Will there ever be another Dawn?
It’s a question posed in “Dawn: The Career of the Legendary Fashion Retailer Dawn Mello” (Pointed Leaf Press), a biography about the former retail and fashion executive, written by John A. Tiffany, with a foreword by Tom Ford.
“One of the greatest lessons that I learned from her is never hire anyone you wouldn’t want to have dinner with,” writes Ford.
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.
Largely through recollections of friends, colleagues and designers; excerpts from WWD, Vogue and The New York Times, and pages and pages of photos, the book chronicles Mello’s biggest achievements — her teaming with Ira Neimark to re-engineer Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-Seventies through the Eighties into one of the world’s most luxurious emporiums, and her helping to revive Gucci, along with Ford, in the Nineties.
Tiffany also exposes the untold side of Mello’s career, how as she elevated BG and Gucci, she encouraged and nurtured Donna Karan, Michael Kors, Claude Montana, Azzedine Alaia, 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. It was Cicio, as well as Mello’s assistant for 28 years, Myra Hackel, who gave Tiffany the idea to write Mello’s biography.
At 86, Mello doesn’t grant interviews any longer, but she’s expected to attend Wednesday’s book launch on the fourth floor of Bergdorf’s. Tiffany, who did spend about 10 hours with Mello for the book, manages to capture the subject’s alluring persona and detail the splashy fashion shows she staged 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 cement the store’s image of luxury and exclusivity.
“She was re-creating couture shows bigger than they were in Paris,” Tiffany 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, recalls 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 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 recalls in the book.
When Mello arrived at Bergdorf’s, the store was a far cry from its current luxurious self. Bergdorf’s didn’t feature top designers, the styles were dowdy, nor was there anything remotely plush about the surroundings. In fact, the store didn’t even have escalators.
The Neimark-Mello collaboration for reviving Bergdorf’s, simply put, involved first convincing the Fendis to sell 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, Tiffany writes. They worked so closely for years that they became “seamless and they often finished each other’s sentences,” as Tiffany writes.
The pair promised the Fendis and later other designers that they would build big shops inside BG that would be bolstered by Fifth Avenue window displays, advertising, fashion shows and celebratory dinners afterward. Mello’s “brief,” as the book suggests, was to transform Bergdorf’s into a destination for designer fashion, the more exclusive, the better, with a point of view.
But there were plenty of rejections along the way, from Chanel and Gaultier to Bill Blass and Mollie Parnis. So Mello turned to Italy first, where she found “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 Montana. Their plan also involved renovations, upgrading the advertising, and in 1983, they installed escalators. It was considered such a momentous occasion that Neimark invited Carla Fendi to be the first to ride them.
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 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 a outsider from a different continent coming in with new ideas. Among her most pivotal maneuvers was hiring Ford to design the Gucci ready-to-wear. His role rapidly expanded into men’s wear, and when Mello left Gucci in 1994 and returned to Bergdorf’s as its president, Ford filled her slot as Gucci’s creative director.
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 six-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 have been her life. “Dawn has spent decades bringing other people’s stories to life, silently standing in the background while others took their bows,” Tiffany writes. “The focus was always her work, never her own popularity.”
“In business, Dawn has always had to be a formidable presence due to her standing as one of the first and only females in executive leadership at the time,” Wikstrom says in the book. “However, with her creative talent she is self-effacing and incredibly encouraging, allowing designers to be themselves.” She could be “an indomitable presence in the boardroom while being a nurturing force.”
During his meetings with Mello, Tiffany said she talked much about her family and her pets and that she pulled out articles on Gucci and Bergdorf’s spotlighting her work, while limiting the conversation about herself. She also spoke of the Christmas pillows Manolo Blahnik, among the designers she got close to, would make for her each year.
“Thanks to Dawn, Bergdorf’s was our launch store,” recalled Patti Cohen, former executive vice president at Donna Karan International, and Karan’s long-time right-hand woman. “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.”