“What Anna Wintour is to Vogue, Dawn Mello was to Bergdorf Goodman.”
That’s how Vicki Haupt, former SVP and GMM of the luxury department store, described Mello, who has spent more than 50 years in the industry, as an executive at May Department Stores, Gucci and, of course, Bergdorf Goodman. “Dawn has written new chapters in fashion history,” said Haupt.
As president of Bergdorf in the 1980s, Mello oversaw the revitalization of the store, from what had been a carriage trade retailer into a modern emporium of the most sought-after designer labels. In the process, she introduced American women to many now-familiar names, including Armani, Fendi, Christian Lacroix and Michael Kors.
“She invented a whole generation of designers,” said Kors, who first met Mello while outfitting a mannequin in the window of Lothar’s, for which he also designed gowns. “She was very behind Italian fashion and young American designers. Prior to that, American fashion was nuts-and-bolts sportswear and European fashion [was Paris], but she saw outside of the box.”
To transform the department store, Mello said she and then-chairman Ira Neimark relied on an influx of capital from storeowner Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. And with that, they were able to update the building, installing escalators and building a new entrance on Fifth Avenue, but also — and most important — they changed the product vision.
“Bergdorf Goodman was a store nobody would go into when we got there, and in fact, some of the designers would not even sell to us,” said Mello. “When the French wouldn’t sell to us, we went to Italy, and Italy was brand new and no one had ever heard of the Fendis or Giorgio Armani.”
But there were risks to working with untested names. “Giorgio didn’t have any money, so we had to pay up front. He had a partner and they were just starting their business, so we had to pay in advance so he could afford to have the clothes made.”
Bergdorf also struggled to change public perception, so Mello and her team traveled to Paris and bought couture designs off the runway. They then placed them in the windows on Manhattan’s 57th Street and sold the dresses at cost. “We did it just to create excitement and to get the press involved,” said Mello. “And suddenly [the buzz was] ‘Bergdorf Goodman has French couture. I must stop by there and take a look.’”
By the late 1980s, the store was thriving, but Mello was ready for a new challenge. It soon came in the form of a phone call from Maurizio Gucci, who had recently wrested control of his family’s business. “He wanted an American to help him turn it around, and he hired me,” recalled Mello. “So I left Bergdorf, much to the astonishment of everyone in the industry. At the time, they were selling Gucci on tables in front of Macy’s. It was in serious need of fixing.”
She took along with her a team of young talent, including Richard Lambertson as creative director, Tom Ford as designer of women’s ready-to-wear and Neil Barrett as menswear designer. Their mission was to return the fashion house to its glory, but it wasn’t easy.
“There was a little resistance, especially from the Florence group,” Ford told Footwear News. “We were making a lot of changes, and they didn’t all like it. One season I made a pink leather dress, and the women in ready-to-wear were all walking around saying, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’”
One change that did catch on: the redesigned Gucci loafer. Mello and others at the company noticed that hip kids on Carnaby Street in London were snatching up vintage pairs, so the company re-released the shoe with the classic silhouette, in 15 colors of suede.
“The most exciting moment of my Gucci days was being in France one weekend and there, walking toward me on the beach, was Michael Kors wearing pink suede Gucci loafers that he’d just bought,” laughed Mello.
But after five years in Italy, it was once again time for a change. In 1994, Mello returned to Bergdorf Goodman as president, taking over for Burt Tansky, who had moved to Neiman Marcus. “When she left and went to Gucci, it was like I’d lost my fairy fashion godmother,” quipped Kors. “And when she came back, it was like that scene from ‘Hello Dolly.’”
Over the next few years she expanded the retail space, opening a men’s store and growing Bergdorf’s home goods department. Mello also continued to do what she loved most: finding and nurturing talent.
“She promoted me to SVP and GMM pretty soon after we started working together [at Bergdorf],” said Haupt. “We worked together for five years and it was truly a privilege and a pleasure. She’s a great mentor and partner.”
And Haupt isn’t alone. Many in the industry have benefited from her guidance, including George Malkemus, who, while working as a copywriter at Bergdorf, received some fateful advice. “She told me, you need to take a break and go over to Madison Avenue and meet someone at Manolo Blahnik. They’re having terrible financial troubles, and I think you should buy the company and turn it around,’” recalled Malkemus, who has been president of Manolo Blahnik USA for the past 28 years.
“What made her so successful has been her ability to spot talent,” said Ford. “Her gift is her ability to spot trends and designers.”
Since leaving Bergdorf Goodman in 1999, Mello has continued to wield that talent through her consulting firm and the Atelier Fund that she founded with Marty Wikstrom. “Dawn is a generous person. She’s a great teacher in a subtle way,” said Wikstrom. “She’s especially generous with young talent, and that’s probably why she’s been so influential in so many people’s careers.”