In her ongoing Fashion Icons series at New York’s 92Y, Fern Mallis interviewed the icon to end all icons: Polly Allen Mellen.
While most folks outside of the fashion world might not have heard of her, Polly Mellen is a legend in the industry. The stylist responsible for some of fashion’s most indelible 20th-century images – Twiggy’s flower-power Vogue covers, Nastassja Kinski and the snake, Lisa Taylor in The Story of Ohhh…., Deborah Turbeville’s bathhouse shots – Polly started her career as a salesgirl and display designer at Lord & Taylor before going on to work as a sittings editor at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Allure.
She retired in 2001, after winning the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award, to spend time with her beloved family, but is enjoying a mini comeback thanks to her inclusion in the new book, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, and her appearance in the accompanying HBO documentary of the same name, in which she stars alongside Vogue fashion editors Babs Simpson, Tonne Goodman, and Grace Coddington.
On Wednesday night, the 88-year-old spitfire (who still skis, swims, hikes, gardens, and does Pilates every day) took to the stage in her trademark silver bob, black turtleneck, and sparkly Vera Wang trousers to talk about her days at Miss Porter’s School alongside classmates Gloria Vanderbilt and Jacqueline Bouvier, her reputation as a demanding boss (both Vera Wang and Joe Zee got their starts as Polly’s assistant), and her storied 60-year career working with Diana Vreeland and such legendary photographers as Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, Arthur Elgort, and Bruce Weber. Here are the highlights.
On taking chances in life and work:
“If you don’t dare you will stay in the mainstream. You don’t want to stay in the mainstream.”
On visiting Diana Vreeland’s office with her two young children:
“I went to see Mrs. Vreeland with my two children and she said, ‘Now, Polly, I’ve seen you. Now I want to be with your children. You go do something.’ So the door was closed, the two children were in there, and I was thinking, ‘They are never going to forgive me.’ When I was called back into her office, Baker had on her earrings, Leslie had on a couple of her gold chains, they were laughing and having a ball. The only trouble was Mrs. Vreeland would send me two beautiful little dresses every Christmas. She had forgotten that Baker was a boy.”
On working in the College Shop at Lord & Taylor after being a WWII nurse’s aid:
“I couldn’t get into college; I was a terrible student. That was the closest I ever got to college.”
On the best career advice she’s ever received:
[From Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow]: “Go see every designer everywhere. You never know where the next talent is coming from. Open your eyes, have a little humility, and let go of ego.”
On shooting in Japan with Richard Avedon and Veruschka for five weeks in 1966 (the most expensive fashion feature ever produced):
“I came back more Japanese than the Japanese. It was extraordinary and really affected me.”
On current creative directors, photographers, and designers she thinks are talented:
“I have great respect for Fabien Baron. Mert & Marcus are terrific. Steven Miesel. Nicolas Ghesquiere is something. Michael Kors is a great American designer. Marc Jacobs. Ralph Lauren. Zac Posen. And the guy who just replaced Nicolas at Balenciaga: Alexander Wang.”
On hiring an assistant:
“Arthur [Elgort] said to me, ‘Polly, when you’re interviewing someone, drop something. If you pick it up faster than they do, they’re not for you.'”
On the famous 1981 Nastassja Kinski shoot:
“We did some pictures that were interesting, not great. I went to her dressing room and asked if she had any favorite pets. She said, ‘Yes, I love snakes.’ I asked her if she would want to do a picture with a snake and she said that would really interest her. I ran down and got Dick [Avedon], and we called an animal trainer who brought the snake. She held it and I could tell she was really fascinated and turned on by it. Dick asked her if she would lie down and be nude with the snake. The snake wound up her body very slowly. Nobody was telling it what to do. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. When the snake got to her ear, he put out his tongue and kissed her. Then the shoot was over and I was crying. It was amazing.”
On overcoming doubt:
“I am not sure that I believe in doubt, because if you’re learning and curious something else takes over and doubt can be erased. I think doubt is a negative feeling and I don’t think I am a negative person. There is no need to feel negative. It is much better to feel rosy, to look forward. That’s what I do.”
On being a judge on Project Runway:
“I love that show – I watch it with my granddaughter. Let’s make it happen!”
On her reputation in the industry:
“I was the spoiled brat of the fashion world. I knew it, I know it, and I loved it.”
Lauren David Peden writes for Rue La La as a Contributing Editor.