Retail Executive Dawn Mello

Dawn Mello, who elevated Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-Seventies through the Eighties into one of the world’s most luxurious emporiums, and helped revived Gucci in the Nineties, died Sunday morning at her home in New York.

Mello, who died of natural causes, was 88, according to her longtime friend and associate Myra Hackel.

A rare blend of grace, power and vision, Mello had an uncanny knack for spotting and nurturing design talent, reviving brands to fashion prominence and succeeding in a male-dominated retail industry. Teaming at Bergdorf’s with the late Ira Neimark and subsequently with Tom Ford at Gucci proved to be winning formulas.

Aside from her success at Bergdorf’s and later helping set the stage for Gucci’s turnaround, Mello encouraged and nurtured Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Claude Montana, Azzedine Alaïa, Christian Lacroix, Ford and others before they achieved fashion stardom. She was also an adviser to Jo Malone, Linda Fargo and Joe Cicio, among others.

Kors recalled those early days Sunday, “Dawn Mello gave me my start, discovering me in the windows of Lothar’s, a small boutique on 57th Street, and launching my collection at Bergdorf Goodman in 1981. She was always ahead of the curve, using her one-of-a-kind eye to find and nurture new talent shaping the fashion industry in so many ways.”

Kors added, “Last year I attended her book launch at Bergdorf’s and was so happy to see such a tremendous crowd honoring Dawn’s remarkable career. She had a huge impact on so many people’s lives.”

Ralph Lauren said, “Dawn Mello was one of the fair, honest, straightforward, classy women in our business. She had a great deal of style and an authentic taste that she eventually took with her to Bergdorf’s, and it was transformative. There was a time I went to see her, because I was unhappy with our shop there. I really expected her to say, ‘Sorry Ralph,’ but instead she said, ‘Let’s stay together and make this better.’ And we did.”

Lauren added, “Dawn was one of the great leaders. She had a vision and she stuck to it.”

Calvin Klein said he was “really sad” to learn of Mello’s passing. “She was part of that rare breed of merchant who had great taste and a vision as to how fashion should be presented to the customer. We had some wonderful times together.”

Dawn Mello and Michael Kors

Dawn Mello and Michael Kors  Dimitrios Kambouris/FNS/REX/Shutterstock

Tom Ford said in a statement, “Dawn Mello changed lives. She certainly changed mine when she hired me to be the women’s ready-to-wear designer for Gucci in 1990. Dawn was a pioneer — a female retail executive in what was still a man’s world in the early Sixties, when she began her career. In the Eighties, as the president of Bergdorf Goodman, she had a powerful vision and turned Bergdorf’s into the chicest store in the world.

“I remember so clearly the first moment that I ever saw Dawn. I was in Milan in 1986 at the Hotel Principe Di Savoia. I was working as a design assistant then for Cathy Hardwick and we were checking into our rooms. Behind me I heard the sound of heels on the hard marble floor, and a tall, handsome, blonde woman wearing a red Calvin Klein skirt and jacket, and surrounded by men in suits, moved quickly through the lobby and out to a waiting Mercedes,” Ford continued. “Everyone in the room stopped talking momentarily as they watched her. I remember the sound of the car doors opening and closing in rapid sequence like a gun firing, as this incredible looking woman slipped into the backseat and the car pulled away.  I turned to Cathy and asked who she was.  She responded to me in her very distinct accent, ‘Oh dear, don’t you know? That is Dawn Mello; she is the president of Bergdorf Goodman. Very powerful.’ All I can say is that I was awe-struck.”

Ford described how he and Mello spent many days and evenings together when they both lived in Florence and Milan. He said, “During the day, she was ‘Ms. Mello,’ as she was always called professionally, and she was all about business. But at night when we would have quiet dinners alone at Harry’s Bar in Florence she became ‘Dawn’ and was one of the most wonderful dinner companions anyone could ever have. In fact, she taught me one of the greatest lessons of my life when she told me to ‘only hire people you want to have dinner with.’ I am just thankful that she wanted to have dinner with me. She had a quick wit, was warm and funny and we laughed away many evenings together. She was an absolutely lovely human being and a loyal and dear friend. I loved her and will miss her,” Ford said.

“She possessed an amazing ability to identify extraordinary talent at every turn,” said Cicio, the retail veteran and close friend to Mello. “What was so impressive was that her talent was not restricted to fashion designers alone. She instinctively knew our business so well that she could advise and often recommend talents that could run businesses and align partnerships focusing them on the road to noteworthy success. I was blessed for many years to consider Dawn a close friend. Her weekend visits to my Connecticut home will surely be sadly missed, especially when we could enjoy our favorite hamburger roadside stand.”

Mello, with her alluring personality, staged splashy fashion shows at New York City landmarks like the Pulitzer Fountain, Studio 54 and Castle Clinton, while serving as fashion director of Bergdorf’s and later its president. They were more like spectacles that helped Bergdorf’s bond with top designers around the world, some defecting from Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller and Henri Bendel, and would cement the store’s image of luxury and exclusivity.

“She was re-creating couture shows bigger than they were in Paris,” John A. Tiffany, author of Mello’s biography, “Dawn: The Career of the Legendary Fashion Retailer Dawn Mello,” told WWD. “She brought excitement to the city, introduced fashion in a whole new way and had a very big vision — and she didn’t stop. So often in life, challenges derail people but they didn’t derail Dawn Mello.”

“Dawn was a kindred spirit and supportive of new ideas for celebrating designers and creating special promotions at Bergdorf’s,” Susie Butterfield, a former public relations executive at the store, recalled in the book. “Everything from pitching a circus tent for a Jean Paul Gaultier show on a lower Manhattan landfill that ultimately became Battery Park City to constructing a glass runway over the reflecting pool at the Prometheus Fountain at Rockefeller Center for showing a Giorgio Armani collection, she was always on board, ready to work out the complications.”

Prior to Bergdorf’s, Mello and Ira Neimark were already a team. They worked together at the former B. Altman department store. In 1975, after Neimark was named chief executive officer of Bergdorf’s, he tapped Mello to be his fashion director. “We’ll build the store in your image and he never went back on his word,” Mello recalled in the book.

When Mello arrived at Bergdorf’s, the store was a far cry from its current luxurious self. It lacked top designers but had plenty of dowdy styles. There was nothing remotely plush about the surroundings.

The Neimark-Mello collaboration for reviving Bergdorf’s began by convincing the Fendis to sell to the store, as a hook to lure in other Italian fashion houses. Mello had the fashion aesthetic and identified the designers that BG should carry, and Neimark promised them the space and exposure they needed to sell in America. They worked so closely for years that, as the book indicates, they became “seamless and they often finished each other’s sentences.”

After the Fendis, other designers followed. Neimark and Mello gave them big shops inside BG, bolstered by Fifth Avenue window displays, advertising, fashion shows and celebratory dinners afterward. Mello’s mission was to transform Bergdorf’s into a destination for designer fashion — the more exclusive, the better, with a point of view.

Not every designer took to the plan, at least initially. Before Fendi, Chanel, Gaultier, Bill Blass and Mollie Parnis all balked. So Mello turned to Italy first, where she found then “unknowns” like Fendi — the first in — and subsequently Gianfranco Ferré and Armani. Once the Italians were on board, the French followed, including Yves Saint Laurent and Claude Montana.

“I was saddened to hear of the passing of Dawn Mello, who was someone I always had the utmost respect for,” Armani said. “I remember how as president of Bergdorf Goodman in the Eighties she really breathed life into the store, transforming it and making it relevant and contemporary — creating a modern-day iconic fashion destination on Fifth Avenue. That was when she introduced Armani to Bergdorf’s customers, and created a great relationship between my work and the store that endures to this day. Dawn always struck me as being elegant and a smart thinker, and I will remember her fondly as making a very positive contribution to our industry.”

Christian Lacroix was hoping to see her in New York in March for a special event. “I owe so much to her. She was the very first coming to the Patou couture salon before any Americans! And supported me so strongly till the opening of the house of Lacroix,” he said.

The designer remembered there had been a dinner organized for Mello in Paris when after the meal some stars were visible through the windows. Lacroix said: “Suddenly, she stopped talking, seeming lost in her dreams or thoughts and said: ‘Look Christian, stars are writing your logo onto the night.’”

Aside from zeroing in on designers, the Neimark-Mello strategy involved renovations, upgrading the advertising, and in 1983, installing escalators at the store. It was considered such a momentous occasion that Neimark invited Carla Fendi to be the first to ride them.

Dawn Mello gets a sneak preview of Ferre's fall collection 1982

Dawn Mello gets a sneak preview of Ferre’s fall collection 1982  Dustin Pittman/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

When Mello joined Gucci in 1989 as creative director, the company was a mess, plagued by family squabbles, scandal, counterfeiting and excessive licensing. She had no intention of leaving Bergdorf’s, but Maurizio Gucci, who years later was shot to death by a hitman hired by his wife, convinced Mello she was the one to resurrect the business. She put together a design team, including recruiting Ford as well as Richard Lambertson; “scoured” the Gucci archives for ideas; connected with old Florentine artisans; toned down the look, and revamped the loafers. She also relocated the Gucci headquarters from Milan to Florence, and managed to warm up what was initially an Italian workforce skeptical of an outsider from a different continent coming in with new ideas.

Having first been hired by Mello in 1980 to work on window displays, rtw, men’s wear and other elements during the pivotal time at Bergdorf’s, Lambertson said, “We started going to Europe and bringing in Italian designers — even Giorgio Armani was a new designer in the Eighties — doing big fashion shows for them and making a big splash in New York and that sort of turned the store around. Her big contribution was really discovering talent, promoting it and creating an environment such as Bergdorf Goodman where it really, really made people shine,” he said.

In January 1990, Lambertson relocated to Italy to work with Mello at Gucci in design with a focus on accessories. Ford also was hired to be part of the house’s new design team. As for how integral Mello was to Gucci’s turnaround, Lambertson said, “When we first went there, very much so. Maurizio was not a fashion guy. Maurizio was an entrepreneur. His family owned the company and he kind of grew up around it but not really in it. He relied on Dawn because he was a fan of Bergdorf Goodman. He knew what she had done with Italian designers.”

Lambertson added, “When we first went there, the idea was to make it the Hermès of Italy or the Ralph Lauren of Italy, Dawn has a vision for it. That’s how we all started. When Maurizio was eventually pushed out of the company by Investcorp and Tom came in [as creative director] that’s when everything changed for the better and it became a real fashion house.”

Domenico De Sole, who as ceo teamed with Ford to form the Tom and Dom show and truly ignite the Gucci resurgence, said of Mello: “She was a wonderful person. I got to know her during a very difficult time at Gucci and we became good friends. She was a wonderful merchant — a real star — and a very good person, very helpful.”

De Sole said he and Ford really liked her and they remained on great terms, even after Mello left Gucci.

In 1999, Mello left Bergdorf’s and formed a consulting firm for the luxury market where, at one time, she had half of the top 20 of the world’s luxury brands as clients. In 2006, Mello, along with financial executive Marty Wikstrom, created the Atelier Fund to invest in young and up-and-coming designers, including Adam Lippes and Mary Norton of Moo Roo.

Mello grew up in Lynn, Mass., the daughter of a Portuguese mechanic and a full-time homemaker. She knew early on that she was destined for a career in the big city, and that nearby Boston wasn’t big enough for her. She once told French Vogue, “I always wished to work in a store. As a child, I had my lemonade stand.”

Before entering retail, the 6-foot tall Mello became a fashion model. She has been an avid skier, and she loved fly fishing, traveling, her pets and socializing with friends. But work and the people she influenced were her life. “Dawn has spent decades bringing other people’s stories to life, silently standing in the background while others took their bows,” Tiffany wrote in his book. “The focus was always her work, never her own popularity.”

She had a formidable presence in the boardroom, as one of the first and only females in executive leadership at the time. Yet she maintained a self-effacing manner and often nurtured designers and allowed them to be themselves. She formed strong bonds with designers, among them Manolo Blahnik, who each year would make Mello a special Christmas pillow.

International Fashion Syndicate editor Marylou Luther recalled  Mello’s fortitude, after she was hit by a car years ago outside of her West 57th Street office. “Rather than go into poor-me mode, she maintained her positivity, and as they say, ‘carried on.’ She was an inspiration in sickness as in health.” Luther said. “A true legend, she like Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor, discovered/helped many young designers to find their place in the fashion firmament — take a  bow Tom Ford and Michael Kors.”

“Thanks to Dawn, Bergdorf’s was our launch store,” recalled Patti Cohen, former executive vice president at Donna Karan International, and Karan’s longtime right-hand woman, in the book. “I saw a lot of Dawn at the time. You couldn’t help but be in awe of her — Dawn combined elegance with power in such an effortless way, whether it was how quick and authoritative she was at meetings, to how beautifully she understood and wore the clothes. Yet she was warm and engaging, and the first to roll up her sleeves.”

Mello is survived by Hackel. Funeral services will be private.