Fashion editor Polly Mellen is perhaps best known for her supporting role in the Douglas Keeve documentary "Unzipped." In that 1995 film, designer Isaac Mizrahi gives Mellen a preview of his upcoming collection and Mellen responds with a dire warning to avoid too heavy an emphasis on frills and frippery. "Fussy: Finished!" she proclaims dramatically.
In the few moments that Mellen is on-screen, she embodies the cryptic nature of fashion, with its penchant for theatricality and its uncanny ability to reflect the cultural Zeitgeist. But what was missing from that brief glimpse of Mellen was the sense of precisely why she represents an element of the industry that is rare, beloved and rooted in a belief that fashion can be artful and commercial and, above all, daring.
After more than 30 years in the fashion business, most recently as creative director of Allure magazine, Mellen is going freelance, she says, in part because "I didn't want to be controlled any longer. I wanted to work with certain photographers I couldn't work with where I was. I wanted opportunities that were completely new."
At seventy-something, Mellen is looking for adventure. Her first projects include fashion shoots for Talk and W magazines.
Mellen's career in fashion began in 1949 or 1950--she can't remember which--as a sweater salesclerk for Lord & Taylor. "They moved me to the college shop and that was the closest I ever got to college," she says.
She moved from Lord & Taylor to Saks Fifth Avenue, to Mademoiselle magazine and on to Harper's Bazaar, where she met the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Those who knew Vreeland and were trained by her have been bestowed with a patina of eccentricity, creative bravery and indulgent daring. Vreeland was known for her adventurous photo shoots as well as her often indecipherable exclamations: "Pink is the navy blue of India!"
But Mellen recalls that Vreeland gave her readers more than expensive fashion spreads. "She was a very strong editor in chief and her vision was unique. She not only had training in fashion, and--this is something I know people are not aware of unless they knew her--fashion for Diana Vreeland was a lifestyle. It was not just clothes. It was clothes, food, people. It was the whole circle of lifestyle," Mellen says. In short, Vreeland was ahead of her time.
When Vreeland moved to Vogue, she brought along photographer Richard Avedon, who in turn recruited Mellen. Mellen spent 28 years at Vogue before leaving for Allure. When she announced that she was leaving this year--the November issue is her last--the industry responded with an extended homage.
Last week, Allure and Barneys New York gave a party for Mellen, who arrived in skintight Gucci leather pants. (Later in the week, dressed in a fitted white T-shirt and a pony-skin jean-style jacket from Fendi, she offered further proof that designers do create clothes for women of a certain age; they just don't realize it.) The specialty store adorned its Madison Avenue windows with photographs of Mellen by artists such as Arthur Elgort, Steven Klein and Helmut Newton, and examples of the dramatic proclamations for which she has become famous.
Mellen: "I'm working with a photographer who wants to start shooting at 4 a.m. What's the matter with everybody? Real men can shoot at high noon."
Mellen (as a model crosses her legs): "Watch closely, team. You're seeing history in the making."
Mellen: "How can I work at a magazine that can't show boobies?"
What makes Mellen more than a mere student of hyperbole is her devotion to her craft and her never-ending belief in young designers and their visions of the future.
"I'm not a history major. I really like today and tomorrow," Mellen says.
She is known for running her young assistants ragged with her boundless energy. "I think it's my job to show up [at presentations.] . . . There's so much talent out there and they're not getting listened to."
"I'm looking for something that's different. Who is the woman that the designer sees in this collection? What does he see for her? I look for changes, for androgyny, for femininity, for a new cut, pant, skirt, sensitivity.
"I put on blinders. I don't like people to talk to me during a show too much. I like to concentrate," she says. "If a show is just terrible, well, I'll start talking."
Her last shoot for Allure was with the photographer Mario Testino and is a celebration of Latino style. "It's all about Hispanics, salsa, dancing, hot, Cuba, hot, Jennifer Lopez. It's about young people wanting to learn new dancing and new body movement. We used hot new faces," Mellen says. "Mario understands sexy young girls and boys. We didn't do nudity. It was suggestive. Nudity is a cop-out to me today. It's because somebody doesn't have a second idea.
"I think the next wave is black people. I went to Birmingham, Alabama. I had a chance to go to a Birmingham museum. The dignity! The class! The music! I mean come on! They have the most style, the way a jazz musician tilts his hat or a worker on a railroad has sweat coming through his hat. The dignity! Wow!"
Mellen approaches culture, film, food with a ferocious enthusiasm that it all can become a prism through which fashion is viewed. She saw the film "American Beauty" and became entranced with the idea of communication between men and women and how much is conveyed through body language. She saw the painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights," by the 15th-century Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch, a vision of Hell and its tortured souls. It sent her reeling with thoughts of fashion, decadence and possible photo shoots.
She admires the iconoclasm of the designer Helmut Lang, was moved by the strength and focus of Donna Karan's spring 2000 signature collection and believes Tom Ford of Gucci is amazing. "He dares," she proclaims.
With four children, four grandchildren and her husband of 35 years, Henry, Mellen understands the importance of both memories and possibilities. And she brings that balance to fashion, allowing wisdom to inform her fantasies.