355: How Jimmy Choo Found Its Footing As A Global Disrupter: Tamara Mellon

As someone who always knew they had a passion for fashion, Tamara Mellon has come a long way from working in a PR firm. As founder of luxury shoe brand Jimmy Choo, founder of a new direct-to-consumer brand bearing her own name, and author of In My Shoes, Mellon is a game-changer in the fashion industry.

In this interview, Nathan Chan sits down to speak with one of the most influential figures in the fashion industry to discuss every step of her journey in the fashion industry. Not only has Mellon displayed an uncanny knack for marketing and branding, but she’s also redefined the way we think about shopping.

A must-listen for anyone with a love for fashion, shoes, and disrupting the industry, Mellon gives a refreshingly wholesome insight into the world of entrepreneurialism.

Nathan: The first question I ask everyone that comes on is, how did you get your job? Aka how did you find yourself doing the work you’re doing today?

Tamara: Well, it’s been a long career, so I’ve been in the fashion business for 30 years. The job I have today is because I went out and I raised money and founded my business, but that comes off a long history. This is the second company I’ve founded. The first company I founded was called Jimmy Choo, which is another shoe company.

Nathan: Awesome. And before that you were at Vogue, right? British Vogue.

Tamara: Yes. So I was at Vogue for five years. So I really started my career just because I love fashion, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do in the fashion business. I didn’t go to college. When I was 18 years old, I was working on a shop floor, selling clothes. And from there, I went to working for a PR firm. And while I was at the PR firm, I realised that, “Oh, I want to be on the other side of the fence. I want to be the fashion editor coming in, picking the product to photograph.” So I applied for a job at Mirabella magazine, and I became the assistant to the fashion director.

And unfortunately, that folded in the UK. But then I was headhunted to go and do the same thing at British Vogue. And I started as the assistant to the fashion director at British Vogue, and then I became the accessories editor. Being the accessories editor is when I had that light bulb moment to start Jimmy Choo, because I was dealing with all the accessories and I could see that there was a gap in the market. So I founded Jimmy Choo in ’96, I was 27. And built it for 16 years and then sold it.

Nathan: Interesting. Now I’d love to really delve deep on this origin story, then I want to talk about everything that you’re up to now, with Tamara Mellon. So I’m curious what was the gap in the market that you found?

Tamara: So I realised that nobody was doing really interesting luxury women’s shoes. It was about to happen. So mid ’90s, this wave started of accessories exploding, before that it was all about the clothing and nobody cared about the accessories. So there was one shoe designer that all the editors were photographing, and he was the king of shoes, he was called Manolo Blahnik. And as a fashion editor, I was tired of shooting the same brand all the time. So I found a cobbler in the east end of London called Jimmy Choo. And I would go to his studio, which was like a Dickensian studio, in a disused garage, in the east end of London, which 30 years ago was a very dangerous place to be. And it was probably like meatpacking 30 years ago. And I used to go to his studio and I’d get him to make things for shoots.

I would say, “Okay, I’m doing a story and it’s based on gladiators, can you make me a gladiator sandal? And I want you to put the studs here and I want it in metallic silver.” And so he’d make it, I’d photograph it and I’d give him a credit in Vogue. So that went on for five years. So the name became known and so I thought, “You know what? This is a great platform to start a company off, because the name is known. But you can’t get the shoes, unless you go to him and have him make handmade one-off pairs.”

Nathan: Wow, interesting. So it was purely bespoke.

Tamara: Yes, before. I took the idea to him and I said, “Look, I will raise the funding, I will find factories in Italy to produce it. I will bring in wholesale accounts, I will do the PR and the marketing because of my background.” Actually, when I got into it, what I quickly realised was, Jimmy’s talent was in making the shoes, technically he’s making the shoes, but the creative vision was mine. When I was going to his studio, the creative vision for the shoes was mine. So I ended up designing the collection.

Nathan: I see. So you are still, basically pretty hardcore product?

Tamara: Yes.

Nathan: Yep. Got you. And so you left Vogue and you started producing the shoes in Italy. You raised capital?

Tamara: I was very tough. So like most young founders, without proof of idea or proof of product, it’s very hard to raise money. I raised money through family. So the seed investment was very small, It’s 150,000, which is probably like 300 grand today, very small. And then when there was proof that it was working, then I had private equity come into the company. But the difference between private equity and VC is, private equity didn’t actually invest in my company at that time. They bought shares and we grew the company from cashflow. But that’s different to my business today, today I’ve raised money from venture capital, which have invested in the business.

Nathan: Got you, interesting. I’m excited to hear about what you’re up to now. So what I’d love to do though, is get a little bit of a background more around, how you built this incredible brand with Jimmy Choo. It is a household name, luxury brand. That is no small feat, right? You look at brands… Speaking of shoes, a few months ago, we interviewed the founder of Reebok, right? And once again, a really well-known, definitely not luxury, but a really well-known brand. When you hear those words, you think and feel something. And I’m a male, I have no interest in female shoes. How does it come to that? That feeling, that sense of Jimmy Choo the class, the luxury, the respect, you would think that, “It’s not going to be a cheap shoe, it’s going to be an expensive.” What do you think it took? Talk us through that.

Tamara: So people always ask me that question, “Well, was it the clever marketing was it ……” Yes, we were ahead of our time with marketing, we were clever. But with a fashion brand or with a product that somebody wears, products just got to be good. The product has got to be desirable, people have to dream about that product and then you can put clever marketing around it. So with Jimmy Choo, I was the first British brand to go to the Oscars. I was the first shoe brand to go to the Oscars, and I set up a suite and I gave shoes to the actresses who were going to the awards. And what I did was, I didn’t know what colour their dress was going to be because everything was top secret, right? So I took everything in white satin and I hand dyed it in the bathtub, in the hotel bathroom, we were dyeing it in the bathtub.

I mean, we’ve had crazy stories. Julia Moore literally walked out in a pair of wet dyed shoes. Part of success is a bit of luck too, right? We were on Sex and the City, multiple times. Candace Bushnell who invented the show, came into my first Jimmy Choo store in Motcomb street in London. Which was so tiny, you could fit only probably three people in it, but she fell in love with the shoes, so she wrote them into the script. So part of it was luck, that she came in.

Nathan: Yeah. But luck’s made, you think or?

Tamara: That’s true. Luck can be made, and sometimes, the harder you work the luckier you get.

Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Because it sounds like it’s momentum that was built on top of each other. So when was that turning point? So obviously you said it was around $150,000 probably, was that your first run? Like your first year……

Tamara: First collection, yes.

Nathan: Yep. Okay. And so how many shoes did you get out of that, and how many styles did you do?

Tamara: So we did about 60 styles-

Nathan: Wow, 60 different styles.

Tamara: … which we took to market.

Nathan: Wow. And was it just one of each?

Tamara: So then it was 60 and then we offered three colorways a week. So you could choose out of three colorways.

Nathan: Wow. So that’s actually quite a few skews.

Tamara: Yeah, that was quite a lot of skews. But the thing is, when you’re taking a collection to a wholesale market, then it’s edited and you see which one’s dropouts. So you don’t end up ordering all those or selling all those. And then we didn’t end up ordering all those for the store either, it’s sort of an editing process. Which is very different to what I do today, because I don’t do any wholesale with my business today, so I pre-edit the collection.

Nathan: When you first launched with Jimmy Choo, did it just go gangbusters or did you leave Vogue straight away, or did you drop some things in through Vogue? How did you… Yeah.

Tamara: Yeah. So I left Vogue with the mindset of starting Jimmy Choo. I really wanted to have my own company at that point, and I was very passionate about building this brand. So, the transition I left with a risk of not having anything, even before I signed contracts with Jimmy. And I would say the collection took off, it probably took about, … probably third collection where it really took off. It took us a couple of seasons, a couple of collections to get the rhythm of it, to get going. And then …. ’97 or ’98, spring summer ’98 is when it blew up.

Nathan: Why do you think that is? Just the product? Did you get any influential paper wearing the… What was your big break or?

Tamara: The big break was really the product. It took a while to really find my voice with it and then once I really honed that, with what I wanted to do with the product, and then it took off. I mean, we had a couple of mishaps before. I went to not a good factory, who delivered the samples that were terribly made that I couldn’t show them. And I had to try and sell shoes off sketches and hide the product in the bathroom. Nothing goes up in a straight line, right? Like a up and down, it’s always a jagged sort of rocky start.

Nathan: Yeah. Okay, interesting. And then, did you launch the store straight away as well, your first store, or your retail store? Or when did-

Tamara: I did.

Nathan: … you start that? Okay, you started with that.

Tamara: Yeah, I did, which was a bold move. Because normally you won’t see brands do that. You’ll see brands take their product to market through wholesale first, but I opened up a Jimmy Choo store before we even took the collection to wholesale. But it was tiny, it was the size of a shoe box. And It wasn’t on a main shopping street, but it was just adjacent to where all the luxury brands were, so you just had to walk around the block. So it was a very low rent, very tiny, but it gave us a presence and it gave us a place to invite people to come to, so they could feel the brand, they could see all the product displayed.

Nathan: Yeah, there’s something very special about that. You see a lot of E-commerce brands now, like Direct-to-Consumer, they also open stores as well to speak to customers, to get that constant feedback and that feel.

Tamara: Well, that’s what I’ve done with my new brands, Tamara Mellon. It was digitally born, but then after a couple of years we decided to go offline and open retail stores. And in fact, our retail store here in LA during the pandemic is doing unbelievably well. Again, it was the idea of just having a tiny little shoe box, now we’re calling them shoe closets, and we’ve designed them as if you’re walking into a woman’s shoe closet. So we’ve thought about the shoe shopping experience. Normally if you go into a department store, they’ll have half a pair displayed on a table and you have to say, “Do you have that in my size?” Then somebody disappears behind a curtain, they come back with a stack of boxes, you try it on, you’re like, “Oh, I need half size up or half size down. Or do you have another colour or?” It’s a long painful process.

So we designed a shoe closet where every size is displayed, and it’s displayed in pairs and the mini closet repeats. So anybody can walk in, go to their shoe size, pick a pair off the shelf, try it on, buy it and leave.

Nathan: Wow, that’s crazy.

Tamara: So we’ve cut a lot of the pain points out of shoe shopping.
Nathan: Yeah. Wow, that’s interesting. Before we go into Tamara Mellon, I just have to wrap out end of the story for you and Jimmy Choo, and what ended up happening. So you sold the company, you partnered with a PE right and then you eventually listed, yeah?

Tamara: They listed after I left. So I sold it to a company called Labelux, they listed it, then it was taken off, and then Capri bought. Capri are now the owners of it.

Nathan: Got you. And I’m curious, what brought you to that decision to sell?

Tamara: I’d been through four private equity deals and anybody that’s had experience with that knows that that’s really hard to do. And how private equity came into the business, in 2001, Jimmy decided he wanted to sell his shares and for me it was way too early. But he was like, “We’re good, I’m selling.” So private equity bought 50% of the company, he had 50%, I had 50%. And the curse was really our success, because we were so successful that they wanted to sell every two to three years, to show a return to their investors, they would look like heroes, they’ve got a good return. But for a brand to go through a sale process every two to three years, first of all, it disrupts the whole management team.

People get nervous, they’re going to lose their jobs. I have to deal with a new partner, a completely new board every two to three years, and that private equity company coming in wants the same results as the guy before. And so by the end of 10 years of doing that, I was just burned out. And also I wanted to start a brand with a very, very different culture than what I’d been living.

Nathan: Yeah. And I’m sure you learned a lot of lessons throughout that experience too, right?

Tamara: An unbelievable amount of lessons.

Nathan: Hey guys, I hope you’re enjoying this episode and learning a tonne. As you know, in this series, we interview some of the greatest founders of our generation to find out how they did it. However, if you’re thinking of starting your own business and you want to hear from some incredible stories from everyday people like you or I, who are actually in the trenches, only been building their business for maybe one year or two years, that they’re building right now. And they’re really in the early stages, but they’re getting success.

You should come and check out our new podcast From Zero to Foundr, hosted by our community manager, Mollie Flynn. These are in the trenches stories from our very ow successful students that have gone through some of our programmes. People just like you, who are deep within the process of building their very own successful business. These are the founders of tomorrow. You can find the From Zero to Foundr podcast on all platforms, and remember it’s founder without the E. All right, now jump into the show.

Nathan: Fast forward to now, let’s talk about Tamara Mellon. How did that come about? Did you take a break after you sold the rest of the shares at Jimmy Choo? What happened?

Tamara: Should’ve taken a longer break, but I was anxious to get started. So I had a non-compete, I wasn’t allowed to work for a year. So during that time I actually wrote a book. So I wrote a book called In My Shoes, [inaudible] and it’s a story of building Jimmy Choo. If anyone’s interested, it’s a story of those 16 years. And then, soon as my non-compete ran out, I started this brand. And the purpose of this brand was really for me to build a company with a different culture and a different business model. So on the business model side, I saw the tsunami that was coming, it was about to hit the fashion business and how we all had to do things differently.

And then on more of a personal level, I wanted more women in the C-suite. I wanted a female CEO, I wanted investors who were going to stay for the long term, and we’re going to be a lot more supportive. I’ve found that dealing with VC, they’ve been a completely different animal to private equity. They’ve been unbelievably supported out of a lot of value. They’ve been in the weeds with us when we need them, they leave us alone when we don’t want them. It’s been a completely different experience.

Nathan: When did you start Tamara Mellon? It was 2013?

Tamara: Yeah. So I’ve had two goes at this. So 2013, I started with the idea of doing something we call in the fashion industry, buy-now-wear-now, which means you deliver product in the right season. We deliver autumn winter in the autumn winter. We’ve never spoken so many… where those seasons have got pushed in the wrong… So the fashion industry now is trying to sell you bathing suits in February and winter coats in July, right? And then I tried to do something called drops, as well. So every month having new items come in, which is a reason for customers to come back. So if they come in the beginning of the season, they see everything, they don’t really have a reason to come back. So if you layer in drops on top of that [inaudible] drives traffic back. My mistake, the first time round, it was too early for wholesale.

So I tried to put this business model through a traditional wholesale channel. So Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf’s, Saks, they were not set up to buy this way or receive merchandise this way. So I had to put the companies where we’re chapter 11, reorganise it, pivot, which I did. I went out and then raise money from some amazing VC firms who really understood what I was trying to do. They understood the Direct-to-Consumer approach. They understood disrupting the normal fashion calendar. So it took a couple of iterations to get it right.

Nathan: And you’ve got this new model now, can you talk us through it?

Tamara: So we are Direct-to-Consumer. We have our offline retail stores and everything is on our website online. And we have the flexibility to drop the shoes, when we want to. We have flexibility to price how we want to, because I’m not restricted with wholesale markups. And so, we tried different things. So going into the pandemic, we were putting out new shoes every week. Obviously the pandemic disrupted a lot of things as well. Factories in Italy were closed. So we are launching a collection next week. In fact, we’re even different than how we were doing it last year. So we are putting up the collection and we are doing something called pre-order. So we haven’t bought any inventory upfront because the problem with buying inventory upfront is always a guessing game, no matter how good you are at reading the data, because you’re always looking back at what sold, right?

And you’re guessing which shoe is going to sell and how much or how little bit will sell. So rather than do that, we’ve decided to put everything up in pre-order and our customers will tell us which ones we want, they’ll place their order. Then we’ll place the orders with the factory and deliver the shoes six weeks later. And also it’s sustainable we have less waste. We don’t have shoes leftover at the end of the season, which then we have to mark down. Look, I’m sitting here with you saying this today, in six months I might be sitting with you saying, “You know what, it didn’t work. We’re back to ordering products.” But that’s the great thing about being in control of your own business.

Nathan: No, look, I think that’s a pretty good model in the sense of minimising risk and maximising upside, it’s like Kickstarter, right? In a way your community is voting with their wallets and you will find out what works. It is different though to a lot of other fashion brands, usually it’s all there on display.

Tamara: I mean, right now we’re seeing a lot of the big luxury brands trying to change. So they realised that the old system just didn’t work. So, Gucci announced they’re reducing their wholesale distribution and trying to get more direct sales. They’re also now looking at a drop model, they’re going to be dropping product rather than releasing a full collection. Saleron is doing the same thing, they’re moving to an in-season drop model. Everybody now is testing and trying new things because the old way just didn’t work. The customer has moved on and the fashion industry now has to meet the customer where she’s at or trying to figure out where she’s at, and how she wants to shop.

Nathan: It’s a little bit how you started with your first batch of Jimmy Choo shoes. You had 60 different styles, three different colours, and then you put them out and you didn’t make them all, right? You put it out to market and wholesale, right? And then off you go, it’s similar concept, but now you’re doing a Direct-to-Consumer to the public.

Tamara: Exactly, now the customers will edit for us instead of a buyer who’s in between us.

Nathan: Yeah. Okay, awesome. And I’m curious you mentioned something that was interesting, you said these kind of really small stores that you’re setting up, these retail stores, how many do you have? And you said they’re doing really well, even during COVID, why?

Tamara: I think part is location. And I think part is also, people are desperate for human connection. I actually personally think we retail shopping will come back after the pandemic because everybody’s been locked up for so long. We’re all in need of human connection, and it’s part entertainment, it’s part human connection. So our store in LA is in a shopping mall that’s right in the middle of a residential area. So people who are sheltering at home, walk around the area and they see the store. So I think partly that is location, something for the residents to do.

And the other store is in SoHo, downtown in New York. We’re doing a lot of curbside pickup, a lot of phone sales and local outreach. And also what’s interesting is we’re seeing people shopping in two different ways. So it’s either function, which is comfy slippers stay at home, or it’s total fantasy. They’re buying crazy things like, “Where are you going in that right now? You’re not going anywhere,” but they’re buying it because I think it’s a little piece of hope for the future. Or it’s just a bit of joy when you open that box. It’s something that looks beautiful, that brings joy into your life.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s interesting. You reminded me… one of my friends who, incredible E-commerce, she told me that lipstick sales always go gangbusters during a recession. Have you heard that?

Tamara: Yes, I know that one. Because the entry price point is very low and it’s a little bit of joy. It makes you feel better you know, put some colour on your lips and it’s just an inexpensive way to feel better.

Nathan: Interesting. So I’m curious, because you’ve been doing this for a long time, what are the lessons that you’re taking from your journey that you’re really bringing to Tamara Mellon? I’d love to know.

Tamara: So lessons for me are really, team. Your team is so important, that you can’t do it on your own. You need an incredible team and it has to be a team when you’re a startup, of believers. And that’s the difficult thing about starting because some people are very good at startups and some people are very good at being in the company when it’s established and helping grow it. And trying to straddle those two things, obviously we want that scrappy mentality that sort of, “I’ll roll up my sleeves and do anything.” But we also want big thinkers who know what our goals are, mission world, where we’re trying to go. And you don’t want people in your company who it’s a job, right? You want someone in your company who this is their career and they love your business, they love your brand.

Nathan: I think that’s spot on. So how’re you finding these people?

Tamara: It’s hard. We find them through word of mouth, we find them through LinkedIn. We find them through agencies, asking friends, asking our network. We use all different sources, any way we can.

Nathan: And when it comes to the marketing side of things, what are you doing that might be different, interesting, or that is working right now during this time? Because the rise of E-commerce and fashion is crazy right now. Anyone can open up a store, you with Shopify, you can make all this work. The market is far easier to get into compared to yourself 30 years ago, right?

Tamara: Yes, because you don’t have any gatekeepers. In the old days the buyers said, “You can come in or you can’t come in.” So the entry to being in the market is much easier, but the hard thing is to break through the noise. How do you break through the noise? It’s so expensive, right? Marketing on social media is, whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, I mean it’s just so expensive. And how do you do something different that breaks… When someone’s scrolling, what makes them stop to look at you? So we try all different things, we’re constantly iterating and trying new things. So we do fun videos, we’re going to do some 3D images. We mix it up between still photography, video, personal, not [inaudible] I mean, it’s such a mix of everything. We do a little bit of traditional media buying and performance marketing, Facebook, Instagram, but that’s what you don’t want your company to become dependent on you. The greatest accolade for a brand is word of mouth. So when you finally get something that suddenly goes viral, word of mouth, that’s what you really want.

Nathan: Out of all the things that you’ve done on the marketing side to get cut through, to break through the noise, to get attention for the brand, what has been the most successful thing from your experience you’ve found thus far, in the online world?

Tamara: So people respond most to video. Still images, people don’t really respond to anymore, but people love video. They love seeing activity, even if it’s five seconds. So we’re shifting most of what we’re doing now to video.

Nathan: Yeah, that’s interesting, I agree. I think video is so powerful to build trust too.

Tamara: There’s more of an emotional connection.

Nathan: Are you using your personal brand to really help accelerate the growth of the brand too?

Tamara: Yes. Funny enough, just talking to the team about that this morning. So more of me out front, so we’re planning that. So I’m going to be doing more videos, just talking to the customer and posting it. Talking about the new collection, what’s the innovation, what’s so exciting about our new innovation. Because we have some really cool innovation coming, which I’m excited to share with everyone. So yes, definitely. Just more videos of me talking to the customers. Just finding also women who were in my network that maybe are not into fashion, but we have crossover customers, so we can share that customer base with each other. They could be in the beauty business, they could be in the wellness sector, but we have similar customer basis and then we can share our customers.

Nathan: Yeah. I love it. So this would be such a big difference for you compared to the Jimmy Choo days where you’re looking for young dynamic performance marketers, social marketers, videographer, graphic designers, that’s the game now, right?

Tamara: Now the org chart is completely different to the org chart at Jimmy Choo. I mean, to be honest with you, I hired a female CEO who’s a rockstar. She built a company called Backcountry, which you’ve probably heard of, it sells outdoor performance stuff. And she grew that business from $20 million in revenue to $500 million in revenue all E-commerce, selling other people’s things. So when I first sat in the meeting with her, I was like, “Whoa, Jill. I have a whole new business language to learn. I don’t even know what UX UI means, okay.” I was on a massive learning curve. When I started, I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I’ve had to learn a lot. It’s very different.

Nathan: Yeah, It is fierce and competitive, this online world and it’s ever moving so fast and you need to stay on top. So I’m curious though, in many ways, things haven’t changed. The things that you were doing, with the Oscars and influencer marketing, or working with quote unquote ambassadors for your brand, that still works today, but in the online world with your Tik Tok’s, your YouTube’s, are you doing any of that?

Tamara: Yes. So the market’s shifted from trying to dress an actress on the red carpet going to an event. I mean that still exists, we do VIP dressing. But really it’s shifted to influencers, and you have different types of influences. So you have the type of influencer that has millions of followers, right? Which they’re not always the best to work with, because the people who follow them are probably just fans and they’re not going to convert into customers for us. But people who’ve a lower following, and people are really engaged with them, and they’re following them because they like what they’re wearing, they like the way they mix outfits, they like the brands that they talk about, those are the ones that convert better. Also, you’ve got to find the influencer that’s the right aesthetic for your brand, because it really depends on, are those followers going to like my brand. So it’s got to be the right fit. You don’t want to go out to any influencer who has the wrong aesthetic or the wrong message, they’ve got to be on brand.

Nathan: Yeah, I agree. It comes down to the relationship that that person has with their following and the depth of it.

Tamara: Yeah, whether they’re engaged.

Nathan: Okay. So look, we’ll work towards wrapping up, mindful of your time Tamara. So a couple last questions. I think it’s really smart how you shared around your CEO that you’ve put in place who has done it before, I think that is so critical when you’re trying to build an incredible company of true worth and significance. I’d love to know just any final words of wisdom when it comes to building an incredible brand, I know you talked about product, but is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience because you have built an iconic household name brand, which I think is no easy feat.

Tamara: Know your customer and relate to your customer. Most people’s purchases are emotional. And so you’ve got to have that emotional connection with your customer, that’s what people base their decisions on, majority of people base their decisions on their emotions. And I think that’s important to remember.

Nathan: Awesome. And where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work and your new brand?

Tamara: So tamaramellon.com. You can follow us, obviously on Instagram and Twitter, we have a Tik Tok, we haven’t been good at it, but we’re hopefully going to get better. But Instagram and tamaramellon.com, is the best place to find us.

Nathan: Amazing. Well look, thank you so much for your time. It’s a fantastic interview, I really enjoyed speaking with you.

Tamara: I really enjoyed it too. Thank you.

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