Adventures in high heels - Tamara Mellon's autobiography - review

Tamara Mellon's book is a roller-coaster of a read, as she charts her journey from rehab to owning a £500m business. Reviewer Kim Winser enjoys the ride.

by Kim Winser
Last Updated: 23 Sep 2014

In the opening chapter of her autobiography, Tamara Mellon describes her stay at Farm Place, a small Surrey rehabilitation centre she'd checked into in order to address her addiction to alcohol and drugs.

'How did I end up here?' she asked herself repeatedly. But then she'd 'rearrange the grammar to say: "I hadn't ended up here. I was determined to make sure this was the beginning."' How right she was.

During her stay at the clinic she worked on a business plan for a luxury shoe brand. When her therapists suggested that perhaps she might take a job in a shoe store, they clearly underestimated the former Vogue fashion editor and her tumultuous drive to succeed.

In typically determined fashion, Mellon overcame her dependence on drink and class A drugs, but what transpires in the ensuing pages is that she replaced them with another addiction. For the next 15 years, Mellon's dedication to the business she co-founded was as obsessive as her youthful consumption of chemical stimulants.

In My Shoes is a candid tome, documenting the all-consuming passion that was Jimmy Choo, the luxury brand she launched in 1996 with a Malaysian-born, London-based cobbler of the same name.

Her parents, Tommy Yeardye, the man behind the Vidal Sassoon empire, and his glamorous wife, Ann, raised her in privilege in England and Beverly Hills. However, Mellon spent her school years as a self-confessed academic failure and an outcast. Yet, with that innate sense of vision that is crucial to the success of so many entrepreneurs, she fought against her insecurities to start a journey that many better-qualified business minds might never have begun.

At the outset, Mellon confesses to undertaking a 'kitchen MBA' with her father, who remained a trusted mentor until his death, not only nurturing his own investment in his daughter's business - he provided the £150,000 required to set up her half of the venture - but constantly guiding her through the minefield of corporate finance and global expansion.

Yet, despite his best intentions and Tamara's obvious instinct for business, the challenges she faced in the early days as one half of a rocky partnership are perhaps down to a decision that would come back to haunt her for years to come.

When structuring their fledgling enterprise, Mellon and Choo established themselves as 50:50 partners, leaving them in a constant state of impasse when it came to agreeing a strategy for the brand.

Instead of playing for the same team, it often feels that the pair had disparate gameplans, to the detriment of the business.

Mellon and Choo came to blows very quickly and he exited after five years, selling his shares to investors, despite her offer to buy him out. And if Mellon thought things were tough then, once private equity got involved the start-up period must have felt like a stroll in the park.

Phoenix Equity Partners had paid $45m for a majority stake and it was here that Mellon really embarked on a rancorous roller-coaster ride that included another sale to Lion Capital for £100m in 2004, which then sold on to TowerBrook for £185m three years later.

It was one car crash after another, leaving her lurching between acrimonious relationships with executives who, she says, never got the luxury goods industry and were only interested in numbers.

However, those numbers were impressive: Mellon resigned shortly after Labelux bought the business in 2011, valuing it at £500m. She walked away a very rich woman but bitter about her experiences at the hands of private equity investors.

At times, there is a petulant refrain of 'I never got my way', but it is hard not to feel sympathy with Mellon, who dedicated her life to 'the good of her company', determined to prove her ability as a businesswoman to her father and, indeed, to herself.

Her tempestuous marriage to banker Matthew Mellon provides a painful personal backdrop, along with court action she won against her mother to retrieve £6m that had been paid into a family trust. The two no longer speak.

The book concludes with a sense of humility: a precis of the lessons she has learned and a description of how she will apply them to the launch of a fashion business, this time under her own name.

This is a fascinating narrative of entrepreneurial grit that also serves as a cautionary tale for anyone stepping into the world of business partnerships and equity investments.

Kim Winser is founder and CEO of Winser London


In My Shoes A memoir

Tamara Mellon, with William Patrick

Portfolio Penguin, £20.00

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