Oct. 2, 2013 at 6:43 PM ET
In “In My Shoes,” Tamara Mellon reveals how she transformed herself from reckless party girl into a major player by founding the Jimmy Choo label and steering it to the height of the fashion industry. Here’s an excerpt.
I had just dragged myself to my desk at Vogue, yet again two hours late, when Anna Harvey, the deputy editor, appeared ominously at my shoulder.
“I need to speak to you,” she whispered.
Anna had been at Condé Nast forever and was very old school. Short dark hair. Wool suit and pearls. Cream Chanel blouse.
Eleven a. m. had become all too customary for my arrival, so I wasn’t entirely surprised to find a senior person wanting to have a chat. A day of reckoning had long been in the cards, and now I was just so very, very tired.
I got to my feet and walked with just the slightest hint of effort down the long corridor that led to her office. To my right, the open room where we editors sat. To my left, the glass boxes all in a row for the higher-ups. The decor was gleaming white, and everything around me had such a clean, bright look that it could have been a hospital. Or maybe it just seemed that way because I felt so ill. Nauseous and a little gauzy, as if I were jet-lagged. In fact, I’d been up all night at Tramp consuming prodigious quantities of cocaine and vodka. Then again, it could have been L’Equipée Anglaise. After enough drugs and drink the clubs do tend to blur.
I’d been at Vogue for five years at this point, and despite my after-hours indiscretions, I’d always worked very hard. I’d started off as the assistant to Sarajane Hoare, the fashion director, but when she decamped for Harper’s Bazaar in New York, I went to work for Jane Pickering. Eventually, I became accessories editor, a job that included putting together a page on belts and bags and shoes called “Last Look.”
The feature was called “Last Look” because it came last in the book, but lots of people told me it was the page that they looked for first. It wasn’t a fashion shoot with a model, but rather a collection with a theme. One month, it was Christmas gifts. Another, it would be “everything’s going metallic silver.” But now it appeared very likely that “Last Look” was going to be my last stand.
I followed Anna into her office and sat down across from her, confronting a woman with the exasperated mien of a school mistress pushed to the limit. I think what must have frustrated her most is that she could see that I had talent, but that talent alone was not going to save me.
“We think you’ve outgrown your job,” she began.
At Vogue they never said, “You’re fired.” They came up with encouraging euphemisms framed in the language of personal development.
I nodded and let out a great sigh of relief. It was all very polite. Weex changed a moment of warm and well-meaning eye contact, and then, leaving my things to pack up another day, I went home and slept all afternoon.
Introspection and self-awareness were not my strong suits in those days, and as I trundled home I did not fully appreciate the huge favor Anna was doing me. She was setting me up to mend my ways. She was also setting forces in motion that, in time, would lead to success far beyond anything I could ever have imagined. But if my subsequent history came as a surprise to me, it must have been absolutely mystifying to those who knew me at this and at earlier stages of my development. Trust me. No one ever would have voted Tamara Yeardye “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Vogue house is in Hanover Square, near Oxford Circus, which is just across Hyde Park from Chester Square where, in 1995, I lived in the basement of my parents’ house. London real estate, especially in Belgravia, is ridiculously expensive, and the large houses usually have staff apartments that the older generation makes available to their less affluent adult children. My rather dodgy quarters had a separate entrance with a door that connected to the main house, which I always tried to keep locked.
This modest attempt at privacy drove my mother nuts. Then again,my mother was unwell, which is a polite way of saying that she had severe emotional problems exacerbated by alcoholism, and though she was sober at this point, she was still not getting the help she needed.Then again, it may be that my mother was and still remains beyond help. Certainly she has always been the most painful warp in the loom of my life. My very first memory is, in fact, of her throwing me across the bed and my hitting my head on a radiator. Had I spilled something?Made too much noise? All I remember is being so stunned that the pain took a moment to register, and then her loving words: “You’re not hurt.You didn’t even start crying until I came over.”
My mother’s alcoholic rants, deliberate cruelties, and all-around raging lunacy was the bane of my childhood. But during the period of the Belgravia basement, her greatest perversity was in watching me follow the same path of chemical dependency and never saying a word.
For several years I’d been what you could call a functioning addict.When I wasn’t going out to clubs, I was falling asleep at eight p. m., but it wasn’t like ordinary sleep. What I did each night at home was a variationon passing out. Then the next morning I’d get up and drag myself in to work. If my child were living like that, I think I might have had something to say.
And it wasn’t as if my mother was completely indifferent to my existence.Whenever I was out she would go down to my room and search through my things, then make inappropriate comments to others about whatever she had found. I was with my boyfriend’s family once at their house in France and his father said to me, “Is it true that your mother has to go down and tidy up your underwear drawer?”
Cedric Middleton, the boyfriend, worked in finance, but that aside, he wasn’t the typically pale and priggish English public school boy. Cedric had gone to school in Switzerland, which is where the people who can afford it go when they can’t quite navigate a place like Eton or Harrow. He had an edge to him.
Cedric came from a lower aristocratic family and lived just around the corner—also in the basement of his parents’ home. It really was quite the fashion. A few years younger than I, he was handsome and tall with floppy brown hair, and he was really a lot of fun. We hung around with a crowd that was similarly favored by genealogy: Lucas White, Lord White’s son; Emily Oppenheimer, whose family once owned most of the diamonds in South Africa; Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, goddaughter to Prince Charles; and all-purpose “It girl” Tamara Beckwith, now a fixture in the British tabloids.
Our nocturnal habitat ranged from L’Equipée Anglaise in Marlyebone to Tramp on Jermyn Street, a private club that had been around since “Swinging London” in the sixties. Johnny Gold, the owner, had played host to everyone from Sinatra and the Beatles to Lindsay Lohan and Dodi Fayed. He’d even known my father back in the day when Dad owned a similar venue and was still quite the man about town.
But by the time I’d reached the end of my career as a fashion editor, being “fabulous” on the dance floor but never quite sure of my exact whereabouts had become more trouble than it was worth. I had given my all to dissipation, and now, in a predictable twist to the unsavory plot, I was unemployed. The only reason I’d been living unhappily under my parents’ roof was because, on a Vogue salary, I couldn’t afford to move out. Now I had no salary at all.
Lounging in my subterranean lair in the days just after my chat with Anna Harvey, I realized more and more that I had slipped into the realm of personal crisis. With Vogue out of the picture, what exactly was I going to do with my life? I had made good progress up from the depths of a less than stellar school career, and now I had pissed all that away.
More to the point, how was I going to get by? Was I going to live off my parents forever, piled on the sofa, wrapped in a duvet, eating guacamole and chips in a Belgravian version of Wayne’s World?
I needed a plan. So what did the self-help books advise us to do? Ask yourself, they say, “What do you love? What are you good at?”
Well, fashion, certainly. With perhaps a particular fixation on shoes that long predated “Last Look.” On Vogue shoots in Nepal I used to obsess over which pair of mukluks to wear. As a child of four, I’d finagled my way onto a school trip to Paris with the older girls, where I broke down in tears over a pair of red cowgirl boots, so much so that the nuns were forced to buy them for me.
For the past year or so I’d been germinating an entrepreneurial idea,and, necessity being the mother of many good things, now might just be the time to get on with it. There was a cobbler in the East End of London who had made a name for himself creating bespoke shoes for women of a certain pedigree. If Lady Windermere-Smythe or her daughter needed a shoe to match the exact hue of her dress, and assuming that she was content to wear either a pump or a slingback (those were the only two options), he was the go‑to guy.
This cobbler, whose name was Jimmy Choo, worked out of a small shop in a Dickensian building on Kingsland Road that had once housed London’s Metropolitan Hospital. There was a tiny showroom with an old dirty carpet, a few wooden shelves with sample shoes on display, a sewing machine, and a worktable. It was hideous, but the Bentleys would pull up, the ladies would sit down and draw an outline of their feet on a piece of cardboard, and their shoes would be ready in time for the coming-out party, the wedding, or the viscount’s ball.
Jimmy had emerged as cobbler to the well-heeled in the 1980s, when the major fashion houses did not yet have the shoe lines they do today. Sergio Rossi was making high fashion footwear on the Continent, but the only fabulous, sexy shoes available in London were from Manolo Blahnik. Thus Jimmy became a service provider not only for society ladies in need of one-off shoes, but for editors as well.
Whenever we were planning a shoot at Vogue, one of us junior people would go down to his hideous little workshop in Hackney, past all the barbed wire and the metal grates, and we’d describe what we were doing. “It’s a gladiator story. . . . We need some flat gladiator sandals, only with silver metallic studs.” Just before the shoot—always at the last minute—his niece, Sandra, would show up to deliver the goods. We’d give him a fashion credit on the page, and then even more well-heeled ladies who read the fine print would find their way to his shop.
Jimmy was from Malaysia, where he had apprenticed to his cobbler father at the age of nine, cooking rice and running errands as well as learning to make shoes. As a teenager he’d come to London to attend the leather trade school, Cordwainers College, part of the London College of Fashion. The name “cordwainers” is derived from Cordoba, as in Spain, as in Cordoba leather. Ever since the London shoemaker’s guild was organized in 1271, they called themselves the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. What I never realized until much later, and much to my regret, was that students at Cordwainers learned everything about how to make shoes, but not necessarily anything about how to design them. But that gets us ahead of our story.
Elizabeth Stuart-Smith was another Cordwainers graduate who back in the mid-eighties worked next door to Jimmy. She was doing much better than he was commercially, and she asked him to makes hoes for her. It was she who then spread the word among fashion editors that Jimmy was available to make one-offs on short notice. For a while the two of them produced shoes for Elizabeth’s line, but then in 1988, when her brand really took off, she moved production to Italy,leaving Jimmy somewhat adrift. Certainly I think it left him feeling ill-used.
Jimmy’s next venture was a partnership with three Turkish brothers whose father had opened a shoe factory in the fifties, on Abbot Street, very near the Hospital. The father’s name was Mehmet Kurdash, and supposedly he’d introduced the stiletto to the UK. He named his brand Gina, after the actress Gina Lollobrigida.
Mehmet’s sons began manufacturing a ready‑to‑wear line for Jimmy at the Gina factory, and in 1991 they opened a store on Sloane Street carrying Emma Hope, Gina, and Jimmy Choo. I remember going in and seeing the shoes they made for Jimmy, and I thought they were hideous—nothing distinctive or edgy or fun at all. These were “mother of the bride” shoes so, needless to say, the venture did not succeed. And once again the bad experience seemed to reinforce Jimmy’s innate conservatism, validating in his mind what must have been the Chinese equivalent of “Cobbler, stick to thy last.”
But advancement continued to come Jimmy’s way, next in the person of Anouska Hempel, who noticed that he was making shoes for many of her clients, and so she brought Jimmy in to make the shoes for her own couture label. This led to the ultimate cachet booster when Kensington Palace called and asked Jimmy to make shoes for Princess Diana. He would go to her with his pieces of cardboard for the fittings.She didn’t have to come to him.
Jimmy was thus committed to and doing nicely in the world of “one‑of‑a‑kind” when, shortly after my departure from Vogue, I got Cedric to drive me down to Hackney so that I could have my first serious conversation with him about starting a business.
Although Jimmy’s building had been given over to odd craftsmen from all over the world (and to the occasional fashion star like Alexander McQueen), it was still known as the Hospital. There were no brass plaques directing you to the various businesses inside. You went past the chain-link fence, the barbed wire, and the metal grates, past a brick shed surrounded by weeds and rubble, and asked around. It was like something out of Blade Runner or Mad Max.
On the day that Cedric and I came to call, we sat in the small fitting room with the threadbare carpet, and Jimmy served us tea. Sandra sat at a table nearby, her head bent over her work but clearly listening, while I explained what I had in mind. Jimmy would design a line of exquisite shoes, and I would find a factory to make them and manage the sales and marketing. We would open stores and start a wholesale line to be carried in high-end stores all over the world, and we both would become incredibly rich.
Cedric thought it was a fine plan, but Jimmy didn’t say much. He had been around this block once or twice before, and exposure to the royal family notwithstanding, he was still very much an immigrant living on not so much money in a council flat with his wife and baby. His English was terrible, and I think he was still largely dismayed by London and Londoners, and by Western ways in general.
He smiled a lot in that polite, Asian way, but despite his repeated,“Yes, yes, yes,” I had no idea how much of what I was saying was actually sinking in. Sandra never looked up until we were leaving, and then she nodded and gave a faint smile.
Desperate as I was to find a new direction for my life, I was not going to be easily deterred. Still, I knew that building a business with this reclusive, even resistant, Chinese cobbler was not going to happen overnight. Even getting him to participate was not going to happen overnight.
in the meantime, i was still working out a number of personal issues and adhering to my own well-established, though self-destructive, regime of treatment.
A few days after my first, post-Vogue meeting with Jimmy, Damian Aspinall, son of the casino owner John Aspinall, flew a bunch of us to Paris for a weekend at the Crillon. Damian was a few years older than the rest of us, but of far greater distinction, he had entirely given up drugs and drink. He could still enjoy himself at a party, but he did so while remaining sober.
The rest of the guys on that trip were also abstaining, at least from drugs, but not me. On the second night we were at Les Bains Douches in the Marais, the house music blaring, and I was fighting my way through the boney elbows of fashion models to do lines in the ladies’room. I’d just come back to our table near the dance floor when Damian turned to me and said, “You’ve got a problem. You need to go to rehab.”
I was gobsmacked. This comment came at me completely out of the blue. Yet I was also touched that he’d noticed. We didn’t have any kind of special relationship, so why was Damian suddenly taking an interest?
All my life people had described me as being remote, as if living behind glass. In case of emergency, break glass. Damian had just thrown a brick, and the sudden honesty and clarity cut through years of passivity and denial.
“You’re absolutely right,” I said.
It was simply the perfect moment for me to hear a statement of the obvious, and my mind was utterly receptive. I was at a point of surrender, not in a spiritual or romantic way, but in the B movie way of “You’ve got me surrounded. I give up.”
“Brilliant,” I went on. “I’ll do that. I’ll check into rehab and get well. Where should I go?”
Damian mentioned the name of a place down in Surrey, and I breathed another great sigh of relief. There was a solution to my problem after all—I’d simply never thought of it. So that was that. I’d get myself into rehab as soon as I was back in London. But then the sudden clarity itself was cause for further celebration, and whatever my plans for sobriety, there was still plenty of coke in my bag and limitless vodka at the bar.
On Sunday, our very hungover group had a late lunch and then flew back to England, and on Monday I contacted the treatment facility Damian had recommended. After that, Cedric and I went to Spain for a couple of weeks, staying with friends in Marbella. I did cartloads of drugs, partly because I knew this was going to be my last hurrah, and not just coke but Ecstasy, all with my preferred chaser from the Russian steppes. It’s a wonder I made it out alive.
We returned to London, and Cedric took me to dinner at San Lorenzo in Knightsbridge. I had a last glass of red wine—a fond farewell, that one—and the next morning we were in his little Golf GTI, motoring out the A24 to Surrey.
Farm Place is in the village of Ockley, and though it’s only a short distance south of the city, it is profoundly “English countryside” in the manner of picture postcards. Roses twine along old rambling houses and boys amble in cricket whites on the village green.
The rehab center itself is in a shabby Tudor house with cigarette burns in the sofas in the drawing room, neglected green lawns, and a filthy swimming pool that no one ever used.
In the driveway I said good-bye to Cedric with slight trepidation.This was a little like being left at school, but I was ready to clean up on day one without any kicking and screaming. In fact, the therapists were quickly amazed by my enthusiasm and resolve—they said they’d never seen anyone so determined to get well.
I didn’t know why I’d been acting out, but I did know that it wasn’t just for the “fun” of it, because at this stage of the game it was anything but fun. I couldn’t articulate what they were, maybe I couldn’t even see them, but certainly I had more than my share of demons. One of them was, of course, my mother and the enigma of why she’d always despised me so. But the other force at play was a demonic drive for the financial security I hoped would keep me out of her clutches.
I had spent my childhood in preferred postal codes—Beverly Hills, Belgravia—but somehow along the way I had inherited the fear of destitution that sometimes comes from growing up in an entrepreneurial household. My father had made a lot of money, but it never flowed in a steady stream, and it never seemed to be quite enough. In the late eighties he’d been heavily invested in London real estate, but in the crash of the early nineties, he had to unload his properties at half value. But no matter my parents’ circumstance, feast or famine, I didn’t want to remain dependent on them. My worst fear was remaining under my mother’s thumb. My second worst fear was giving her the satisfaction of seeing me wind up in a council flat, which some of the well-born girls I did drugs with actually managed to do.
Other than Damian and Cedric, nobody knew about my sudden conversion to the cause of sobriety. When I mentioned rehab to my father, he told me not to do it. At that time, residential treatment was still virtually unknown in the UK. “You’ll be branded a junkie,” he said,“and no one will ever talk to you.” He also refused to pay, but, happily, Damian agreed to cover my costs, and I agreed to repay him later.
For the first two weeks at Farm Place we weren’t allowed to contact anyone, but as soon as that quarantine was lifted I rang my parents. My mother answered, and when I told her where I was she said, “This is not our cup of tea.” Then she hung up.
Nevertheless, I remained genuinely excited by the prospect of moving beyond the slough of despond into which I had fallen. Rehab, of course, was not only an escape from drugs but from certain relationships. I welcomed six weeks without the temptation to self-medicate, and six weeks without any of the stimuli that had encouraged my destructive patterns in the first place. The “time-out” in this rural confinement gave me the cozy, protective feeling that I assume most people associate with home. I also knew that it was the only chance for me to get my life together. Certainly it was the only chance for me if I wanted to start a business with Jimmy Choo, or with anyone else for that matter.
Farm Place dealt with only a couple dozen patients at a time, with roughly an equal mix of men and women. The treatment began with a five-day detox, which I didn’t really need, because I’d never drunk enough to create a physical addiction. I was a party girl, not the kind of alcoholic who would sit at home, Lost Weekend style, scheming to get my hands on a bottle of booze. I never had a drink alone my whole life, but when it came time to binge, I could keep up with the best of them.
The housing was four to a room, and my particular ménage seemed like a setup for Bridget Jones. There were three beds in a row: an anorexic on one side, a compulsive over-eater on the other, and me in the middle. The codependent was over by herself, near the window.
The only one of us still in denial was the anorexic, who had been forced in by family and friends. She was horribly thin, but she thought she looked fantastic. She’d nibble a few morsels of food, then speedwalk around the grounds. We all had to share one bathroom, so happily she was not bulimic. And just as happily she and the over-eater got along famously.
Each of us began the day by making her own bed. We also did the dishes, mopped the floors, cleaned the bathrooms, and did our own laundry. This was new for me, this concept of chores—known in the vernacular of recovery as “therapeutic duties”—but I sort of enjoyed it.It all seemed in keeping with my newfound motivation to change, and the need to dig my way out with my fingernails if need be.
After this spot of housekeeping we’d have morning readings, with affirmations, daily meditation, and then breakfast. Then we’d break into groups for discussion and lots of assignments, working hard on the twelve steps, with emphasis on step #1: Admit you’re powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable. The irony, of course, was that there were so many other ways in which I remained voiceless and powerless—even as I began to acquire the trappings of success, which, as you’ll see, made my path to redemption a somewhat bumpy road.
The residents of Farm Place came from all classes, ranging from wealthy brats like me to those whose fees were paid for by the local health authorities. In group meetings for peer evaluation, one person would tell his or her life story and the rest would give feedback, and I was fascinated by listening to their problems, knowing that while there might be cheap seats and luxury boxes, out on the playing field we were all the same. The focus was on the feeling, never the material stuff, and the strangest combinations of people got on.
Other than go to meetings, just about all we did was eat and sleep. We consumed mountains of pork chops and mashed potatoes, fresh from the farm, but I don’t think anyone gained weight because there was still a net reduction in calories due to the subtraction of alcohol. (Cases of mineral water were stacked in the kitchen.) Exercise was not encouraged, mostly because those with food issues might use it to try to control their weight.
Every Saturday was visiting day, and though my parents never came, Cedric drove out each and every weekend to bring me cigarettes, to walk around the grounds with me, and to make increasingly awkward conversation. He was very sweet and very supportive, but he really didn’t understand what I was doing or why I was doing it.
And I must say I found my whole predicament rather bewildering myself. “How did I end up here?” I kept asking myself. But then I’d rearrange the grammar. I hadn’t “ended up” here. I was determined to make sure this was the beginning.
The most productive thoughts available to me to punctuate my long periods of self-doubt and self-loathing were about my business plan.The idea of starting a luxury shoe line was my one ray of hope, a beacon toward which I could steer. I can do this, I told myself. This is something meaningful I can apply myself to and accomplish.
The therapists tried to be helpful in keeping my mind on a positive track, but their horizons were always remarkably limited. When I’d say,“I’m going to start a luxury shoe brand,” they’d say, “Perhaps you might take a job in a shoe store.” In other words—don’t be grandiose. Think small. One day at a time.
My response to that was, “No fucking way. I’ve put in nearly ten years in the fashion industry. I’m not getting clean and sober just to go backwards!”
Their analysis of my condition was also far too reductive for my taste. They wanted to focus on my chemical addiction. “You are helpless in the face of this compulsion,” they said, and fair enough. But then they went on to insist, “You can’t blame your parents. We don’t want to hear about your crazy, alcoholic mother who tortured you. You’re just an addict—that’s it.”
That one-size-fits-all, no‑need‑to‑look-beyond-the-brain-chemistry assessment didn’t sit well with me because to me it simply didn’t ring true. I wanted my own particular experience to be validated. And validating my experience would mean someone saying to me, “It’s not all just chemicals. Your mother’s always been a f___ing sadist where you’re concerned. That demon is not in your head, and it’s going to take more than therapy to get rid of it.”
Most people go to halfway houses after rehab. Instead, when I got out, I threw myself into trying to win over Jimmy Choo. This was still part of my therapeutic effort to shut down the old habits and rebuild the new, and it was still propelled in large part by fear. I was determined not to get stuck in my mother’s world. I was determined not to end up as a junkie in a council flat. And yet it still took every bit of my strength. At times my energy seemed so depleted that it was all I could do to get out of bed, but I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
While i’d been at Farm Place my parents had sold their big house in Chester Square and bought two smaller ones nearby, one on Chester Row and one on Gerald Road, which were sort of back‑to‑back. We’d probably lived in about seven different houses in Belgravia at one time or another because my father would buy a place, do it up, live in it for a while, and then sell it for a profit.
When I came out of rehab, I moved into the main house on Chester Row, my parents lived in the place on Gerald Road, and now my brother Daniel took up residence in their basement. The free rent was good for keeping my overhead low, but not so good for my state of mind. My mother still came around every day, and still let herself in, unannounced, presumably to explore my underwear drawer and God knows what else.
At night I went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and then each morning I’d take the tube from Sloane Square to Hackney to spend the day with Jimmy. He still seemed incredibly nervous and guarded, and to this day I don’t think he ever fully understood what I was proposing, and where it might lead. So my first task, really, was to convince him that I was serious and that I meant him no harm. Quite the opposite, my most heartfelt intent was to make him a lot of money. But I couldn’t win him over by taking him to a smart restaurant for lunch. He needed to get a better sense of me as a person and to see a demonstration of my commitment in action. He wanted me to “smell the leather,” or perhaps the glue, so the only way to demonstrate what I was about was to hang around down there with him and to really get my hands dirty.
Every day, then, for three months, I went down to get my trade school education, but also, in a way, to continue my therapy. My past defenses had been stripped away at Farm Place—I was now experienced at making beds and cleaning toilets—which had indeed left me ready to rebuild on a more solid foundation.
Meanwhile, to continue my actual therapy, I immersed myself in the world of Narcotics Anonymous. I made new friends, but I also ran in to a lot of people I’d known previously, never realizing until now that they, too, struggled with addiction. I still wanted to keep in touch with my old crowd, too, but I remember one night, going out to a club with Tara and Emily, then feeling so uncomfortable once I got there that I burst into tears and ran out.
Given my obsessive nature, being embedded in Jimmy’s world meant spending a fair amount of time just trying to organize and tidy up. The place was always a mess, and as I pushed my broom, I observed Jimmy as he molded lasts in the back with a couple of Malaysian workers or stretched the uppers on the shoes. Meanwhile, his niece, Sandra— young, skinny, with long dark hair and bangs—sat at the work table cutting patterns and stitching.
As I was to learn, Sandra was a key player in Jimmy’s operation, and in his psyche. She had been born on the Isle of Wight where her father and mother owned a Chinese restaurant. She’d wanted to go to fashion school but her parents refused, so she went to live with her mother’s sister Rebecca, who was Jimmy’s wife. Sandra spent a year at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, then went to work for her uncle in 1989.
Throughout my trade school time in Hackney, I was turning to my father for a sort of kitchen MBA. I even brought Jimmy over to Chester Row for a business lesson or two. My dad told him, “You should never accept a deal where your share isn’t on par with the investors. Fifty-fifty. ”It was solid advice, but in just a few years it would come back to haunt us.
At the outset my dad made it clear that he wasn’t interested in being the investor who owned the other 50 percent. He wanted me to go out and raise the capital myself. So I pitched the idea to my friend Dodi, the son of Mohamed al‑Fayed, owner of Harrods, and then to several of my dad’s wealthier friends. I made up a press book with all the clippings from Vogue that included credits for Jimmy, but everyone said no. Neither Jimmy nor I had the kind of track record that investors look for.
At the same time I felt a bond growing between my father and me that had never been allowed to flourish during my childhood. He had been very successful as an entrepreneur, and it remained to be seen whether or not I had inherited any of those skills. But I brought other skills and other talents, as well as knowledge of this particular world, and of the particular generation I wanted to sell to.
After three months down in Hackney, I think I’d demonstrated all the determination that Jimmy—or my father—needed to see, but I still hadn’t raised any outside money. Dad lined up his friends David and Frederick Barclay, owners of the Ritz and the Telegraph newspapers and other prestige properties. They agreed to invest £100,000 and my dad would invest £50,000. Then I think my father reflected for a moment and said, “You know what? For that amount of money, I’m going to do it myself.” So he declined the Barclays’ offer and lined up lawyers to start negotiating a contract. We were going to launch a line of ready‑to‑wear shoes, as well as a chain of boutiques, organized under the company name Jimmy Choo Limited.
Jimmy’s role was to design the collection, and he would retain his couture business, which stood apart from this agreement. Our role was to provide the start‑up money, management, and business expertise. Each party—my father and I being one, Jimmy the other—would own a 50 percent stake. (Jimmy nominally agreed to our suggestion that he give Sandra some shares from his half, but he never did.) Dad would be chairman. I would be managing director in charge of manufacturing, promotion, and marketing.
In May 1996, we all sat in the living room of the Chester Row house and signed the agreement. It was a big, fat booklet with enormously complicated legalese, which only added to Jimmy’s intense anxiety. He looked terrified, as if he could still bolt at any minute. Luckily, he had a lawyer from Schillings in London who kept turning to him to say, “Jimmy, this is a good deal. You should sign this. This is a really good deal.”
My father set up a corporate entity called Thistledown International Limited in the Virgin Islands as the vehicle for his investment. He then engaged a company called CI Law Trustees on the island of Jersey to hold the shares.
I simply assumed that these elaborate financial structures were a good idea—who was I to question my father’s judgment about money? And we both “assumed” that Jimmy Choo, cobbler to the upper crust, would flourish as Jimmy Choo the fashion-forward shoe designer. But as the saying goes, we live and learn.
Unwarranted assumptions in both cases led to unbelievably painful consequences, and yet we not only kept on going—we thrived. Truth be told, if we’d done everything right, if there had never been any sharp reversals and internecine battles, this story would not be nearly so interesting.
Many years later, after i’d launched Jimmy Choo to become a global brand, gone through three private-equity deals, and survived a hostile takeover; made headlines by getting my playboy ex‑husband off the hook in a wiretapping case by testifying to his lovable incompetence; then become embroiled in another courtroom drama to keep my own mother from cheating me out of millions, Giles Hattersley wrote in the Sunday Times that I seemed “less an actual person than the heroine of some dicey Danielle Steel bonkathon.”
Looking back now, I suppose there’s some small bit of justice in the characterization.
The basic Danielle Steel conceit is to take a plucky heroine, set her on a quest, then subject her to every villain and viper and pitfall imaginable,which is not an entirely bad summary of my life so far.
The formula came of age in silent movie serials like The Perils of Pauline, in which the always imperiled young woman did battle with pirates and rampaging Apaches, with each twelve-minute reel leading to a cliff-hanger. Danielle Steel’s version provides more sophisticated villains who often lurk in boardrooms and wear bespoke suits, and the perils lead more often to financial ruin than to the wheels of an oncoming train. Danielle’s damsel in distress must also have a certain look, her goals must involve the latest trends in business or media, and her environment must be saturated with bold-faced names, fabulous fashions,and other luxury goods. But what’s most essential is that this plucky young woman ultimately makes it through, and so much the better if her beginnings were inauspicious.
To the extent that any of that attaches to me, I have made it through, yet, oddly enough, the vulnerabilities that led to my mistakes, and to my being susceptible to the bullying of certain “villains” along the way, were born of the very same early experiences that fueled the life-and-death determination that allowed me to survive.
I simply never imagined when I started this journey just how many backstabbings, cliff-hangers, and oncoming trains lay ahead.
Excerpted from IN MY SHOES by Tamara Mellon. Copyright © 2013 by Tamara Mellon. Excerpted by permission of Portfolio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.