Choo Stories: Q&A With Tamara Mellon and Joshua Schulman

Spend a few hours with Joshua Schulman and Tamara Mellon, and it’s easy to see why they’re such a good match.

On this June afternoon, the pair arrives at Mellon’s small, but stylish, 22nd-floor office in Jimmy Choo’s midtown Manhattan headquarters. They’re prepping to be photographed, and the CEO is up first.

“You can just shoot Tamara,” Schulman says, only half jokingly. Reluctantly, the executive stands near the wall, adorned with Jimmy Choo ad campaigns, for a few quick shots. He is visibly relieved when it’s time for Mellon to get in on the action.

The Jimmy Choo founder and chief creative officer is dressed in a simple black sheath and wears no jewelry. She is game for several different poses — perhaps because the photographer says “perfect” after nearly every shot — but does have one request.

“Just make sure you can see the shoes,” Mellon says of the black-patent platform sandals she’s wearing from the spring collection. “They’re the most important thing.”

 Between takes, Mellon happily discusses her new life in New York after relocating here from London last year.

“I just love it,” she says. “London suddenly feels so small. There is a different energy here.”

Mellon has always embraced the spotlight, and since launching Jimmy Choo nearly 15 years ago, her role as brand ambassador has been crucial in building the label. But the 43-year-old clearly understands her strengths, and while she’s well-versed in Jimmy Choo’s overall strategy, she doesn’t get consumed by the details.

That’s where Schulman comes in, and he’s much more in his element away from the camera. During an hour-long interview with Mellon, he methodically lays out the brand’s aggressive growth strategy with ease, barely pausing to take a breath.

Even in the midst of a brutal recession that sidelined many luxury brands, Schulman —  who arrived at Jimmy Choo three years ago, shortly after TowerBrook Capital Partners bought a majority stake in the firm — has forged ahead with a number of major initiatives. 

Among his key projects are last year’s sellout limited-edition line for H&M; an innovative collaboration with Hunter Boot; and the rapid global retail expansion that will bring the company to a total of 111 doors by year’s end.

Together with Mellon, the CEO says his biggest priority has been to bolster the core women’s shoe business. Of particular note this year was the debut of the Choo 24:7 line of classics, which has price points of $395 to $1,395. At the same time, the company is debuting more fashion-forward looks (its $2,495 Zap light-up shoe is one example).

“We’re balancing the icons and innovation in our brand offering,” Schulman said. “I don’t think one is more important than the other — they’re completely complementary.”

Jimmy Choo also has been adding more casual styles, such as the new sneaker line, as well as a ramped-up collection of espadrilles, clogs and jellies that start at $195.

“All the product has been extremely exciting and well-balanced,” said Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Jimmy Choo has always been a strong brand for us, but now it’s an extremely strong one.”

Frasch and other key retailers are bullish about Jimmy Choo’s collaboration with Ugg Australia that launches Oct. 21.

“For two of our biggest shoe vendors to collaborate, it’s terrific,” said Pete Nordstrom,  president of merchandising at Nordstrom. In fact, the retailer played an instrumental role in the creation of the partnership. Schulman met Ugg President Connie Rishwain and her team at the Nordstrom Partners in Excellence awards ceremony in Seattle last May, and the idea was born soon after.

To build buzz, Schulman and Mellon are keeping the details of the collaboration under wraps for a few more months. Right now, the five co-branded styles are on display in a tiny, walled-off space just beyond the brand’s showroom. Select visitors can grab a quick glimpse of the glammed-up sheepskin boots, but no photographs are allowed.

The Ugg partnership is just one of the attention-grabbing initiatives on deck.

The duo is eager to show off some of their other new projects, on full display in the bright showroom space. Walking through the new cruise line, they discuss the inspiration for the Crystal collection, a group of jeweled styles that will debut later this year to usher in the brand’s 15th anniversary, in 2011.

“When I first started, I did a lot of [looks with] Swarovski crystal, so we’ve taken those and made them more modern and relevant,” said Mellon. “And after we already started planning it, Josh discovered that the 15th anniversary is actually the crystal year.”

Another highlight is the expanded 24:7 line, which has been a standout in its first season. For fall, Jimmy Choo is adding boots, and handbags will be incorporated for spring ’11.

“We’re going to keep 24:7 top of mind with our consumers,” Schulman said.

The executives’ growth agenda is paying off: According to industry sources, sales this year are expected to reach 150 million pounds, or more than $228 million at current exchange. (At the time of the TowerBrook acquisition, revenues were around 65 million pounds.)

Looking ahead, the firm, which already has expanded into sunglasses, scarves and small leather goods and will bow a fragrance next February, is also eyeing men’s and ready-to-wear.

Nordstrom said the brand has plenty of room left for growth in the footwear business, too.

“We have a lot of distribution with them, but it’s not in every one of our stores,” Nordstrom said. “No matter what store I’m in, they’re asking me to call Josh and try to get it, or get more of it.”

FN: In the past three years, how has your professional relationship evolved?
TM: For me, it’s such a pleasure to work with a CEO who understands the product he’s selling. I didn’t have that before. Josh has been absolutely brilliant in combining the commercial and creative aspects, and that’s a very particular skill. Our vision is really aligned, and we’re on the same page.
JS: I’ve had great mentors in my career, and I’ve been able to see the relationship between a creative head and a business head, working with people like Robert Duffy and Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford and Domenico DeSole, and Mark Lee and Stefano Pilati. It’s really gratifying for me to have that type of relationship with Tamara now.

FN: How involved is TowerBrook in the brand strategy?
TM: Of all the private equity funds I’ve worked with, they are the one that has added the most value. They have been more involved and helpful [than prior firms]. They share our vision.

FN: How much of a recovery have you seen in the luxury market?
JS: We really started to see the rebound at the end of last year. The product and marketing strategies we’ve worked on during the past 18 months are resonating with the consumer as she’s re-entering the marketplace. We’ve also increased the amount of communication we’re doing this year [with a series of campaigns].
TM: I’ve definitely noticed, even among my friends, that there’s more excitement about shopping again.

FN: What areas of the world are performing the best?
JS: Right now, we have very strong like-for-like sales in all our directly operated store regions. Europe continues to do very well, despite the headlines. The recovery in the U.S. was faster than anyone predicted. [But there] is definitely uncertainty. We’ve moved to an era of uncertainty from one of total panic. But, at least in our space, the consumer is getting on with her life.

FN: How do you expect the recent decline of the euro to affect business?
JS: We are a business that produces in Italy, reports in pounds and does a significant percentage of our business in dollars. There are different impacts of the currency shift, so we’ll see.

FN: Do you think, in general, that footwear is faring better than other categories?
JS: The idea of women shopping their closets really helps shoes and accessories. If they aren’t investing in ready-to-wear the way they had been, it’s natural they will turn to shoes and accessories first. So we’ve benefited from that phenomenon.

FN: One way you’ve capitalized on that is with Choo 24:7. What was the thinking behind that launch?
TM: We thought about the way women, psychologically, had changed during the crisis. In addition to buying the fashion-forward pieces that are the big trends of the season, they want to buy investments, the classic styles, shoes they can pull out in two to three years and still feel relevant in. Everyone needs basics in their closet that can cover all aspects of their lives. What we’re offering them is a way to spend their money wisely, and that’s really resonated.
JS: We were anticipating it would be big, but we were [taken] off guard with the unprecedented demand in the first season. I was just at one of our partner’s stores, and they only had sizes 41 and 42 left in their display. I don’t know how nice that looked. [Laughs] Seriously, though, we’ve had to increase factory capacity to keep up with demand.

FN: You also made some serious noise with your H&M collection. What did you learn from that partnership?
JS: It really showed that our brand is bigger than our business today. The customer emotionally connected with the brand. It was a flash, but it certainly served as a catalyst for us to think about how else we can expand.
TM: At H&M, consumers were buying all different categories from us — jewelry, ready-to-wear, menswear. Watching the lines [of shoppers] on the news, people were so intense. It was exciting for us to reach a much broader audience.

FN: What other categories are on your wish list?
JS: One area we’re looking at seriously is men’s shoes, where we know we have a demand. This was actually one of the first things to sell out in the H&M collaboration, which was very interesting to us and somewhat unexpected. We’re also looking at different scenarios for women’s ready-to-wear, which obviously is a very big and visible step. When we enter a category, we want to do it in a disciplined way. We want to make sure we keep total control of the brand DNA.

FN: What are your expectations for your co-branded line with Ugg?
JS: Consumers really love our collaboration with Hunter. We’re expecting the same with this one. Both Ugg and Hunter are the authentic brands in their space [and that’s what was appealing about partnering with them].
TM: It was really fun to work with them and put the DNA of Jimmy Choo into an Ugg boot. No matter who you are, what your income, everyone has a pair of Uggs. We’re also doing a great advertising campaign with them, showing how to wear Uggs in a Jimmy Choo world.

FN: Are there additional collaborations in the works?
TM: We will have some interesting surprises. If we come up with something exciting, we’ll do it. It’s usually something in my closet.

FN: Let’s talk about retail. Where are you focusing your efforts?
JS: The most significant news [this summer] is our European expansion and plans for the new Milan flagship on the corner of Via Sant’Andrea and Montenapoleone. It will be our largest store in continental Europe. We had been in Milan since 2003, but in a somewhat out-of-the-way location. The new store is just a few blocks away, but in terms of prominence, it’s a world apart.

FN: What are the biggest untapped areas for retail?
JS: We’re less penetrated in Latin America, so that’s something we’re looking at growing right now. We believe there is still additional opportunity in China, where we have two locations. And this sounds somewhat counterintuitive — because for a lot of luxury brands Japan is declining — but for us, it remains an area of robust growth, and we’re still underpenetrated in Japan. We’re at the beginning of our life cycle there, and the Japanese consumer is starting to shy away from some of the big brands.

FN: What’s in store for online?
JS: We’ve done a lot of work on the consumer experience on Jimmychoo.com. Now we’re looking at fulfillment in different countries and how we can evolve to become multilingual.
TM: Online is one of our biggest [areas], so the growth opportunity is enormous. Women love shopping online, and during the economic crisis, they didn’t travel as much, so they did even more of it. I do a lot of my shopping that way.

FN: You have more than 220,000 fans on Facebook. How important is social media to your strategy?
JS: We see it as an opportunity to interact with existing consumers, as well as people who dream about being a part of the brand. The way people are communicating with each other, and the way they’re shopping, [is changing rapidly]. In many ways, the consumer is moving faster than we are [at the brand level]. The recession has really served as a catalyst for these technological and cultural shifts.

FN: Are either of you personally on Facebook or Twitter?
TM: I’ve done about three tweets. I love Twitter, though, because what you get is a general consensus of opinion on whatever people are talking about, rather than a journalist’s point of view. I’ve just decided I’m going to go on Facebook. I have so many friends who are on, and that’s the way they communicate. I’m always surprised at who’s on, actually.
JS: I’m embarrassed to admit that I recently joined Facebook to see what was being posted about Jimmy Choo.

FN: Who do you admire in the fashion industry?
TM: There are so many I admire for all different reasons. You have people like Ralph Lauren and Armani, who embody their brands. And then you have the young geniuses. I love Alexander Wang, all the young kids coming up.
JS: On the business side, I love what Mickey Drexler is doing with J.Crew, and if you look at what he’s done in terms of collaborations, it’s really interesting to see that. Even though Jimmy Choo is a totally different type of brand, there are some parallels to how we’ve looked at some of our collaborations.

FN: You should do a collaboration with them.
JS: Well, we both dress Michelle Obama!

FN: Tamara, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since starting 15 years ago?
TM: There are so many more ready-to-wear brands that are also focusing on shoes and bags. So it’s a very different business.

FN: Does TowerBrook have any plans to sell the brand?
JS: By definition, a private equity [deal] implies [the investor] will make an exit at some point. However, at this time, together with TowerBrook, we remain in a period of deep investment in the growth and development of the business.

FN: Tamara, is there anything you would have done differently during the past 15 years?
TM: No, I don’t think so. I’m just focused on all the growth opportunities we have ahead.


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