Today, fashion designers Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani, Calvin Klein, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Christian Lacroix are household names. But when they were starting out, it was Dawn Mello, then fashion director and president of NYC luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman, who saw their talent and gave each their big break.
Mello, who grew up in Lynn and graduated from English High School in 1948, is the subject of the new, lavishly illustrated hardcover book “Dawn: The Career of the Legendary Fashion Retailer Dawn Mello” by John A. Tiffany.
The first chapter details her days in Lynn, with splendid old photos of her childhood home at 38 Coolidge Road; her parents Blanche and Anthony; riding bicycles with best friend Betty Kramer and the two modeling matching floral print dresses they made themselves. A page from the Red and Gray high school yearbook shows her headshot and the inscription “Vivacious Dawn-e is known for her sharp sweaters. She has served on Prom committees and as a member of the Art and Camera clubs.”
Mello remembers “a perfect childhood, just the three of them in the pretty little house in Lynn.”
“Miss Mello loves Lynn. She said her childhood was ideal, a lot of fun, and really wonderful,” said Tiffany. “When we were working on the book, she drew a little map of her street and the street up the hill where her friend lived. She loved her life growing up in Lynn. Her mom died in the early ’90s, but before that she went back to visit often.” Tiffany said he drove past Mello’s childhood home to get a feel for the city while he was writing the book, published by Pointed Leaf Press.
Mello attended the Modern School of Fashion and Design, then on Boylston Street in Boston, and the book includes a copy of a letter from the school bearing news she had been awarded a full ($400) scholarship. Mello’s graduation ceremony was in Boston City Hospital, with her head in traction due to a broken neck, after she and five classmates were in a car accident while driving past the Boston Common. In 2006, Mello received a Lifetime Achievement Award from her alma mater, which is now on Newbury Street and named the School of Fashion Design.
“Dawn Mello is one of our most esteemed alumni, and we’re delighted to see Mr. Tiffany’s book,” said Michelle Simpson, executive director. “The School of Fashion Design has an 85-year history of turning out talented professionals in all walks of the fashion industry, and remains the only institution in New England dedicated exclusively to the hands-on study of fashion design. While we continue to provide students with the expert technical proficiency for which we’re most well-known, we’re also looking ahead to exciting developments in areas of sustainability and technology to be sure our graduates are equipped with the most relevant skills for the future of fashion.”
Tiffany said Mello adored Boston, but realized opportunities were greater in New York, where she first made her mark as a fashion model.
But it was at Bergdorf Goodman where she really hit her stride. And Tiffany chronicles her rise in delightfully entertaining fashion. In 1975, Mello was hired as fashion director and vice president by CEO Ira Neimark (he passed away last month) and tasked to turn around the floundering store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and remake it in her image. Mello was the gatekeeper who decided which designers would get coveted space on Bergdorf’s sales floor and in its windows.
Mello’s blockbuster designer fashion shows at Bergdorf’s are legendary.
She spent $250,000 on Jean Paul Gaultier’s elaborate show, his first in the U.S., no doubt sending budget-conscious Neimark into apoplexy. The publicity Bergdorf’s received was worth 10 times that.
Mello left Bergdorf in the late ’80s, moving to Italy to work for Gucci, and was responsible for repositioning the Gucci image as a luxury brand. She made “Gucci” a household word. In 1994, Mello rejoined Bergdorf Goodman as president. In 2001, Mello was the first recipient of the Eleanor Lambert Award, named for the legendary art and fashion authority, by the Council of Fashion Designers for her contribution to the culture of American fashion.
Tiffany, a California native, had met Mello several times, mostly at events and private fashion shows he organized when he was an assistant to Lambert, the subject of his first book. Tiffany said he enjoys shining the spotlight on those, like Mello and Lambert, who are generally unknown by those outside of the fashion industry.
“Miss Mello wondered whether there was a story there. She told me, ‘I don’t even understand why you’re doing this book.’ The truth is, Dawn Mello transformed retail, transformed fashion and transformed New York. She made Bergdorf Goodman the premier store … If you were a designer and she attended your show, it was a make-or-break situation. If she came and said she loved you, you were in (Bergdorf’s) and that made your career.”
How did Tiffany get involved? It started with a recommendation from a friend and a phone call to Myra Hackel, Mello’s assistant for 28 years, who said “I have a box of news clippings, It seems a shame to me that all of these wonderful photos are in a box.” So the biographer agreed to meet Mello in her penthouse apartment overlooking the 59th Street Bridge on the affluent Upper East Side. He was charmed by Mello and Lola the cat, and it was agreed that Tiffany would write the book and focus only on Mello’s professional life.
“Dawn has spent decades bringing other people’s stories to life, silently standing in the background while others took their bows,” Tiffany writes in the book. “She identified talent, pursued designers, promoted their work, and made them and their work inseparable from their time. She was a mother to many designers, whom she nurtured and encouraged.”
Tiffany interviewed all the top designers, and most credit Mello for their careers.
Tom Ford, who wrote the book’s foreword, was hired by Mello and brought to Milan to design Gucci’s women’s collection. He called Mello a “visionary. She was so ahead of her time in so many ways … She changed my life by hiring me at Gucci, and there are many designers working today who owe her a great debt. But more important, Dawn is a kind and caring person and a loyal and dear friend. I love and adore her.”
Michael Kors was discovered by Mello, who spied him dressing a window across the street from Bergdorf’s. The book includes a funny story of the pair’s first meeting.
Donna Karan said “If it weren’t for Dawn, I wouldn’t be Donna Karan. With all my fears of leaving Anne Klein, Dawn was the person who helped give me strength to start Donna Karan.”
Mello, vivacious still at 87, is enjoying retired life. Tiffany said she has several newspapers delivered daily and is often seen taking walks around her neighborhood and meeting friends for lunch and dinner.