By Jesse May Fisher
Polly Allen Mellen is someone you should be familiar with, her name speaks volumes in the fashion industry, her work, collaborations and general adoration and enthusiasm for fashion proves Mellen as one of the most influential and inspirational “fashionista’s” to date. She was born in West Hartford, Connecticut and worked as a nurses aid during the end of the second World War. She made her way to New York City where she worked as a sales assistant at a Store called Lord and Taylor, a friend from the store arranged a meeting for her with Diana Vreeland who was editor of Harper’s Bazarre at the time, she worked under Vreeland as an editor and stylist for many years at Harper’s Bazarre before moving to Vogue to work with Grace Mirabella and Vreeland again. From 1991-1999 Mellen worked as creative director at Allure magazine, however, her most influential years were with Vogue under the tutelage of Vreeland. Mellen arrived into the fashion industry in the late 1950’s when the fashion editor, however vital their contribution, never saw their own name attached to their work.
Katherine Hepburn was one of Mellen’s earliest influences, she was a cultural icon and acknowledged as an inspirational figure in peoples changing perception of women over the 20th century. Hepburn’s distinctive elegance and style greatly influenced the young Polly. However Mellens most obvious influence was her mentor Diana Vreeland, she was Vreelands protege, she taught her all that she knew “from Vreelands rib came Polly Mellen” states the phenomenal photographer Richard Avedon comically conveying their similarities regarding their style of work. Polly Mellen was a breath of fresh air to work with when you understood her wave length, she collaborated with photography genius's such as Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, Steven Miesel and famously Richard Avedon.
Mellen and Richard Avedon were life long partners in crime in the fashion industry, they conspired together to tune into the mod youthquake and futurism of the sixties, initially Avedon thought she was too “noisy” to work with but but had a change of heart when realised “she was one of the most creative sitting editors I have ever worked with”. Together they produced a spectacular array of amazing photographs including pictures of up and coming models such as their famous shot of nude actress in 1981 Natassja Kinski wearing nothing but an ivory Patricia Von Musulin bracelet and an elegantly wrapped boa constrictor.They had the ability to capture something different and innovative, their abundance of creative chemistry punches boldly through their work portraying elements of politics, culture and history. She concentrated, critiqued and encouraged Avedon; their work blossomed under the influence of each other.
Mellen was right on time to dominate the stylistic world of post war United States in the 1960’s and make it her own. With Avedon they photographed the sixteen-year-old Penelope Tree, Mellen states “Dick you have to see her she looks like something from outer space” when describing Tree’s wide eyed features. They shot her with out shoes in a paraphernalia pantsuit with exaggerated feathered eyelashes and then in an Ungaro couture dress with a graphically curving metal neck piece. It is arguably one of the most effective and greatest fashion images of all time. Mellen holds such admiration for Avedon stating “he gave me such a growth of vision, imagination and intellect”.
Mellen’s photographs belongs to an exceptional class of fashion documentation that reaches the quality of psycho-sexual-sociopolitical commentary. There is a definite taught intensity between the collaboration of a great fashion stylist and a great photographer. In the 1970’s Mellen and collaborating photographer Helmut Newton pushed the boundaries of sexual liberation to its limits.
The most eye catching and provocative photo shoots that Polly Mellen worked on was Helmut Newtons notorious “Story of Ohhh” it was one of the first depictions of photo-feminism sexuality from a woman’s point of view to enter American mainstream media. Mellen’s favourite shot is one of model Lisa Taylor sitting in a predominantly masculine position in a Calvin Klein dress; meeting the eye of the half dressed naked man, her expression is of frank desire. Mellen describes “The story for me was sex, heat, tease.” Mellen tries to pinpoint, at some level, a truth about the changing times, the vitality, sensuality and complexity of young women at the time.
These photographs radically radiate change and portray chic, shock and sex “I like to take things further. Too often stylists do things to please...you loose the magic this way...I was a stronger woman behind the camera than I was in real life” Mellen felt the most comfortable and in control when behind the camera directing fashion and art. With her signature grey bob and fearless capacity for modernity Mellen occupies a unique and well renowned name for herself in the fashion world, however for reasons of historical convention even her biggest admirers may not realise the great scope of work which she has had the invisible hand.
Polly Mellen is known for encouraging and promoting young designers in the fashion industry “she has never lost her enthusiasm in a field where everyone seems so faded” Isaac Mizrali an American TV presenter and fashion designer displays his affection and respect for Mellen.
According to Vera Wang “Polly has the most extraordinary ability to adapt to the future”. She also never stops searching for young fresh designers, she takes times to attend fashion shows at strange times in odd places like a warehouse or a boxing ring.
Mellen remains grounded and humorous still to this day, at fashion shows she doesn't hesitate to express her love for the collections, she cheers and waves her arms about, she is known as the industry cheerleader, quite the opposite to the oversized pair of sunglasses in the front row belonging to a certain editor of vogue.
Article written by Jesse May Fisher
Mood Board by Jesse May Fisher
This is an article I wrote as an assignment in college I then submitted it to We See It magazine and it was published yaaay!!....click here to see the magazine copy. Check out the We See It magazine on facebook too. Every second month there is some amazing photography, fashion and illustration.