The Jimmy Choo co-founder has trodden a quick route to success, making the brand one of the world’s most recognised, and is now offering to point emerging talent in the right direction
For a woman who spends her life in high heels, Tamara Mellon moves very quickly indeed. Of course, these are not just any high heels, they are very high heels and, more importantly, they are Jimmy Choos - shoes so famously desirable (and comfortable, insists Mellon) that TV shows and pop songs have been dedicated to them and many a film star won’t walk the red carpet in anything else.
A former accessories editor at British Vogue, Mellon founded Jimmy Choo with the eponymous footwear designer in 1996.
From modest beginnings in a store in Motcomb Street in London’s Knightsbridge, the business has grown in little more than a decade into one of the world’s most recognisable luxury brands, adding handbags, accessories, sunglasses, optical eyewear and, soon, a fragrance to the product line-up.
Although Jimmy Choo won’t reveal its figures, global sales are said by industry sources to be about £130 million. Last year, 23 new standalone stores were opened worldwide, taking the total to 48, and this year the brand has launched an airport retail business, which led to the opening of its first airport stores in Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. Just this month the business signed a joint venture deal with its Hong Kong distributor, Bluebell Far East, to own and operate stores in Asia.
On top of all this, Mellon has resurrected womenswear brand Halston, which found fame in the 1970s disco era, and has just announced Jimmy Choo’s support of the newly formed Fashion Fringe Accessories initiative, of which she will act as chairman. Fashion Fringe, the talent scouting and support programme for fashion designers, was founded by journalist Colin McDowell, who approached Mellon with the idea of backing its new accessories stream at the start of the year.
In true Mellon style, she wasted no time in pledging her support. “Hopefully we’ll discover some great new talent,” she says in the cream-coloured surroundings of her Kensington office. “It’s important to have young talent because they’ve always got their finger on the pulse of what’s going on, so they bring fresh ideas.”
With Mellon is Jimmy Choo’s chief executive of just under two years, Joshua Schulman, an American executive who was introduced to the business by private equity house TowerBrook Capital Partners, which bought a majority stake in Jimmy Choo in 2007.
At that point former chief executive Robert Bensoussan stood down, but he remains on the board and still plays a central role in the footwear industry following his Phoenix Equity and Sirius Equity-backed buyout of retailer LK Bennett last year.
“It was really important for me to restructure management and work with a chief executive that really understands the product he is selling,” says Mellon of Schulman’s arrival.
Schulman certainly understands luxury; his CV includes stints at Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Marc Jacobs. He too is taking part in Fashion Fringe by sitting on the ready-to-wear judging panel and is equally enthused about it.
“Ideally it’s great for the winner but it’s also great for us too,” he says. “We’re participating as part of our support of British fashion talent and British accessories talent specifically. But we also think there will be a great benefit for our creative team to be around one of the freshest, youngest talents in accessories.”
The winner will spend time working with the Jimmy Choo creative team, which is led by Choo’s niece Sandra Choi. Choo himself severed ties with the business when his stake was bought by Equinox Luxury Holdings in 2001, in what was the first of three private equity deals led by Mellon. In recent seasons the brand has taken on a more directional feel under Choi, and adding fashionability to its luxury credentials has been a deliberate strategy, says Mellon.
“Innovation is one of the most important things for a luxury brand because that has a trickle-down effect on all the other products and the image of the brand, so we’ve been focused on that as well as keeping our core business.”
That said, the brand has retained its strong identity, she adds. “You can walk into a room and easily pick out which are Jimmy Choo shoes. There’s a certain hand, a certain point of view, that has been with us since inception.”
That handwriting is evident on two of the brand’s bestsellers for spring 09, the vertiginous, tribal-inspired Claudia sandal, which already has a waiting list despite the £795 price tag, and the strappy green and black Corsica which comes in
at a more reasonable £545. Interestingly in this time of recession, it is the more expensive shoes that are selling the best, along with entry-priced product.
“We’re having success at both extremes,” says Schulman. “We’re having a lot of success in the must-have fashion items as well as jellies and espadrilles. We’ve been broadening our target market with [lower-priced product] and we did it not with a recession in mind but it just happens to work well in a recession.”
More challenging, he says, is selling more standard styles. Mellon has carefully designed more price points into the collections, of which there are six a year, and added more lines to cover the customer’s needs, such as biker boots and flats. The brand has just collaborated with footwear brand Hunter to produce a special edition Wellington boot made from rubber embossed with a crocodile pattern to lend a suitably glamorous Jimmy Choo edge to an otherwise everyday item. “We’re looking at the needs of the customer’s whole life, going deeper into her lifestyle,” says Mellon, adding that she prefers this option to launching a secondary line.
As well as what the customer is buying, how they’re buying it is changing too. Jimmy Choo’s transactional website, first launched in 2006, is booming as a channel for the brand and is set for a major revamp this year. As well as front-end changes to reflect the new brand identity, part of which includes a glossy new advertising campaign conceived by Mellon in partnership with photographer Terry Richardson and featuring supermodel Angela Lindvall, the back-end function of the etail business will be improved. This includes plans to fulfil orders in the US, which is the brand’s largest market. Currently all web orders are fulfilled in the UK.
Schulman says: “There’s been a huge surge in online shopping. It was already a big business for us but it is by far our fastest-growing channel. Season to date, we’re up 73%.” Of the online customer, Mellon says: “She either doesn’t want to be seen or she doesn’t want to travel.”
This desire for discreet shopping is also satisfied by “high touch” private shopping events, which Mellon often hosts herself. “We did a private shopping event at [my] home, which was really successful, because it let people shop in private, and be more discreet.” It also allowed them to get a manicure or pedicure, or a blow-dry by hairdresser to the stars Nicky Clarke - an added incentive.
But this personal touch extends way beyond Mellon’s home and beyond London, where Jimmy Choo has two flagship stores on Sloane Street and Bond Street, as well as concessions in Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Last year, the brand opened a concession in Selfridges Manchester - its arrival was hailed with an enormous branding poster that took over the store’s facade - and has held personal shopping evenings designed to replicate “the Sloane Street” experience.
Schulman says: “We think there’s an untapped client [outside London]. It has really made us challenge our assumptions about luxury being concentrated in London. In London or New York when you do an event the client has so many invitations from so many different stores and brands that sometimes she can be jaded, but when you go out of town, the customer really appreciates it.”
As well as the rapidly expanding global retail business, Mellon has a “wish list” of other categories she might want to extend into. But apart from revealing that a fragrance is in development, she remains tight-lipped about what they may be. Given Mellon’s experience with Halston and her desire to dig deeper into her customer’s lifestyle, ready-to-wear would seem a possibility, but she says it is not on the immediate horizon. “You can never say never. We have a whole wish list of things we’d like to do.”
With Schulman alongside her, you get the impression they will get through that list at an even greater speed than Mellon would have alone - and that would have been quick enough.
Who is your fashion mentor?
I admire all kinds of different people such as Calvin Klein, Coco Chanel and even
[Apple chief executive] Steve Jobs. They have all been so focused on product, and product has always been my point of view.
Which retailers do you most admire?
I love multi-brand stores that have a real direction such as Jeffreys in the Meatpacking District of New York or Colette in Paris. It’s always very interesting to see what they’re looking at.
Which designers do you most admire?
Azzedine Alaia. I love his vision, I love what he does. [At the start of my career] I worked in Browns in the Alaia department and when I left I owed it more money than it owed me. It was a disaster.
Do you wear any other footwear apart from Jimmy Choo?
Apart from sneakers, no. Now we have everything in the collection I could possibly need, from biker boots to espadrilles
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
There have been many bags and we have the Smooth [strappy sandal] which has gone on for years and years and the [peeptoe platform] Clue, which looks good in every material and is the most requested by celebrities.
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
Winning Brand of the Year at the British Fashion Awards was a great moment.
What would be your dream job outside of fashion?
When I was young I just knew I wanted to be in fashion. I’m living my dream job.