By  on June 5, 2006

In 1990, Dawn Mello was on a short vacation in Saint-Tropez when she saw a familiar face. She looked into his eyes, then gazed at his shoes.

“There was Michael Kors, wearing a pair of hot pink Gucci suede loafers,” Mello recalled. “To see him wearing them was such a wonderful feeling. I embraced him.”

For Mello, it was a sign that Gucci had arrived, and that the course she was taking Gucci on, as its creative director from 1989 to 1994, was catching on. One designer wearing something from another is a huge compliment.

Mello has a carved wood replica of the iconic Gucci loafer in her Manhattan office on 57th Street. It was a parting gift from the shoe division of the company, where she was a key player in the brand’s renaissance, along with Tom Ford, whom she recruited. Mello is currently president of Dawn Mello & Associates, a consultant to fashion and retail firms including Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani and Oscar de la Renta, and involved in building accessories businesses for some of them. She said she’s also consulting on a Lenny Kravitz ready-to-wear line and has worked on merchandising strategies for new stores around the world, including the recently opened 16-level Sogo flagship in Osaka, Japan.

The shiny, smooth wooden loafer stirs memories of a creative and adventurous stretch in her career. “We used to go to London for inspiration and walk up Kings Road,” Mello recalled. “We saw fashionable women wearing men’s classic leather Gucci loafers from the Sixties, cut high on the foot. They were old ones, but we felt it could be a great look for women. We took the loafer, narrowed it, refined the details, refined the silhouette and had the loafer made in 16 colors of suede. Before it was wider and had a very low-cut vamp. It was not an elegant last.”

To gauge reaction and to generate some hype, the shoes were sent to magazine editors as well as certain designers, Kors among them.

Mello is still product- and marketing-minded, and relishes the challenge of a turnaround. When the opportunity to be part of the Gucci team presented itself in June 1989, she was president of Bergdorf Goodman, enjoying the fruits of a different kind of turnaround. Mello’s career started at moderate retailers, including Lane Bryant and May Co., but she moved up the fashion spectrum, joining Bergdorf’s in 1975 as vice president and fashion director, and eventually rising to president. “Rejuvenating the store was a most exciting job for me,” Mello said. Six years into her assignment at Bergdorf’s, she began receiving calls from Maurizio Gucci, who owned half of Gucci. Investcorp SA, a Bahrain investment bank, owned the other half then, until Maurizio sold all his shares to Investcorp in 1993 and left the company.“I was not responding to his phone calls. I was too busy,” Mello said. “Then I got a call from Walter Loeb [the retail analyst] and he asked if I would return the calls from Maurizio. I don’t know what I was thinking. I had no time, but I met Maurizio at the Pierre Hotel. I was amazed at how young he was. He had a big personality, and had just taken over the company from all of his cousins. He was looking for someone to help him change the image. I left him two or three hours later, and I remember walking across the street and thinking my life had just changed. Turning a company around was really exciting to me, so it was something I could not possibly turn down.”

Gucci was in bad shape at the time, riddled by family rifts, inferior product quality and a downmarket image shaped by a preponderance of accessories made with canvas, rather than leather, and lower prices. Products were haphazardly displayed on tables in stores and many of the handbags were manufactured in Florida, not in Italy, and bore labels that read Gucci Italy, not Made in Italy.

“No fashion-oriented person would ever carry a Gucci handbag in those days,” Mello noted. However, she remembered Gucci from the Sixties, when it was “absolutely the best quality.” And she absolutely had to have the Gucci hobo bag, even though she made little money at the time.

Her decision to leave a rising Bergdorf’s to join the downtrodden Gucci surprised colleagues. “How could this woman leave this wonderful store. What is wrong with me, they thought,” Mello said. But she couldn’t resist. Her fond memories of the brand and the lure of another turnaround compelled her to go.

She moved to Milan and took along Richard Lambertson, who worked at Bergdorf’s, Geoffrey Beene and Barneys, as well as Pilar Crespi, a public relations executive.

When they arrived in Milan, they began to realize the magnitude of the task ahead. “I was really naive about how difficult it was going to be, in terms of time and energy,” Mello said. “We had to close doors and restart the engine with new product.”Reshaping the image involved changing everything from sourcing and production to the look and quality of the product. Distribution was curtailed until the products improved and new ones could be displayed in a flattering way, not simply piled up on rounders. “It wasn’t just about designing nice products. There was a philosophy about Gucci that had to be revived,” she said.

Mello and her team needed to relate to the Gucci workers, which wasn’t always easy. Some resented that outsiders who didn’t speak their language had arrived to change their company. “If we understood what they were saying about us, we would probably have had to leave,” Mello said. “We just forged on because we didn’t understand what they were saying. After people saw how committed we were to the brand, and how we felt about the restoration, they were on our side.”

The situation was further complicated by the breadth of the collection. Mello said there were 11 product categories that had to be upgraded, including luggage, small leather goods, shoes, handbags, men’s wear, belts and gloves — and she wanted more. She felt that the company had to have a strong women’s ready-to-wear presence to pump up the image and project more personality, even though the business was essentially leather goods. So she interviewed designers, and within a few months hired Tom Ford in 1990, who was with Perry Ellis jeans at the time, on Lambertson’s recommendation. “I was talking to a lot of people, and most didn’t want the job,” Mello said. “For an American designer to move to Italy to join a company that was far from being a brand would have been pretty risky. Not Tom. He got it right away.

“So there were the three of us, speaking no Italian, and only one of us had any real manufacturing experience. Richard and I were retailers, and Tom was strictly ready-to-wear, not accessories. It was the most wonderful experience working with the people at Gucci. Many of the workers had been teenagers right after the war in the late Forties and they were still there. They were bending bamboo over an open flame,” to create the handles on the bags. “They did it with no measurements, just by eye. There was not a great deal of technology at all.“Tom came on board as the women’s rtw designer, though after six months he started designing men’s wear as well, and then shoes. Initially, the rtw personality was classic, and Tom brought a fresh accent, because Maurizio was a classicist and wanted very much to keep the spirit of Gucci as it had been.”

Lambertson left the company after two years, and Ford took over as design director, responsible for rtw, fragrances, image, advertising and store design.

But he had already started changing Gucci’s image. “He designed a stiletto shoe with a horse bit on the toe,” Mello said. “Gucci never did a shoe of this type, ever. When we showed it to Maurizio and several other executives, they stared at it and didn’t know what to say, but Tom was adamant. It was the first of Tom’s great inspirational items.” It appeared for fall 1994 and was Ford’s first big hit.

Over time, all the product details, from the addition of leather to the trimmings, were improved, Mello said.

She feels that the company was also served well when it relocated its headquarters to Florence, where the factories were. “It really made sense for it to be all together. It was the beginning of the good times.”

After five years abroad, Mello said she became tired. She got another fateful phone call, this time from Bergdorf’s. She decided to go back to work at the store in 1994, where she remained until 1999.

“I was really happy to return to Bergdorf’s. My contributions at Gucci were over. My experience was amazing. I have stayed in contact with a lot of people that worked with me there. The talent was extraordinary.”

Gucci held Mello’s farewell party on the roof of the factory in Florence. Along with the shoe, “I was presented with an alligator handbag with a bamboo handle, a vintage model, from the Sixties. I treasure it.”

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