Lunch with Tamara Mellon, founder of Jimmy Choo.

Stories from the Financial Times. 
Dec. 4 2010 6:55 AM

Lunch with Tamara Mellon

The 43-year-old founder of Jimmy Choo at the Four Seasons.

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"But we were only able to do it because at that time my father was my investor. Can you imagine saying to a banker: I want to spend all this money and give the shoes for free? They'd say, 'You're crazy,' and refuse. But when he worked with Vidal Sassoon, he had him cutting hair on stage in Japan, so he understood."

Her father taught Mellon, she says, "to trust my instincts. I think that's my biggest strength. People who are over-educated become risk-averse." Given that Mellon did not go to university, this is not an unexpected statement. She elaborates: "Money guys can look back at what you've sold and come up with a plan for future growth, but they can't pick the product that will put the numbers on the paper. I can do that, and my job is to make them understand that."

She speaks from experience. In 2001, deciding that they wanted to buy out Jimmy Choo, the eponymous cobbler of the business whose dream (nice shoes for a few nice women) had diverged from Mellon's (global domination led by fashion-hungry trend-setters), Mellon and her father began to look for outside investment. They sold a 51 per cent stake of the company to private equity firm Phoenix Equity Partners, who held on to it until 2004, when they sold it to Lion Capital, who held on to it for three years, and then sold it to TowerBrook (Mellon has retained 17 percent). This makes Jimmy Choo the most successful fashion/private equity story in the industry, not just in the U.K. but globally: Though private equity has had a millennial flirtation with fashion, few funds have been able to make the unpredictable style cycles work with their traditional strategy of holding a company for three to five years. The global private equity firm TPG, for example, held on to the Swiss shoe and leather goods maker Bally for nine years after it struggled to restructure the brand following its purchase in 1999.

"It's the numbers," Mellon says now. "You make your numbers, and they're happy. So even though the private equity guys might not understand what you're doing—and what I do is very intangible to them—they start to trust you."

Still, she admits as the Dover sole appears, it's exhausting. "Just as you get to know one board, they sell you, and you have to start all over again." You have to, for example, start again with explaining things such as the importance of "hair and makeup," she says, "which they just don't get." You have to teach them the danger of underestimating, or making assumptions, about the creative side.

"I was young, and didn't really understand what private equity was when we sold the first time," she continues. "In retrospect, I wish I had been my own private equity firm and just gone to the bank and asked them to lend me the money I needed."

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Today, however, "I couldn't buy the whole company now if I wanted," even though she's worth about £102 million, and she does want. Instead, TowerBrook, entering the end of its three-year cycle, is in the midst of a "strategic evaluation," where they are trying to decide what happens next: whether they sell to another private equity firm, or take Jimmy Choo public, or hold on to the brand. Mellon won't commit to any scenario, though she does say that, having been on the Revlon board since 2008, she has seen at first hand the difficulties being a public company entails. Whatever happens, she hopes the owners will commit to a long-term strategy that she is currently devising.

"I think it takes 30 years to build a luxury brand," she says, eating half her fish and then asking for coffee, "so we're part-way through. And there's so much I want to do. I think we can become a lifestyle brand, because one thing doing the collaboration last year with [high-street retail chain] H&M showed us was that consumers would accept any product from us: We did men's wear, we did women's wear, we did jewelry. And I want to do all of that."

She means this literally: A perfume will launch next year, followed by men's shoes, followed by children's wear, watches, jewelry, homeware, and so on. Perhaps as a security strategy during the next phase of the brand, she is the "face" of the perfume, and will appear in the advertising campaign (clothed) with her head thrown back to expose her neck. It's not the only self-exposure she is considering.

For, as we walk out, Mellon mentions she would like to write a book. An autobiography. "There's been so much nonsense said about me, I figure I should just get it out," she says. All of it? I ask. The naked truth?

"All of it," she smiles. Then she mentions she knows a filmmaker who told her if she ever did tell her story, he'd like to make the movie.

Who?

Before you guess Guy Ritchie or Matthew Vaughn, know this: The answer is Peter Morgan, author of high-minded talk fests Frost/Nixon and The Queen.

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.

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