Tamara Mellon On the New Luxury, and Why the Days of Brands Staying Neutral Are Over

Tamara Mellon On the New Luxury, and Why the Days of Brands Staying Neutral Are Over

It has been some kind of life for Tamara Mellon. Before she was 10, she moved from the U.K. with her father, a Hollywood stunt double turned business magnate, and her mother, a Chanel model, to Beverly Hills—right next door to Nancy Sinatra. Before she was 18, she attended the same Swiss finishing school Princess Diana once had. Before she was 30, she co-founded Jimmy Choo, the iconic British fashion house.

Mellon left Jimmy Choo in 2011 after her relationship with the company spoiled, leaving her, according to Entrepreneur, “feeling overlooked, overworked, and undercompensated.” But she has since carved new ground with her own eponymous footwear line, charging half what her competitors do for a pair of pumps, and putting her personal flourish on a stodgy, old industry she felt was ready to be dragged into the new millennium. 

From her West Hollywood office, Mellon discusses the unique challenges of going direct-to-consumer selling premium goods, pay equality in the fashion industry, how she steeled herself to fire back at Harvey Weinstein, and what inclusivity really means for a luxury brand. “We don't ever want anyone to be intimidated to walk in one of my stores,” she says.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Why don't we start here: You're quoted on your website saying your company is “redefining luxury” and “breaking rules." In your view, how is the brand doing both of those things?

Mellon: People always say to me, “It's crazy. You're actually disrupting the industry you helped build.” The way we're thinking differently [now] is in two ways. One is culture, and one is operations.

Traditionally, luxury brands have always been very silent with their political views, or talking about sensitive issues—whether that's abortion or women's health. So we've decided to actually put a stake in the ground, because, as a predominantly female team, we know the things that we care about. And we know what our customer cares about. We know that our customer, like us, she cares about her health and her wealth.

And also, it's been a very taboo subject for women to talk about money, and so we very openly talk about money and what people get paid and how to go about that. We know that not everyone agrees with us, but we're happy to build our tribe and our community and say, “We really think that people want to buy from a brand that they have shared values with, much more than [buying] just for status.” 

You’ve said that you believe the days of companies being neutral on issues that matter are over. You’ve been in business for a long time, and I'm curious what you've observed about the connection between brands, and the things that they stand for, to consumer success—and how that’s changed and evolved over time.

Mellon: It happened with the millennials. They completely had a shift in the way they shop. They're a much more conscious generation. Even when I look at my daughter, who's Gen Z, she's even more conscious and more empathic. I think it went from a status, price, consumption kind of culture to a more conscious culture. And that's where we really saw the shift. The millennials came of age and started to buy from luxury brands.

I'm glad you brought that up. By 2025, millennials are expected to make up half of all global spending in the personal luxury market. What are younger customers’ expectations now of luxury brands?

Mellon: Sustainability is a big issue for them. They care about the environment. They care about how things are made, where they're made, and the materials they're made from. They care about what the company does to give back, because they have many choices today of where to put their dollars. 

I think that what we're seeing now is that our customer knows when it's authentic or when it's just used as a marketing tool. I think you can suddenly see through brands jumping on the activism bandwagon. They're like, "Oh, this is the new, cool thing to do." But you can tell that it's not authentic. And I think the customer is really smart today. She can tell, as well.

You’ve also said that “old luxury is intimidating.” How so?

Mellon: Even when I was at the height of Jimmy Choo, I'd walk into luxury stores on Fifth Ave. and I felt intimidated. And that was at the top of my career. God knows what a normal [consumer] felt like. There used to be this attitude of, “Are you rich enough to buy from us?” 

We want to change that. We want our product to be exclusive—we're really proud of the quality and how we make our products—but as the brand we're really inclusive and we want everyone to feel that from us. We don't ever want anyone to be intimidated to walk in one of my stores.

Tamara Mellon shoe display

Generally speaking, who is a Tamara Mellon customer?

Mellon: The Tamara Mellon customer is between 30 and 50. She is a working mother. We know that not all our customers can be in the C-suite because [there's] too many [of them], but what we love about her is she definitely aspires to be in the C-suite. She loves her kids, but she doesn't identify herself as a mother. She identifies herself as a career woman.

She cares about her health. She does yoga, [maybe] she's a Peloton customer. And I think, when it comes to shoes, it's not really so much about demographics or income brackets. Because someone who's 25 and someone who's 60 can wear the same pair of shoes. It's really about the attitude.

Luxury used to be Hermès, Gucci, Tiffany. It used to be what you said—stores where the sales associate wondered if you were rich enough to be in there. How do you define this idea of “new luxury”?

Mellon: We consider new luxury in the way we operate. We're direct-to-consumer, which means that I pay the same factory prices as all the luxury brands, [our] direct competitors, but we don't mark them up six times anymore because we don't do any wholesale. So what used to be my wholesale price is now my retail price. We pass that on to the customer. 

We also put new shoes up every week. We don't produce big collections and then have those come out four times a year, and then you have the same thing sitting on the shop floor for two months, and then they go on sale. We just have continuous product coming out. 

So [our customer] always has something new to see, always has a reason to come back. And we also sell things that are season appropriate. In the fashion industry, it got pushed to the point that was so ridiculous. We were trying to sell spring/summer in February, or winter [collections] in July and August. Who wants to buy something four months before they're going to wear it?

Tamara Mellon

Something I think you’re proud about is being able to disrupt the traditional fashion release schedule, being able to roll out products faster than ever. Have you found the right balance of expediency with the release of your products, or are things trending toward an even quicker turnaround?

Mellon: Research has told us the most a woman now thinks ahead is—maybe on Wednesday she'll think about what she's going to wear on Saturday. So we have the right cadence, how the customer sees it. 

What we're working on is to innovate on the supply chain. Instead of buying quantity up front and predicting we're going to sell 500 of these—and by the way, no matter how much data you have, it's still a guess—what we want to do is eventually get to the place where we put a few pairs of shoes up with very short runs on inventory. 

We see which one the customer is drawn to, and quickly order it. So what that does: It saves on waste. You don't have a bunch of dead stock sitting around, and as a company it saves on cash flow. That's what we want to innovate. We want to be able to manufacture faster while retaining the quality.

Footwear at some of your competitors are about twice as expensive as what you offer at Tamara Mellon. As a luxury brand, how much does pricing matter? I imagine you feel your shoes are every bit the quality of your competitors, but what does the pricing you offer communicate to the customer?

Mellon: We've given this a lot of thought, and I don't feel we’ve nailed it yet. We don't want to lead with price, because [we’re] not a discount brand. 

What we have learned is that we have a very high repeat rate. Once the customer has the product in her hand, she does come back and buy again because she understands the quality she got for the price. But it's something we talk about here a lot, because obviously perception and price go together. People think they're getting better quality if they pay more. 

So we're constantly talking about it and educating our customer, and I think she is smarter today. There were a lot of brands that kind of led the way on this, like Everlane with their radical transparency. People are more used to direct-to-consumer brands and what that means now for them with price.

In your heart, do you think your brand is properly perceived in the luxury marketplace so far?

Mellon: I hope so, but I don't know. I honestly can't tell you if people really still put price and quality as a barometer for them.

I read a Harvard Business case study on a jewelry company, and they had some necklace in the window that was given a very fair price—probably too low [of a] price. But it didn't sell. And this woman put the price up, and then it sold because people thought they were getting more for their money. So it's a tricky thing.

You have one retail store now in California (pictured below), and you have four more coming by 2021. But as we sit here today, Tamara Mellon is, in essence, purely online—at least in how most of your consumers are interacting with the brand. What are the unique challenges in establishing a luxury goods company that is almost completely online?

Mellon: I suppose the biggest challenge is brand awareness, getting eyeballs on your brand and [getting] the word out there. The store has really helped with that. What we noticed is our online sales have gone up where the store is. People like to go in, they still like to touch and feel the product. 

Tamara Mellon store

But I would say the biggest challenge of being a digitally-born company is brand awareness. A lot of people now use wholesale as marketing, because no one really makes money from wholesale anymore. Without being on all those shop floors, [you sacrifice] brand awareness.

You were at the top of Jimmy Choo from the very beginning. When did you first know you wanted to step out and launch Tamara Mellon as its own company?

Mellon: I went through four private equity deals with Jimmy Choo. Anyone who's been through that process knows how grueling it is. It's just not sustainable.

I also got to the point where I ended up with an all-male board. That's why I really fight for equal pay for women, because I felt, even though I was the founder of the brand, that my work wasn't valued in the same way. So after four private equity deals, I decided, you know what, I think I'm just young enough that maybe I could start again and build a company and a culture that really relate to me and [would be] a new way of doing things.

Your father, Tom Yeardye, co-founded Vidal Sassoon. But it was not his name as the brand of the company, and it’s easy to draw the parallel there with your time at Jimmy Choo. What did you learn about that dynamic relative to your father's business? In essence: You're a co-founder of the brand, but it's marketed under the other co-founder’s name. 

Mellon: It was slightly different with my father (pictured below, with Mellon and her mother, Ann), because obviously Vidal was a real talent. Vidal was the creative person. My father was the business person behind it. At Jimmy Choo, I ended up doing both. For the first five years, I was creative director and CEO. 

So I think—I don't know, I guess it's hard to say. My father was someone that was incredibly entrepreneurial, and that's what I grew up with. So it's no surprise that I did that.

Tamara Mellon childhood

You, Tamara, obviously have very strong recognition, especially within fashion and footwear. But there's also a significant share of the market who are still getting familiar with your name. What is it like to establish yourself as a new brand?

Mellon: It's incredibly challenging. It's really hard. When I started this, I had to learn a whole new business language because we operate in a totally different way. Thank God I have a co-founder (author’s note: Jill Layfield (pictured below, with Mellon), former president and CEO at Backcountry.com) who's built an ecommerce business before. She really understood that. But it's incredibly challenging to start from zero and get everything right.

Tamara Mellon and Jill Layfield

What's different when it’s finally your name as the banner of the brand?

Mellon: I have to say it feels really good, because I'm incredibly proud of what we're doing. I guess it is a double-edged sword. If it doesn't go right, you're in the [spotlight], so you’ve got to be prepared for that. But so far I'm very proud of what we're doing here. I'm very, very happy. It's my name now.

There's always going to be a link with you to Jimmy Choo (pictured below, with Mellon). What are the pros and cons of being so closely associated with such a famous brand that's operating in the same space as you?

Mellon: I think there's always plenty of room for everybody, you know? If you look at any industry, there are multiple great companies. We look at the car industry: You've got Porsche, you’ve got Mercedes, you've got BMW. And in the luxury business, just for shoes, you've got Manolo [Blahnik], [Christian] Louboutin, Gianvito Rossi, Jimmy Choo, my new brand. I think there's always plenty of room for everybody.

Tamara Mellon and Jimmy Choo

Something you've been very outspoken about is equal pay. When you were going through the private equity process at Jimmy Choo and having to negotiate your own compensation, is it true somebody actually told you that you're “already rich enough for a woman”? 

Mellon: Yes. That was accurate.

What do you say to something like that? What does that make you feel?

Mellon: It's very shocking at the time. You don't quite know how to respond. And that was when I was particularly [new to] talking about my pay. It makes you feel completely undervalued. You feel like the work you're doing is not seen as valuable as a man’s work. It's very hurtful.

Do you feel encouraged about the future of pay discrepancy?

Mellon: (Pauses.) We have a long way to go. I mean, when we did the calculations, my daughter, who's 17, I think she'll be 60 by the time the pay gap closes. I'll be 90 (author’s note: Some estimates suggest an outlook that’s even more grim. The World Economic Forum worries the global pay gap may take longer than 200 years to close.)

Tamara Mellon speaking to other women

But I think there's so much more awareness around it, and so much more open discussion about it now, which is the only way it's going to change and for people to take action. I know it seemed like there was a big movement at the end of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then it sort of went dead for a while. Suddenly—my personal opinion is through the financial crisis of 2009—women woke up again. And I think they [became] stronger.

What do you tell your daughter (pictured below, with Mellon) about a professional world she may choose to enter soon?

Mellon: I think she's learned so much along the way. I've been a feminist for a long time now, and she's grown up with that. So I think she absorbed it by osmosis, and I'm excited for the future because she's going to be able to speak up for herself in a way that I didn't have the courage to when I was young and starting out. The way she interacts with people is very different. 

Tamara Mellon and her daughter

How have you found the fashion industry in general, relative to equal pay? 

Mellon: It's terrible, which is shocking considering it has a majority of female customers. In the U.K., the government did a study, and they found the fashion industry is one of the worst offenders of having unequal pay for women. [There’s] a lot of work to do.

One of the things you shared earlier was the idea that you reached a point in your career where you were more comfortable speaking up—that you kind of grew into a voice and confidence within yourself. 

You once detailed an interaction you had with Harvey Weinstein (author’s note: In 2007, Mellon was brought on to advise in the fashion brand Halston with the disgraced movie mogul.) You said he made a threat to ruin you publicly... 

Mellon: We were on the phone when he was starting to threaten me. He was saying he was going to go on a press campaign to destroy me. I had already had a career and reputation, and so I said, "Good luck with that. You're in my industry now."

How long did it take you to grow into that confidence, to say those things to someone who was so powerful?

Mellon: I was 27 when I started Jimmy Choo, so it probably took until my mid-30s to really get to the point where I was confident enough to speak up. Also, I think I've gotten more rebellious as I've got older. 

You were at a point in your career where you felt secure in your standing that you thought that you could say something. What do you tell people, should they be so threatened, who aren't at that station yet in their careers?

Mellon: That those are situations that should never happen. No one should ever leverage their power [over anybody else.] I think we've seen now with the #MeToo movement that women are not afraid anymore because there's safety in numbers. There's enough people talking about it.

You've developed a company that is run primarily by women. How has that shaped the culture of Tamara Mellon?

Mellon: I think Jill and I are very clear on our culture, and whether we had men or women working for us, we'd want to build the same culture. We want a culture that everybody has a voice. We reach into the intellect of everybody that works for us, no matter what level they're at. 

Everybody feels like they're an owner of this brand, and we treat each other with respect and kindness. That's how we operate here. We don't tolerate bullying or being unkind. We don't really have much of a hierarchy. Jill and I are leaders, but nobody's afraid to approach us.

About the author

Jason Buckland

Jason Buckland is a content marketing manager at Shopify Plus. His feature writing has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Playboy, Time, the Toronto Star, and elsewhere.