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.

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