NEW YORK — Polly Mellen is sitting in a chair in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel discussing fashion’s weakness for nostalgia.
“People are too steeped in retro. I’m interested in what’s going on now.”
The remark is a classic Mellenism. In her 52-year career as an editor and stylist at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Allure, Mellen has weathered every trend from HotPants to Eskimo Boots, and stayed on top of the zeitgeist longer than Madonna and Graydon Carter put together. Now she’s announced her retirement. But will she go through with it?
Prior to her interview, Mellen was meeting with her lawyers in a room at the Four Seasons to discuss a possible business venture that she isn’t ready to discuss with the press. When the talk turns to how she sees fashion today, Mellen seems as inspired now as she ever was. She speaks of Nicolas Ghesquiere, Marc Jacobs, and Phoebe Philo for Chloe with particular fondness and authority.
On Ghesquiere: “I can safely say that he is for me the most exciting young designer. I think there are innovators and I think there are stylists. I think there is a difference. Nicolas Ghesquiere is an innovator. I won’t answer the next question, as to who is a stylist.”
On Helmut Lang: “I love his clothes, but I would like to see him make a change. Designers cannot keep repeating themselves.”
On labels and one season trends: “I have never believed in buying clothes for a single season and then throwing out. I don’t do that kind of shopping. I like glamorous classics, not fancy clothes. Why do women love blue jeans? Because Levi’s, and now other companies, know how to cut. You are never out of style in a pair of blue jeans. I don’t care what anyone says.”
On fashion magazines: “What interests me is the growth of almost a catalog book. Marie Claire in Europe started it. Well, catalogs started it, actually. I think the woman on the street is a pretty savvy lady, and she knows what looks good on her and what doesn’t. And she can look at a page that is filled with scarecrow-like images, they’re like paper dolls. She knows what to do with it. She can take the least expensive version of an outfit and make it look just as good. That concept works for a savvy young woman that loves clothes. That’s why Lucky works and I will tell you that a magazine does not build a readership of 750,000 people in a year with just teenagers reading it.”
Mellen’s perennial fascination with the next is proof she’s not a big fan of nostalgia. As she says in another of her oft-used Mellenisms, “I am not a history major.”
She has a right to be. In May of 1971, while Mellen was employed as a fashion editor at Vogue, the legendary editor Diana Vreeland was abruptly fired from the magazine and replaced with Grace Mirabella, a young woman who had been Vreeland’s assistant for eight years.
“It was a shock,” recalls Mellen. “Nobody had any idea it was about to happen. And I remember leaving her office at six o’ clock the night before with those red walls and her leopard carpet. The next morning, everything was beige. Beige, beige, beige.” She pauses. “I am not a beige person.”
Indeed. During her six-year tenure at Vogue under Vreeland, Mellen had made a career out of highly stylized shoots. For her first shoot at Vogue after leaving Harper’s Bazaar, Mellen was sent to the Orient for five weeks with Richard Avedon. It was the most expensive shoot Vogue had ever done.
In one photo from the trip, Verushka walks through the snow-covered mountains of Hokkaido, in head-to-toe white fur. In another, Verushka sits topless in the lotus position as a Japanese fortune teller stands over her looking down at her erotically. The photographs were not in line with Mirabella’s more practical taste.
“Mrs. Vreeland was a very fanciful editor, but there were not a lot of clothes real women could wear. Grace Mirabella was about the working woman.”
The fanciful spreads of women in Paco Rabanne chain mail dresses Mellen had done with Richard Avedon were replaced with women in the street wearing Yves Saint Laurent pantsuits and carrying briefcases. Where Vreeland had resisted listing the prices of the clothes photographed, Mirabella insisted on it. She also forced editors to include modestly priced clothes.
“There is a word that comes with being a strong editor,” says Mellen. “That word is responsibility.”
She pauses. “I remember the first time we shot the cover with a black model. It was Peggy Dillard.” As Mellen explains, “the world was changing. Priorities were shifting.”
So was fashion.
Mellen shot Lauren Hutton in all her gap-toothed glory and gave Patty Hanson her first cover. She pulled clothes from the magazine’s biggest advertisers and brought newcomers like Halston and Calvin Klein to the pages.
“There is a thing that Polly has,” says Phyllis Posnick, executive fashion editor at Vogue and a colleague since 1970. “It’s this ability to look at a collection and instantly get the essence of it. She knows immediately what works about it.”
Mellen’s instincts, however, could not sustain the magazine when her editor in chief began to lose her touch in the early Eighties. The economy was down and as Mellen herself points out, “the magazine was getting boring.”
Mellen sent an editor from New York magazine to meet with Mirabella. The editor’s name? Anna Wintour. In their meeting, Mirabella asked Wintour what job she was looking for. “Yours,” responded Wintour.
As everyone now knows, she eventually got it — in a manner as brutal as Vreeland’s dismissal had been. The writing was on the wall for Mellen as well, especially after Wintour hired the renowned British stylist Grace Coddington as the magazine’s creative director and she was bumped over to become a special projects editor.
“I’m not dumb,” says Mellen. “You begin to realize that you’re a bit of an extra.” She claims Wintour was very polite about the whole thing, but the experience clearly stung.
In 1992, Mellen moved upstairs at the bequest of S.I. Newhouse, head of Conde Nast, to become creative director for Allure, a beauty magazine he had started the year before with editor Linda Wells.
“Polly put the magazine on the map,” says Wells. “Our magazine had a circulation of 200,000. The attention we got from her was astounding. Polly gave us fashion legitimacy just by joining.”
Mellen helped usher in a new crop of photographers: Carter Smith, Tom Munro, Nathaniel Goldberg and Michael Thompson all worked with Mellen during her seven-and-a-half-year stint at Allure. Three years ago, Mellen announced she was leaving to pursue other things. She continued to freelance, styling for magazines such as Talk and W.
Now she has moved on again. She admits her priorities have shifted somewhat since 9/11. “I have a husband that is totally supportive and enough money to be able to travel,” says Mellen, who has four children and five grandchildren. “When Ricky Vider’s [a fashion editor] husband died [in the World Trade Center attacks], she told me ‘go home to Henry’. And I decided to do just that. I spoke to her and was home the next day.”