Matthew Mellon: Heir Conditioning

Rehab stints and legal troubles behind him, Matthew Mellon is getting back in business.

Culture » Matthew Mellon: Heir Conditioning

Matthew Mellon at home in Belgravia, London

Matthew Mellon: Heir Conditioning

Rehab stints and legal troubles behind him, Matthew Mellon is getting back in business.

This past spring in London’s Southwark Crown Court, as Matthew Mellon sat in the glass dock reserved for criminal defendants in British courtrooms, he reflected on his life’s journey so far. The 43-year-old American trust fund multimillionaire stood accused of conspiracy to electronically spy on his ex-wife, Jimmy Choo tycoon Tamara Mellon, during their divorce. Claiming no knowledge of any wrongdoing, Mellon had pleaded not guilty and was eventually cleared of the charge, but at the time he was feeling a little sorry for himself.

In 1998, after meeting Tamara Yeardye at a Narcotics Anonymous gathering, he fell in love with her and decided to settle in London, looking forward to a glamorous Anglo-American alliance. The couple was eager to build a future together, and their 2000 wedding reception at Blenheim Palace was an event befitting the union of a nouveau millionaire’s daughter and an American aristocrat. Indeed, Mellon’s pedigree is as gilded as they get in the States, what with the Mellon bankers and oilmen on his father’s side, and the even older and more distinguished Drexels and Biddles on his mother’s.

Mellon was on a path famously trod by so many rich, attractive Americans—Consuelo Vanderbilt, Jennie Churchill, Nancy Astor—seeking a good match in England. Of course, few of those stories had happy endings. And almost 10 years later, as Mellon sat brooding in the dock, he was worried his wasn’t going to have one either.

“I had an epiphany sitting in the glass box with the jury to my left,” Mellon recalls. “I’d had this fantasy of an American coming over to marry a British girl, and this is what it’s come to: a f—ing circus.” Mellon is nursing a bowl of miso soup at a Japanese restaurant in London’s Soho. The headquarters of his new fashion label, Degrees of Freedom, is nearby. “We were once this couple madly in love, and here we are in this. I didn’t know if I was going away for five years or if I was going to get the chance to be an available father to Minty,” says Mellon, referring to Araminta, his five-year-old daughter with Tamara. “It was quite surreal.”

The trial was the result of a Scotland Yard investigation of alleged computer hacking by the detective agency Mellon had hired during his divorce. In the end, it was Tamara’s court testimony, with its description of Matthew’s bumbling incompetence, that probably exonerated him and kept him out of jail. “Being married to Matthew was like having another child,” she told the court in her cool manner. “When I was married to him, I had to take responsibility for his bank accounts and bills. He is totally incapable.” She later pointed to Matthew’s inability to read a comic book, let alone a document detailing her computer keystrokes. Though he was cleared, two of his four codefendants—both employees of the agency—were convicted of conspiracy.

Mellon, whose smooth, matinee-idol features belie a self-deprecating and disarmingly silly sense of humor, has certainly had a wild ride since he touched down in London almost a decade ago. In addition to the trial, there was a dismal period when he slipped back into his old drug habits, endured a bitter divorce and had an affair with the eccentric fashion editor Isabella Blow. But now he’s back in action, with a new business, a savvy 24-year-old fiancée and an apparently vice-free lifestyle—although he admits he still can’t help but order the most expensive thing on the menu. He and Tamara are back on good terms too: Matthew refers to her as “a blood relative, a sister.”

It is a rainy autumn morning, and Mellon is turned out in a white shirt, Richard James suit and brown Converse All Stars with striped socks. He’s talking about the new fashion venture, which he’s launched with his fiancée, Noelle Reno, a former model and actress whom he first met at a party in Los Angeles. Degrees of Freedom is made up of slinky cashmere separates: hoodies, tank tops, shrugs and skinny, elastic-waist pants. The zipper tags are made of sterling silver. “Casual wear is going more and more luxury, and that’s one of the niches I’m trying to sell,” says Mellon, who is bankrolling the project himself.

“The whole inspiration is aristocratic rock ’n’ roll,” says Reno. “We really want to change people’s minds when they think of tracksuits.” The line, which launched this fall, sells at Harvey Nichols, Intermix and Fred Segal, among other stores. Next up for Mellon, whose title is founder and president, and Reno, the creative director, is a line of Degrees of Freedom accessories, including cuffs, rings and charms, and jewelry made with sapphires, diamonds and rubies. Separately, the two are also planning to manufacture accessories under license for a clutch of budding British fashion designers.

As a teenager, Mellon recalls, he had other aspirations: “I wanted to be a rock star, I wanted to be an actor, I wanted to model—and my family was against all of that.” A career in fashion was the next best thing. Mellon’s first venture, in 2002, was the luxury men’s shoe company Harry’s of London, named after his maternal grandfather, Harry Stokes, a well-known dandy. In 2006 he sold a 40 percent stake in the company to the Atelier Fund, for $3.5 million. Mellon struck on the Harry’s idea after accompanying his ex-wife to the Jimmy Choo factories in Italy and designing the label’s men’s shoes for a couple of seasons (that line was discontinued). “I owe everything to Tamara,” says Mellon, pointing to the experience he gleaned during those years.

Tamara, who launched Jimmy Choo in 1996 with capital from her father, acknowledges that her ex had plenty to learn, both professionally and personally. “Harry’s could have been a phenomenal success,” she says. “The problem was that Matthew wasn’t true to himself. He let other people lead him away from his original idea of using sneaker technology for smart shoes. He’s very, very good at coming up with concepts and ideas, although he’s quite ADD and needs a good team around him to execute those ideas. And he sometimes lacks a belief in himself.”

That has been an ongoing challenge for Mellon since his youth. For years he relied on drugs, money and alcohol to, in his own words, “stuff the pain and the anger” of an emotionally unstable past. Mellon’s father, Karl—a talented musician and fisherman—suffered from bipolar disorder (as does Matthew) and abandoned the family when Matthew was five. Matthew and his younger brother, Henry (who now lives in Paris with his wife and children), were raised by their mother, Anne, and stepfather, Reeve Bright, splitting their time between homes in Manhattan, Maine and Palm Beach. When the boys were teenagers, Karl came back into their lives to make amends. “He certainly made a wonderful attempt to capture the years that we lost; he was not only a father but a true friend,” says Matthew. But the reconciliation was short-lived: In 1983 Karl committed suicide just before Matthew’s high school graduation from Phelps, in Pennsylvania.

At 21, while he was still studying for a management degree at the University of Pennsylvania, Mellon inherited $25 million, the first of 13 trusts that were to come his way. The news was a shock to Mellon: His mother had always told the kids they weren’t from the rich side of the family. But it didn’t take Mellon long to adjust to his new lifestyle. For years—during college and afterward—life was “a blur,” he says. The kid who’d spent summers digging ditches and working at the Seafood Connection in Boca Raton, Florida, became a wired, free-spending, spoiled brat.

There were, of course, the inevitable postgrad jobs, including a stint on Rudolph Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign, during which Mellon would ferry Donna Hanover around town to stump for her then husband. “We went to Brooklyn. I had never even been to Brooklyn. Can you imagine me, a New Yorker, never being there?” he says. In 1993 Mellon moved to L.A. to work for the rap label Grindstone. “It was basically marketing, kind of a relaxed job,” he recalls. Evidently those years were less about work than about cavorting with Heidi Fleiss and her girls, nurturing a beloved stable of Ferraris and being the host with the most narcotics at his houses in Beverly Hills and Malibu. Life started looking like one long take from Boogie Nights. Soon it was time for a stint in rehab. In Los Angeles Mellon also met Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, whose family pile is Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire and who persuaded Mellon to spend some time in Britain.

After he married Tamara, Matthew seemed to be getting his act together—for a couple of years. But the bigger the Jimmy Choo business grew, the smaller he felt. “When your wife makes $100 million during the course of your marriage, it’s quite a shocker,” he says. “I felt like my masculinity had been stripped from me. I was no longer the big man in the relationship.” He goes on, “I feel like my balls are in a jar, like a Damien Hirst artwork on the mantelpiece. And here I am, ball-less.” A sense of isolation compounded the problem. “In California I had a support system; in England I had no support system. I was winging this on my own, basically.”

So Matthew started using drugs again, the relationship with Tamara foundered, and the two separated in 2004, two years after Minty was born. Their divorce, which began acrimoniously but ended amicably, became final in 2007. During their separation, Mellon consoled himself with Isabella Blow—an affair he has not talked about until now. Blow, who committed suicide earlier this year, was separated from her husband, Detmar, at the time. She and Mellon met at a birthday party for Daphne Guinness in February 2004. Despite their apparent differences—he, a polished American with a wild past; she, an eccentric Englishwoman with a penchant for wacky hats festooned with lobsters—the two hit it off immediately. Initially they bonded over Mellon’s red-checked Harry’s slippers. “We were inseparable from that moment until the end of May,” he says, adding that they remained “very, very close” after she reunited with Detmar, and that she was a huge supporter of Harry’s and Degrees of Freedom. Mellon says he visited her every day for the six months she was in the hospital after a failed suicide attempt in 2006. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. She definitely touched a piece of me that no other woman will,” he says.

By most friends’ accounts, Mellon’s new love, Reno, is just what he needs. “He’s got a great, strong partner in Noelle,” says Dent-Brocklehurst. “She understands him, she’s not frightened of him, and she’s not overly impressed by his last name.” Tamara says Minty likes spending time with Reno—and that’s good enough for her. Says Matthew: “I’ve been blessed to have gone out with some really talented women like Tory Burch”—his girlfriend from Penn—“and Tamara. I really feel Noelle is the next one to look out for. She really has the tenacity and intelligence to hold her own in any situation.”

In February Mellon proposed to Reno in a helicopter over the Eiffel Tower, placing a 7.5-carat Cartier diamond on her finger. Whatever the couple’s future together, however, those close to Mellon say he ultimately has to learn to find his own way. Tamara believes he’s on the right track. “One of Matthew’s problems was that there were never any consequences, and I think the past few years have been an awakening,” she says, citing the fact that he’s become a terrific father. “Finally, he’s got it; he’s willing to grow up.”

“The street signs are lining up in the right direction,” adds Dent-Brocklehurst. “It’s all up to Matthew now.”