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2023-11-28 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine A Fashionable Ode to the Incomparable Dawn Mello

A Fashionable Ode to the Incomparable Dawn Mello

The marvelous Miss Mello
Photo by Christopher Payne/iStock Photo

Even before it opened its current Beaux-Arts location at 754 Fifth Avenue nearly a century ago, Bergdorf Goodman represented the standard of New York luxury retail. It was the store for the highest-quality clothes and accessories for the most discerning women and, eventually, men.

But by the mid-1970s, a few years after the founder’s son Andrew Goodman sold the store to the company that would eventually become Neiman Marcus, the Bergdorf Goodman image had become a bit stuffy and conservative, ripe for a modern shake-up. In 1975, CEO Ira Neimark made an inspired move that would ultimately elevate and sustain Bergdorf Goodman’s status as the apex of luxury fashion retail: he hired Dawn Mello.

Raised in Lynn, Massachusetts, Mello graduated from Boston’s Modern School of Fashion and Design in 1951. That same year, she started her career in New York as an assistant at B. Altman and Company, where she worked until she was hired as director of creative merchandising at the May Department Stores Company, eventually becoming vice president. Neimark brought her back to B. Altman for a year, before ultimately recruiting her as fashion director and vice president at Bergdorf Goodman.

BLONDE AMBITION Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Dawn Mello on the street in Manhattan in the ’80s
Photo by Tony Palmieri/WWD/Penske Media /Getty Images

Tasked with reviving the store and the Bergdorf brand, Mello (“Miss Mello,” as she was known to people in the industry) got to work right away. It was as if she’d opened the windows to let in some much-needed fresh air, which she did. There was a younger generation of fashion-forward shoppers who were drawn to new ideas, and Mello was paying attention.

“She was current. She had an uncanny eye. If she asked you to take a look at something, a new designer’s sketches or portfolio, that’s what you did,” remembered Joe Cicio, a longtime friend and former top retail executive.

Along with her proven powers of creating a more exciting and engaging retail experience, including the addition of escalators in the store, Mello demonstrated an uncanny eye for talent and a supernatural savvy for the current moment and where things were headed. In a 1994 interview at the Fashion Institute of Technology, she compared the store to a magazine and her role to an “editor-in-chief.” She believed that the success of Bergdorf Goodman relied on the creative people within it, asserting that her job was “to develop the talents of those people along the way… that’s pretty much it.” Mello thought of Bergdorf’s as “a sexy store, a store that’s hot… a store with a buzz… that’s full of surprises… the unexpected.” Because she reimagined it that way.

In John A. Tiffany’s 2019 book Dawn: The Career of the Legendary Fashion Retailer Dawn Mello (Pointed Leaf Press), Cicio recalled asking Neimark how the turnaround of Bergdorf Goodman was so successful. Neimark’s answer was, “I had Dawn Mello. She was the aesthetic conscience of our store that transcended every area, from merchandising to presentation.”

The “editor-in-chief ” not only invigorated the shopping experience, but also brought some of the most important and exciting European designers to Bergdorf ’s, like Fendi, Azzedine Alaïa, Gianfranco Ferré, Krizia, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, and Giorgio Armani.

Gianfranco Ferré showing his Fall ready-to-wear collection to Mello in 1982
Photo by Dustin Pittman/Penske Media/Getty Images

As for the American designers, it would be an understatement to say Mello launched and nurtured the careers of some of our best.

“If it weren’t for Dawn, I wouldn’t be Donna Karan,” said the designer who introduced her eponymous solo collection at Bergdorf Goodman in 1985. “Dawn was the person who helped give me the strength to start Donna Karan.”

Lela Rose asserted, “When I was starting out, Dawn Mello was the creative stamp of Bergdorf Goodman.”

Mello’s work also burnished and elevated the profile of more established American designers, like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

In Tiffany’s book Dawn, Ralph Lauren recalled, “Dawn Mello was one of those really important influencers in American retail. I knew her before she went to Bergdorf’s. But once she got there, she transformed it into the destination for the fashionable.”

“Dawn was crucial in pushing the envelope for luxury brands at Bergdorf Goodman,” Calvin Klein shared. “Dawn made Bergdorf Goodman an exciting place to shop and be. She revitalized its business model and paved the way for so many American designers.”

“In my generation, Dawn created Bergdorf Goodman,” said Karan.

Arguably the most famous designer discovered by Mello was Michael Kors. The story of how Mello found Michael is fashion industry legend. It was 1981, and Kors was working at Lothar’s, a high-end French sportswear brand right a cross the street from Bergdorf ’s. By then, Kors was also designing clothes for the store. He recently shared the story on the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz:

“I was physically in the [Lothar’s] window on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue. I think I had pins in my mouth and I was dressing a mannequin. And this very, very stylish woman walked into the store, and she said, ‘These clothes that are in the window… Who designs these clothes?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘I do.’ And she said, ‘But you’re doing the windows.’ And I said, ‘Well, I do the windows and I design the clothes and I’m on the selling floor.’ And she introduced herself and she said, ‘My name is Dawn Mello.’ And, at the time, I think she was the fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. ‘If you ever have a collection on your own, give me a call, I’d love to see it.’ And I literally went home that night and I started sketching my first collection.”

After pulling together a collection to show Mello, Kors called her and set up a meeting with her and a team of buyers at Bergdorf Goodman.

Mello and Michael Kors in 2019
Photo by Vikram Valluri/BFA

“I think I was literally at the third piece. And everyone in the room looked at me and said, ‘Could you leave the room for a minute?’ I thought, ‘Okay, this is over.’ So, I left the room and about two minutes later, Dawn Mello said, ‘We really think the clothes are terrific. And we think they’re perfect for Bergdorf Goodman. And we want to be the only store in New York to carry the collection for at least a year. And we’d like you to come back to us and tell us, is there anything you need from us.’ And I, of course, had no idea how I was gonna do any of this.”

After consulting with a veteran designer who knew how this worked, Kors called Mello and told her what he’d need. “She listened very carefully, and she said, ‘We’re good with all of that. If you stick with us, we’ll stick with you.’ Wow. And the next thing I knew, I had people sewing in my apartment on Seventh Avenue and 23rd Street.” Michael Kors was 21 years old.

In 1989, when Mello was president of Bergdorf Goodman, she was presented with the opportunity to reinvigorate another legacy label: Gucci. At the time, Gucci was a mess. Cheapened merchandise, too many items, too many stores, a plague of knockoffs, and a lack of a central, focused vision were crippling a cobwebbed brand. Over the next five years, Mello assembled a smart and capable team to right the ship and completely revitalize the iconic Italian house. True to form, she embraced a more contemporary and daring aesthetic that redefined not just Gucci but luxury fashion altogether.

“I think Dawn never got enough credit for being the person who completely reinvented Gucci,” stated Fern Mallis, former executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and creator of New York Fashion Week.

“Before Dawn, it was just a leather goods, luggage, and some expensive accessory company. She cleaned out all the knock-off, street-selling, tacky, Gucci-branded products, and she hired a designer that wasn’t very well-known: Tom Ford to create women’s ready-to-wear.”

Tom Ford started with women’s ready-to-wear, continued with men’s, then ended up taking the role of creative director at Gucci after Mello returned to New York to resume her role as president of Bergdorf Goodman in 1994.

“She was ahead of her time in so many ways,” said Ford in John Tiffany’s book. “She changed my life by hiring me at Gucci, and there are many designers working today who owe her a great debt.”

Garren, a famed hairstylist who’d known Mello for over four decades, first met her when he worked at the Suga salon at Bergdorf Goodman in the mid- 1970s. “She was really a businesswoman. So well-respected. She never talked down to people. She was never pompous. No one was beneath her,” he said.

Mello’s eye for talent wasn’t limited to just designers. John Barrett, who had worked for Frédéric Fekkai at Bergdorf ’s before Fekkai decamped to Chanel, was given the opportunity of a lifetime when Mello offered him an eponymous new salon on the store’s ninth floor — the former location of Andrew Goodman’s penthouse apartment. “Not only did she discover me, but she also made sure that my business was so well supported,” Barrett said. “She was wicked. I cut her hair once, and she said to me, ‘You’d better stay out of the way of Frédéric Fekkai.’”

Another star to rise from Mello’s discovery is Linda Fargo, the current fashion and creative director of Bergdorf Goodman. Fargo had this to say in Dawn:

“It’s a fact… I simply owe my career at Bergdorf ’s to Dawn. She took a cold call from a stranger, and invited me in, based on what? Her bankable instincts! Dawn embodied a kind of elegance and grace that only a woman could possess — that was utterly instructive for a young creative woman breaking out.”

Current Bergdorf Goodman fashion director Linda Fargo
Photo by Madison Voelkel/BFA

One of the many things that set Mello apart from more egocentric brand leaders was her utter disinterest in the spotlight. People often describe insider creatives by referring to them like “a musician’s musician,” “a photographer’s photographer,” or “a painter’s painter.” Mello was a creative director’s creative director. Outside of fashion insider circles, she wasn’t wildly famous. She wasn’t even mildly famous. Even the young Michael Kors, who was selling his own designs across the street from Bergdorf Goodman, didn’t know who she was. For Mello, it never seemed about attention or fame. It was about the work.

And in the wake of that work… the legacy.

“One of the great lessons I learned from Dawn is never to hire anyone you wouldn’t want to have dinner with,” Tom Ford recalls.

And among the many things she gave Michael Kors, he also remembers, “I think the greatest thing I learned from Dawn and her team, and the Bergdorf customers who expect the best, was to aim high. Don’t settle.”

Whether it was for Bergdorf Goodman or Gucci or B. Altman or the May Company, Mello didn’t settle. She built a legacy of seeking only the very best — the very best for the company and the very best for the company’s customers. That’s the legacy of a retail legend. That’s the legacy of Dawn Mello.

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