When Dawn Mello arrived at Bergdorf Goodman in 1975 as vice president of fashion, the store was a far cry from its current luxurious self. Bergdorf’s didn’t feature top designers, nor was there anything remotely plush about the surroundings. In fact, the store didn’t even have escalators — they weren’t installed until 1983 and the event was so momentous, then-chief executive officer Ira Neimark invited Carla Fendi to be the first to ride them.
“At the moment we came, there was great opportunity for the company,” Mello recalled. “The [founding] Goodman family had their own direction for the company. We came in with a different direction.”
Mello’s brief was to transform Bergdorf’s into a destination for designer fashion, the more exclusive, the better.
It was a tall order. “In the beginning, it was hard to get designers to agree to sell to Bergdorf Goodman,” Mello recalled. “At the time, Henri Bendel was the store. Bonwit Teller was across the street. Bloomingdale’s was very exciting and interesting. From a designer’s point of view, [Bergdorf’s] was almost unnecessary. We approached Bill Blass, who would not sell us. Mollie Parnis, who was very important, would not sell us. We wanted to take this small store and give it a personality of its own. We wanted to attract designers and present it as a designer store.”
Mello and her team were nothing if not resourceful. They bought the previous season’s couture, displayed it in the windows and sold it at cost to create buzz. Rebuffed in Paris by Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier, Mello went to Italy, where she found “unknowns” like Gianfranco Ferré, Fendi and Giorgio Armani. “That made such a difference for the store,” she said. “Romeo Gigli was very important. We managed to get him on an exclusive basis. Mr. Neimark let me merchandise the whole store so that we could give it a point of view.”
Bergdorf’s slowly became associated with the ateliers and salons of Europe, and by the Eighties, the store had relationships with most of the designers it had coveted. While Bergdorf’s remains unfailingly committed to designers today, Mello said the store’s customers have changed. “Our shoppers were primarily American at the time,” she said. “Now in the Bergdorf Goodman elevator it’s not unusual to hear different languages being spoken.”
Mello has an impressive track record when it comes to discovering new talent. Bergdorf’s was the first retailer to sell Michael Kors and Manolo Blahnik. “The designers are different today,” she said. “First of all, there are many more designers.” The fifth floor of the specialty store features contemporary brands such as Alexander Wang, Alice + Olivia, Tory Burch and Theyskens’ Theory. “That’s been the growth opportunity,” Mello said, “not restricting the offerings to a particular age group or level of wealth. It’s a broader range of consumers.”
Mello’s tenure at Bergdorf’s in the late Seventies and the entire Eighties “was a great time for retailing and designers,” she said. “I left the store in 1989 and moved to Italy and worked for Gucci for five years. I came back to Bergdorf Goodman in 1994 [as president]. It was like coming home to a family.”