Our Second Life podcast (released on Mondays) is growing! On Wednesdays, we’ll be releasing a limited series called Life Lessons in partnership with Cartier, in which Who What Wear co-founder and Chief Content Officer Hillary Kerr will chat with women who’ve had incredible careers within a single field or industry. Subscribe to Second Lifeon iTunes, and stay tuned. This week, Hillary talks to Tamara Mellon, the woman who co-founded Jimmy Choo and went on to launch her own eponymous line.
Believe it or not, London-born designer Tamara Mellon tells us that when she left school without a degree, she was voted “least likely to succeed.” Over a decade later, after she had worked in PR and as an editor at British Vogue, co-founded a top-selling designer shoe company (yep, that would be Jimmy Choo), and then started her own eponymous label, that same school came knocking on her door asking her to speak to the student body. “That just shows that you can turn your life around,” she tells Hillary. “You can do anything that you want to do, and you can be self-educated.”
It’s this persistence and self-belief that have carried her through the highs and lows she’s experienced in her career, which started with a job on the sales floor at Browns in London when she was 18. Initially, she wondered what she was doing there, but as it turns out, there was a purpose: Later on, when she opened the first Jimmy Choo store, she was well prepared. “I knew how to stock a stock room. I knew how to serve a customer. I knew how to ring things up. I knew how to operate a store.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: A key part of her founding Jimmy Choo involved her work for British Vogue. As an accessories editor, she’d hit up the then little-known shoe designer at his London studio to make custom pieces for shoots, and she sensed a demand for the kind of designer shoes he was crafting. (This was the height of Sex and the City and Manolo mania, after all.) After she lost her magazine job, admitted to herself that she had a problem with drugs, and checked herself into rehab, she found a renewed sense of purpose in turning Jimmy Choo into a real business (and a household name).
“I can’t believe that I wasn’t too afraid to do it,” she says of her then 27-year-old self, who went to Italy, visited factories, made the designs, and talked to buyers. She put her heart and soul into Jimmy Choo, working as the brand’s CEO and creative director for its first five years, but eventually got tired of the snags that came with dealing with private equity, plus the sexism she saw in the largely male-run industry. “When I looked at my counterparts, I was [earning] about a third of what they were earning,” she recalls.
So she left the company in 2011 and focused on channeling her skill set and experience into a women-led company with a culture she could be proud of—one that’s also disrupting the way luxury shoes are bought and sold. It took some course-corrections along the way, but she wasn’t afraid to experiment. She was ahead of the pack with her see-now, buy-now model; she’s cutting the markups traditionally associated with high-end shoes; she’s offering a whole new shoe-shopping experience in her Tamara Mellon boutiques; and she’s also expanded her product line into handbags.
Her most important takeaway? “I’ve learned to get rid of imposter syndrome, speak up, use your voice, and talk authentically about the things that you really care about,” she says—something she and her brand are doing daily, and we’re excited to see whatever’s coming next.