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In the early Nineties, Tamara Mellon — then an English rose with the maiden name of Yeardye — regularly traipsed on her stiletto heels from London’s tony Hanover Square, where she was an accessories editor at British Vogue, to the gritty East End, where the atelier of Jimmy Choo, a Malaysian-born cobbler known for custom-made confections, was located.
This story first appeared in the December 17, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Mellon had spotted Choo’s talent and often relied on him to make special pieces for the pages of the magazine. With the financial backing of her father, entrepreneur Tom Yeardye, she persuaded him to start a ready-to-wear shoe business.
In the 15 years since, the company has transformed from a tiny custom shoe label into a luxury accessories powerhouse that grew to include handbags, eyewear and other accessories. For 2011, annual sales are estimated by industry sources to be in excess of 150 million pounds, or $234 million at current exchange. Coming soon are a fragrance, men’s shoes and an expanded international retail presence.
In the process, Mellon herself has become a bona fide fashion entrepreneur. In June, she was named an Officer of the British Empire as part of the Queen’s birthday honors list, for her contributions to the fashion industry, and last month was appointed Business Ambassador for Britain by Prime Minister David Cameron.
And while Choo himself is no longer involved in the business, Mellon, who now has her main base in Manhattan, continues to work with his niece Sandra Choi, who has served as creative director from the get-go and who has been instrumental in helping Mellon make Jimmy Choo a favorite of Hollywood and beyond.
Sitting in her New York showroom with Jimmy Choo chief executive officer Joshua Schulman, Mellon reminisced about the early days, when she launched the brand and simultaneously opened a gem of a boutique on tony Motcomb Street in London’s Belgravia neighborhood.
Mellon, who started her career with a stall in Portobello market at the age of 18, recalled how she became acquainted with Choo, who was best known for making shoes for private clients, including the late Princess Diana, who asked him to create satin pumps or slingbacks to match her evening dresses.
“At that time there weren’t all the great shoes and bags, and accessories hadn’t really taken off the way we have them today,” Mellon said. “I would go down to Jimmy’s workshop and I’d say ‘OK, Jimmy, I’m doing a Grecian story and I want a gladiator sandal with studs, and he’d make it. He could make whatever we wanted. If we were doing a roses story and we wanted to put roses on the shoes and couldn’t find what we were looking for, we could go down to Jimmy’s, and he’d make it. That went on for five years.”
Choo, who had followed in his father’s shoemaking business and made his first pair at age 12, went to England to study at the London College of Fashion, which was known as Cordwainers’ Technical College at the time. (“Cordwainer” is a 12th-century term describing shoemaking artisans.) He had intended to return to his home country, but, “I went home for a year,” he recalled in an interview with Footwear News in 1991, “but I had gotten used to the life here and came back.”
Choo carved out a niche for his made-to-measure shoes, which cost from about $290 to $835 in the early Nineties, and each hand-crafted creation took two to three weeks to make.
“All my shoes are handmade,” Choo said in that 1991 interview. “I had to aim for this market because women would not pay these prices for ready-to-wear shoes. The British market for designer shoes is not that large. Also, I want to maintain control. I do not want to pass my designs on to another manufacturer.”
Mellon, however, saw big retail potential, and in 1996, with 150,000 pounds (or about $234,000 at the exchange rate of that time) from her father, she approached Choo with a business proposition.
“I said, ‘Look, I’ll set up all operations, I’ll find factories in Italy to produce the shoes, roll out stores, I’ll do the wholesale distribution, p.r., marketing, sort of everything — but you design the collection,’” Mellon said.
Despite her efforts, the company had a inauspicious beginning. “I kept saying, ‘Jimmy, where are the sketches, where are the sketches?’ And the sketches never came,” Mellon said.
“I was young, and sort of naïve, and I didn’t realize how much input I was having when I got him to make the shoes,” Mellon reflected. “Jimmy can technically make a pair of shoes, but he didn’t have the creative vision to make a full collection, so that’s where I stepped in, and I did the collection.”
In retrospect, Mellon now knows that her lack of business acumen might have discouraged her from tackling such an endeavor, but she was too passionate about the product to give up.
“You’re so young and passionate that you just do it,” she said. “It’s your instincts about what’s right. I took a suite at the Crillon [in Paris] and we set it up. I’d literally call the buyers myself, make all the appointments, and then sit with them and hand-write the orders.
“I remember shoes in the early Nineties — they were much more boring,” Mellon noted. “I wanted to have a sense of fun with the shoes, with colors, hardware and patterns.”
Mellon set about transforming Jimmy Choo into a must-have brand for fashion insiders, who would soon be swooning over her strappy stiletto sandals. She opened boutiques in New York and Los Angeles in 1998 and 1999, respectively.
She also understood the allure of the red carpet, and how powerful it was becoming in the consumer’s imagination.
“Women all over the world are fascinated with the Oscars, so whether you’re in Germany or Hong Kong, New York or London, everybody wants to know what the celebrities are wearing,” Mellon recalled. “I had the idea because I noticed the stylists were going around buying shoes to match the dresses, so I thought if I set up a service, then they can come in.…I took everything out in white satin so we could dye it any color.”
In 1999, Cate Blanchett wore Jimmy Choo shoes to the Academy Awards. “We knew it would have a big impact [in the U.S.], but I was surprised by the lack of interest in the U.K.,” Mellon said. “No one was interested except Hilary Alexander, fashion director of London’s Daily Telegraph, who wrote a piece with pictures of the actresses with the shoes, and after that, suddenly, it exploded, and everybody became interested.”
That same year, in an episode of “Sex and the City,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw, has a Cinderella moment when her lilac feather shoe comes off, and she exclaims “I lost my Choo” — which bestows upon the brand the ultimate stamp of style approval.
Like the Oscars, she said, the show reached so many women. “It’s hundreds of millions of people because the show is syndicated all over the world,” she said. “It turned us into a household name.”
So much so that investors began to take notice. Over the years, the company was sold three times.
In April 2001, Equinox Luxury Holdings Ltd. bought out the shares of Jimmy Choo himself in a transaction that valued the company at about $30 million. Heading up Equinox was Robert Bensoussan, who became ceo of Jimmy Choo. (Choo still makes bespoke shoes privately in London, and acts as an ambassador for organizations including the British Council and the University of the Arts London. His spokeswoman told WWD, “Mr. Choo sends his best wishes to the Jimmy Choo London team for the 15-year anniversary of the company.” Choo, who keeps a low profile and rarely speaks to the press, declined further comment.)
Shortly thereafter, Mellon applied the brand’s sexy DNA to the first collection of handbags as part of a plan to transform the label into a luxury lifestyle brand. “We always wanted to build a business that was bigger than shoes, and I had a vision for a woman that went beyond shoes,” Mellon said.
The launch of handbags, further retail expansion and continued interest by the high-profile Hollywood set also kept investors interested. In November 2004, Lion Capital bought a majority stake in Jimmy Choo, valuing the company at 101 million pounds, or $187 million at the exchange rate of that time. Just three years later, in 2007, it was sold again, this time to private equity firm TowerBrook Capital Partners with a deal that valued the company at 185 million pounds, or $364.5 million at the exchange rate of the time.
Mellon stayed on through the changes in ownership, and successfully expanded the brand into handbags, small leather goods and luggage — all produced in Italy — scarves, sunglasses and eyewear (with Safilo), while building a significant retail network.
Today, the company has 115 locations in 32 countries, the most recent major store having opened in Milan on Via Sant’Andrea at the corner of Via Montenapoleone.
Schulman noted, “We’ve been developing our retail presence significantly.…In 2010 we will have opened 16 stores,” and renovated several others, the largest of which is in Milan.
“If you look at the stores of five to 10 years ago, they were really conceived as shoe boutiques, and so we’re renovating them as luxury lifestyle stores. Now we’re really showing the full breadth of what we’re doing.”
Retail expansion is particularly critical for the brand, Shulman explained. “If you look at Jimmy Choo versus some of the competitors, we’re still underpenetrated, particularly in Europe and Asia. We also believe there’s still growth in America. We believe there’s at least 200 additional store locations.”
He pointed out the opportunity for more doors even within Manhattan, where there are currently two stores, both above 51st Street.
Jimmy Choo said this week it plans to increase its total store network to 118 locations in 33 countries in 2011. Openings include shops in Madrid; Antwerp, Belgium, and Saint Moritz, Switzerland. All three doors will offer full Jimmy Choo lifestyle merchandise, including shoes, handbags, small leather goods, sunglasses and fragrance. This will be Jimmy Choo’s first retail location in Belgium.
The company continues to widen its brand recognition with high-profile collaborations, as well. In fall 2009, a capsule collection with H&M caused a frenzy around the world, with Choo lovers standing in line to get their hands on the women’s and men’s shoes and accessories, as well as a sampling of women’s clothing, which could well have served as a warm-up for a potential apparel launch.
“We definitely have a wish list of things we’d like to do, and [apparel] is on it,” Mellon said. “I think there is a Jimmy Choo identity for women for ready-to-wear.”
“What’s interesting with the H&M collaboration is that it proved that the brand really is bigger than the business is,” Schulman added. “It really tested the elasticity of the brand from a product and geographic point of view.”
Since then, the company added a collection of boots with Hunter and, most recently, a much-anticipated collaboration with Ugg Australia gave a sexy spin to the sheepskin boot with studs, grommets, and leopard and zebra prints and fringe details.
“I was in Seattle, where we were one of the recipients of Nordstrom’s Partners in Excellence Award,” Schulman recalled. “The other brand was Ugg Australia. You would think this would be a case of strange bedfellows, but the Ugg team was actually buying Jimmy Choos for the dinner that night, and it turned out they were big fans of the brand. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got to tell Tamara.’ She always wears Uggs on the plane, so it happened really organically.”
Connie Rishwain, president of Ugg, suggested to Schulman that the two brands should collaborate. “I texted Tamara, and she texted me back ‘yes,’” Schulman said.
Most recently, the brand launched a partnership with Inter Parfums Inc., and the first namesake fragrance will launch exclusively at Jimmy Choo stores next January — featuring Mellon herself in the campaign — followed by global distribution in February. The scent, inside a Murano glass bottle, is a concoction of tiger lily, patchouli, and a touch of pear and toffee.
The company also will revive its men’s shoe business with a collection launching next fall.
“We’re going to start in a limited distribution and really want to focus on the key influential specialty stores that are known for men’s,” Schulman said. “We know that men shop in a different way from women, and it’s important for us to build the credibility alongside other luxury brands in multibrand environments.”
Much of the recent growth, however, has come from the “Choo 24:7” program, which was launched last spring with shoes, and focuses on some of the more classic styles that shoppers look at as investment pieces. The campaign expanded with boots for fall and, for next spring, will launch into handbags.
“For us, 24:7 really reinvented the core of our business in terms of Tamara’s idea of presenting the perfect shoe closet,” Schulman said, citing an excellent response to the program. “Our strategy is built on having both the [signatures] of the brand and pushing forward with innovation. It adds a whole other element. So many of these products may have existed in the store before, but not pulled together in a way with such product authority.”
According to Schulman, 24:7 now accounts for 30 percent of the total business and is growing rapidly.
According to industry sources, Jimmy Choo’s total revenue is currently estimated to be 140 million pounds (about $218 million), up from an estimated 65 million pounds in 2006. Of this current total, 60 percent of its revenue is derived from retail sales, Schulman said.
As a result, Jimmy Choo remains a perennial favorite of retailers.
Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer for Saks Inc., noted how Jimmy Choo has benefited from its “adventurous” spirit, citing the launch of 24:7 as well as its recent collaborations.
“They have looked at the roots of the brand and how they could develop that,” Frasch said. “Both Tamara and Joshua are great merchants and understand their customer, how she has grown and her needs besides the core footwear that falls within the brand DNA. They understand the marketing of their brand and how to make it unique, and they have expanded their retail pretty significantly.
“It’s always been distinctive, it always has a point of view,” he added. “Jimmy Choo doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about its competitors, but instead focuses on its own brand and how it can service its clients.”
Net-a-porter founder and executive chairman Natalie Massenet cited Mellon’s sharp brand vision.
“Tamara is tremendously focused and tenacious, strong-willed but soft-spoken,” Massenet said. “That combination has allowed her to move forward. From Day One, she had this global vision for the brand, and spent the last 15 years delivering on it, and she is not done. Jimmy Choo is so clearly defined as a brand, and she hasn’t deviated from it nor tried to be all things to all people.
“You can always tell a Jimmy Choo shoe,” Massenet added. “Tamara has developed a distinct language, whether it’s a heel or the straps, or the slightly rock ’n’ roll attitude mixed with the ladylike.”
Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising at Nordstrom Inc., said customers appreciate the quality and style of the designs — as well as their celebrity appeal.
“They have been able to accomplish this through the recognition in the world of Hollywood and celebrity and that has helped elevate the brand, and give it credibility with our customers,” Nordstrom said, adding that Mellon herself embodies the brand values. “She is a modern woman, chic and stylish, and has created this brand image that is appealing to her. That seems very sincere and authentic, and appeals to a lot of customers.”
In its 15th year, the company is focusing on its brand growth in the online sphere as well, with a recent Web site relaunch.
“It’s one of our fastest growing businesses, it’s our second-largest store today, and we’re building it to be the largest in each market in which we operate,” said Schulman.
“The relaunch really looked at two elements: one was bringing it up to date in terms of the creative, so it had a look and feel that was analogous to all of the creative imagery that we’re doing.” The brand also tinkered with additional functionality.
Jimmy Choo will relaunch its Web site again in 2011, introducing social capabilities where users will be able to communicate with each other.
The company’s anniversary is being celebrated at retail with the introduction of the Crystal Collection, a mix of revamped Jimmy Choo originals.
“Crystal is such a part of the DNA of Jimmy Choo,” Mellon said. “We used crystal really before anyone else was using it on shoes, and we did it on straps that wound around the ankles.”
Mellon commissioned her favorite contemporary artist, Marilyn Minter, to photograph the collection for an upcoming ad campaign. In her trademark devil-may-care bravado, Minter portrayed the hand-crafted heels doused in a glistening sheen of mud. (For more on the brand’s advertising and marketing, see page 12.)
The crystal collection will officially kick off next year along with the Jimmy Choo cruise collection, and will include 40 pieces, primarily shoes, but with a few handbags incorporated as well.
Mellon originally came up with the idea to focus on crystal with no notion that it’s the traditional gift for a couple’s 15th wedding anniversary.
Both Schulman and Mellon laughed at the serendipity, and Schulman quipped, “We’re just happy that it wasn’t wood.”