Closing The Gap

From speaking up to not being afraid to fail: Fashion designer Tamara Mellon on the lessons she’s learned

Jimmy Choo co-founder Tamara Mellon may be a trailblazer in the fashion industry, but that doesn't mean she hasn't dealt with her own share of challenges during her career.

Speaking at the Cannes Lions communications and advertising festival, the British designer looked back at her time in the fashion world, describing how she and the businesses she has been involved with developed.

"We're living in an age now where there's a huge culture shift and I think everybody is becoming much more transparent," Mellon told CNBC's Tania Bryer on Tuesday.

"People want authentic stories, they don't want things that are glossed over or that just look pretty on the outside. Brands today really cannot be silent anymore. We have to have an authentic voice."

In 1996, Mellon co-founded Jimmy Choo, one of Britain's most renowned luxury shoes and accessories brands. Despite her status as one of the heads of such a prominent brand, Mellon faced her troubles — including fighting to be paid equally.

On Tuesday, Mellon reiterated what she said on Equal Pay Day, about how she did three private equity deals with Jimmy Choo and went onto discover that the male CEOs received double the sweat equity that she did. Sweat equity describes the contribution a businessperson puts into a project in the shape of effort and labor.

"Obviously, I had bought shares in the business that had nothing to do with my effort or value, compared to them, and they actually ended up getting double what I did," Mellon said.

Tamara Mellon says her new business model gives her an edge over her competitors. "The quality is incredible, but I don't mark my shoes up six times anymore, because I don't have to have wholesale margin in there. So my shoes are 50 percent less than what I used to charge."
Photo courtesy of Getty
Tamara Mellon says her new business model gives her an edge over her competitors. "The quality is incredible, but I don't mark my shoes up six times anymore, because I don't have to have wholesale margin in there. So my shoes are 50 percent less than what I used to charge."

"My mistake back then was ... not using my voice to speak up. I had a board that was all men — why would you do that at such a female brand? There's no emotional connection there with the product."

"So now with my new (eponymous) brand Tamara Mellon, we're really active on equal pay, gender discrimination and really supporting women in business," she said.

Weinstein was 'a terrible bully'

Mellon has worked with Harvey Weinstein, the former movie mogul who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by dozens of women. In May, Weinstein was charged in New York with rape in the first and third degrees, and criminal sexual act in the first degree.

Back in 2007, alongside Hilco Consumer Capital, Weinstein bought fashion brand Halston, with Mellon offering structure management and creative direction on the project, according to Reuters.

Discussing her interactions with Weinstein, Mellon told CNBC that she believed the disgraced Hollywood heavyweight is getting what he deserves.

"Working with Harvey — he was a terrible bully. His style of operating was bullying and threatening and many times we had knock-down, drag-out fights," Mellon said.

The designer added that while she didn't know the bullying crossed into assault, she was lucky enough to be in a position where she could push back against him.

"I remember him one time saying to me, 'I'm going to go on a press campaign, I'm going to destroy you.' My answer to him then was: 'Good luck with that, you're in my industry now,'" Mellon said.

"So I was in a different place in my career where I could push back, but I totally understand how it must feel for a lot of women, when people abuse their power."

The good in failure

When it comes to business, the designer has advice for budding entrepreneurs looking to enter such a competitive industry.

Mellon herself has dealt with a number of challenges — in late 2015, her eponymous firm filed for Chapter 11 protection, but exited soon after, re-emerging with a new partner, New Enterprise Associates in early 2016, WWD reported.

Following this turbulent period, Mellon told CNBC that the first version of the Tamara Mellon brand was a "learning experience."

Tamara Mellon poses at the launch of her new book 'In My Shoes' at Harrods in Knightsbridge, London
Anthony Devlin/PA Images | PA Images | Getty Images
Tamara Mellon poses at the launch of her new book 'In My Shoes' at Harrods in Knightsbridge, London

"What I took from that (Chapter 11 experience) was: I took opportunity and I took the failure as a lesson which actually set me up for the success we're having now," she said, adding that she learned what elements didn't work and applied this lesson to her current business.

"So, you (should) take failure as an opportunity and as a way to learn," Mellon said, adding that you shouldn't be afraid to fail.

"Failure is a learning experience and there's always reinvention. I've reinvented myself from Jimmy Choo now to Tamara Mellon, which is a completely different business model."

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