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Donna Karan reminisced recently about a morning in the early 1980s when she saw the first collection she had designed under her own label showcased in the windows of Bergdorf Goodman. She stood outside transfixed.
“I felt like Audrey Hepburn window gazing in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’” she recalled. “But I wouldn’t have been there, I wouldn’t be here now, if Dawn hadn’t been at my side.”
Dawn was Dawn Mello, the farseeing merchant who forged a career in the mid-1970s and ’80s, recasting Bergdorf Goodman, a once musty relic on Fifth Avenue, as a temple of high-end consumption, and who in the ’90s helped restore luster to Gucci and a cluster of fading brands.
A much revered figure whose keen eye, nurturing personality and regally understated aesthetic helped shift the landscape of American fashion and retailing, Ms. Mello died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.
To admirers she was a force field, one of few women to rise to leadership positions in retailing, wielding clout, first as Bergdorf’s vice president and fashion director, then as president. She was also among the first to snap up and promote designers including Ms. Karan, Giorgio Armani, Azzedine Alaïa, Kate Spade and Tom Ford at the start of their careers.
“To me that was it, to be the first kid on the block with a new talent or new idea,” Ms. Mello said in 2009.
Colleagues and friends ascribed her success to a combination of intuitiveness and judicious timing.
“To succeed in this field, you had to have pretty good instincts from a merchandising standpoint,” said Joe Cicio, a longtime friend and a former top executive at Macy’s and I. Magnin. “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.”
Robert Burke, who succeeded Ms. Mello at Bergdorf and is now a luxury retail consultant, summed up her influence: “She took a position,” he said. In the ’80s and early ’90s, “an effective fashion director had the idea, sourced it, manufactured it, figured out how to promote it, how to extend its life,” Mr. Burke said. “Then she or he figured out what to do with it, in case it didn’t work.”
Ms. Mello made the most of that role, influencing the look of the windows, floor displays and advertising. Another vital part of the job was to scour the marketplace for trends and talent that could create an exclusive image for the store.
There was a time in the early 1980s, she recalled, when she found herself sprinting across the street to a neighboring specialty store, and accosting a young window dresser.
“He was wearing a great-looking outfit,” Ms. Mello recalled, “so I said, ‘Gee, can you tell me who designed this?’” Impressed to learn that the young man had made it himself, she invited him to see her.
Days later, he arrived at her office with his mother in tow, and an armful of clothes. “We gave him a little space in the store and that was the beginning of Michael Kors,” Ms. Mello recalled.
“She plucked me from obscurity at a small boutique on 57th Street called Lothar’s and brought my collection to Bergdorf Goodman in 1981 to launch it,” Mr. Kors recalled. “She supported me and so many other new talents, throughout her career.”
Ms. Mello told French Vogue in 1986 that a career as a fashion designer had no appeal for her. “I wouldn’t have known which direction to take,” she said, adding, “I always wished to work in a store.”
She studied in Boston at the Modern School of Fashion Design, arrived in New York in the 1950s and modeled for a time. She served as an executive at the May Company in the late ’60s, and during the early ’70s, as director of fashion merchandising at the now defunct B. Altman department store. She worked alongside Ira Neimark, the store’s chief executive, who, after leaving Altman to assume the top position at Bergdorf in 1975, invited Ms. Mello to join him as fashion director.
“He told me, ‘We’ll build the store in your image,’ and he never went back on his word,” Ms. Mello told her biographer, John A. Tiffany, who charted her influence in “Dawn: The Career of the Legendary Fashion Retailer Dawn Mello.”
With her ashy blonde hair and imposing stature — she stood 6 feet tall — to some she embodied the style aspirations of the very customers she hoped to lure.
Ms. Mello’s softly polished appearance was reflected at Bergdorf, a redoubt of blonde-on-beige understatement from its designer shops to its elevators. Her own genteel look belied a tough core.
“In business, Dawn has always had to be a formidable presence due to her standing as one of the first and only females in executive leadership at the time,” said Martha Wikstrom, a financial executive who later became her partner in a luxury consulting firm.
Her hiring decisions as often as not were founded on a shrewd meld of instinct and personal affinity. “One of the great lessons I learned from Dawn,” Mr. Ford said, “is never to hire anyone you wouldn’t want to have dinner with.”
Born in Lynn, Mass., on Oct. 5, 1931, she was the daughter of Blanche (Raczlowski) Mello and Anthony Mello. Her father was a mechanic and her mother a homemaker.
In the early ’70s, she rose from buying officer to general merchandise manager and vice president at the May Department Store Company.
But Miss Mello, as she was deferentially known in the industry, rose to prominence when, with Mr. Neimark’s blessing, she transformed Bergdorf into a world-class luxury emporium, installing its first escalators, and adding sumptuous carpeting and an ambience that fused old-world touches with streamlined understatement. Hyper-attentive to image, she upgraded the store’s advertising campaigns, and worked to turn Bergdorf into an outpost for blue-chip designers.
In 1989, she joined Gucci, then a down-at-the-heels Italian leather goods house troubled by family scandals, counterfeiting, excessive licensing and distribution. As creative director, she moved the company headquarters to Florence and was swift to enlist Florentine artisans to revamp, tone down and upgrade the products, including the company’s signature bamboo-handle handbags and snaffle-bit loafer.
The next year she recruited Mr. Ford to update and glamorize the company’s ready-to-wear. “Dawn changed lives, and she certainly changed mine,” said Mr. Ford, a little-known designer at the time, who flourished under Ms. Mello’s tutelage, and went on to become the company’s creative director when she left in 1994 to return to Bergdorf as president.
In 1999 she left once more, eventually joining Ms. Wikstrom to form a consulting firm for luxury clients. Together they created Atelier Fund to invest in a new generation of emerging designers.
She leaves no immediate survivors.
Quietly aggressive throughout her career, Ms. Mello nonetheless preferred to operate behind the scenes. “Dawn has spent decades bringing other people’s stories to life, silently standing in the background while others took their bows,” Mr. Tiffany wrote. “The focus was always her work, never her own popularity.”
“She had always been shy, especially when it came to dealing with celebrities,” said Myra Hackel, Ms. Mello’s friend and administrative assistant of 30 years. Ms. Hackel recounted an instance when Sharon Stone arrived with her sister at Bergdorf to browse. Ms. Hackel pleaded with Ms. Mello, who was in her office, to descend to the sales floor to welcome Ms. Stone. Ms. Mello begged off. “You go down and greet her,” Ms. Hackel was told.
Her stringent aesthetic and sense of correctness never deserted her, friends recalled. “When she visited Barneys New York, she would always stop at the Mark Cross table,” said Martha Kramer, a former executive at Ungaro whose husband was president of Mark Cross at the time.
The merchandise, rifled by shoppers, was left in disarray. Ms. Mello wasn’t having it. She hovered over the table, intent on restoring a semblance of order and eye appeal. “Inevitably, some salesperson would approach to offer help,” Ms. Kramer recalled. “And Dawn would politely wave them away. ‘It’s fine, I’m just straightening,’ they were told.”
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