Polly Mellen: A Force in Fashion
Polly Allen Mellen, a name synonymous with innovation and audacity in the fashion industry, is a true legend. Her remarkable career spanned over half a century, during which she collaborated with some of the world’s most renowned photographers, leaving an indelible mark on fashion history. Mellen’s work as a stylist and editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue redefined the way women perceived and wore clothing, ushering in a new era of femininity and freedom in fashion.
Born in 1924 into a privileged family, Mellen enjoyed a childhood that involved extensive travel. Her journey into the world of fashion began after serving as a nurse’s aide in a Virginia hospital during World War II. However, it was her move to New York City that marked the turning point in her life and introduced her to the legendary Diana Vreeland. With determination and unwavering enthusiasm, she seized this opportunity, a trait that would later define her approach to fashion shoots and front-row appearances worldwide.
Her breakthrough came in 1950 when Vreeland hired her as a fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Under the guidance of editor Carmel Snow and art director Alexey Brodovich, the magazine was at the forefront of cutting-edge fashion in America. Mellen’s introduction to Richard Avedon at Harper’s Bazaar marked the beginning of a successful partnership. Later, Vreeland brought both Mellen and Avedon to Vogue, where Mellen’s fervor for discovering new designers and talent fueled the magazine’s fashion coverage for more than three decades.
Polly Mellen’s career as a fashion editor and stylist extended for more than five decades, during which she worked with legendary photographers like Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, and Steven Meisel.
Mellen found a lifelong creative partner in Richard Avedon, despite his initial reluctance to work with her, thinking she was “too noisy.” Their collaboration resulted in a spectacular and diverse body of work, featuring emerging models like Penelope Tree, Patti Hansen, and Lauren Hutton. However, it’s their famous 1981 nude portrait of Nastassja Kinski, adorned with only an ivory Patricia von Musulin bracelet and draped by a boa constrictor, that remains an enduring testament to their creative chemistry.
Her editorial work helped redefine the modern ethos of clothing and how women embraced it. With an almost playful daring, Mellen’s work exuded strength, intelligence, and an unabashed celebration of feminine independence. Her collaborations with photographers, including Avedon, Newton, and Penn, showcased an artful element of provocation and extravagance that was quintessentially Mellen.
Serving as the fashion editor for notable fashion journals such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Mellen always kept busy. Her illustrious career continued well into the ’90s, and she served as creative director at Allure for eight years before her retirement in 2001.
Today, she enjoys a quieter life in South Kent, Connecticut, with her husband of 45 years, Henry Mellen. At the age of 99, she relishes her role as a mother to four grown children and a grandmother to her grandchildren.
Polly Mellen’s enduring passion for fashion is still evident as she occasionally attends select New York fashion shows, where she applauds in her distinctive style, hands in the air above her head. Her legacy in the fashion world remains a testament to her unwavering dedication to innovation and fearless creativity, making her a true fashion icon who shaped an era.
Featured Photo by Steven Meisel for Interview Magazine.