wear. Leggings that end in boots! I love things you can take from the desk to dinner.”
More often than not, however, her daughter Minty dresses her. “She’s very opinionated and she often tells me what to wear,” says Mellon. She treasures their relationship and, determined to be a very different sort of mother from her own, would take Minty to the office with her and allow her to scribble her own shoe designs.
Though she is too young to wear heels – “not until she’s 14” – Mellon is fine with her reading the memoir. “She knows everything that’s in the book. We have no secrets. I think that’s really important.”
In My Shoes by Tamara Mellon and William Patrick is available at $28.89 from Books Kinokuniya, Popular and Times bookstores.
1967: Tamara Yeardye is born in London to entrepreneur Tom Yeardye, who made his fortune setting up Vidal Sassoon in the United States, and former actress and model Ann Davis.
Brought up in California and England with her two younger brothers Daniel and Gregory, she attends Marymount school in Brentwood, California, Heathfield school in Ascot and finishing school Institut Alpin Videmanette in Switzerland.
1990: She joins British Vogue and gets to know Jimmy Choo, a Malaysian-born couture cobbler.
1995: Fired from her job as accessories editor at Vogue, she goes into rehabilitation for substance abuse. On her return, she takes design classes at the American University in London and begins wooing Choo to spearhead a ready-to-wear line of shoes.
1996: Tom Yeardye puts £150,000 into the new Jimmy Choo line. The business lands a small order with Giorgio Beverly Hills, a boutique in Beverly Hills’ well-known luxury shopping stretch, Rodeo Drive.
1997: Saks on Fifth Avenue orders 3,000 pairs of shoes from the new Jimmy Choo label during the Paris spring fashion show. The barely two-year-old brand clears £250,000 in sales that year.
1998: Sarah Jessica Parker’s character Carrie Bradshaw mentions her “Choos” on TV series Sex And The City, turning the new label into a household name. “Choos” become an Oscar staple as well and are worn by celebrities such as Kate Winslet and Julianne Moore.
2000: Having expanded into the US on the back of Tom Yeardye’s Vidal Sassoon operation, the shoe business makes a £3-million profit. The Jimmy Choo label launches its own shop space in London and is represented in 450 stores worldwide.
Tamara marries Matthew Mellon, who is from a wealthy American banking family, and takes his name.
2001: Co-founder Choo sells his shares to Phoenix Equity Capital for about £10 million but his name is retained for the label. The Yeardyes make US$2 million off the deal and retain a 49 per cent share in the business.
2003: The Jimmy Choo brand opens stores in Moscow, has a global revenue of £22 million and a £4-million profit.
2004: Private equity firm Lion Capital buys a majority share in Jimmy Choo for £101 million. The business has 19 stores of its own around the world and is making 180,000 pairs of shoes a year – more than rival brand Manolo Blahnik.
2006: Jimmy Choo shoes are bringing in US$120 million a year, attracting another private equity player. TowerBrook buys a majority share for £185 million.
2010: Tamara Mellon gets an OBE, or Order of the British Empire, eight years after her former partner Choo got his.
2011: The Jimmy Choo business is sold to private group Labelux for £500 million. British newspapers such as the Guardian put Mellon’s share of that deal at close to £85 million. She resigns later that year.
November 2013: After the expiry of a one-year non-compete clause, Mellon launches the new Tamara Mellon brand of fashion – shoes, clothes, bags – in stores such as Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus in New York and Harrods in London. Among the range is a pair of long suede boots called Sweet Revenge, which retail for about US$2,000 (S$2,500).
This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on November 23, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.