Regarded as the most luxurious material of them all, fur's move to fashion's center stage is revealed by one of its architects, J. Mendel's CEO and designer Gilles Mendel.
As the biggest fur-buying month approaches, Gilles Mendel explains how a European furrier became the toast of the New York fashion world and how his company is making even the most jaded mink modern.
Heading up J. Mendel as the fifth generation of a family of furriers, Gilles Mendel is at the forefront of repositioning fur as part of the fashion sphere. His nose for necessary change saw him, at an early age, sense that the future of the fur industry lay in fusing it with strong, capable design, and he convinced his father Jacques to work with important French fashion designers of the time. In 1982, the young Gilles went to New York from his native Paris to sell the collection to stores, and when this resulted in his opening a space in the Elizabeth Arden Fifth Avenue salon, he sensed the potential of the US market, and the company, which had its roots in Russia, crossed the Atlantic.
Since then, J. Mendel has been instrumental in pioneering the return of fur to widespread popularity by modernizing it, utilizing technology to make furs lighter and more malleable, in contemporary, youthful shapes that pick up on the trends in the air. In other words: making fur as fashion. But Gilles Mendel has gone beyond fur to delve deeper into the fashion vein. In 2003, he looked into his crystal ball again and developed the brand further by introducing a non-fur collection, too. His goddess gowns of smoky chiffon and perfect tailoring for daywear, all melding a particularly Manhattan idea of sportswear with a Parisian attention to detail worthy of couture (and a lot of these clothes are produced in a couture manner), have proved an instant hit, not only with the society crowd, but with a clique of women around the world who yearn for and appreciate quality of the highest level. Shown on the runway during New York Fashion Week since the fall 2004 season, J. Mendel has implanted itself as one of the must-see shows at the twice-yearly event, with the clothes regularly finding their way onto the most important red carpets and into the most powerful fashion magazines.
For the fur industry, July and August – particularly August – are ironically the most important selling months of the year. When everyone else is stretched out on the beach, a certain number of women are on the move, traveling the globe, going from Russia and the Middle East to Europe and the US, taking trips from the Côte d'Azur to Paris and from the Hamptons to New York, where the stores will already have taken delivery of their most important fur apparel for fall. Technology has made fur into a fabric, capable of being worn year-round, but some clients have old coats they maybe don't want to wear but don't entirely want to get rid of either.
Thus J. Mendel introduced Atelier de la Métamorphose, a service that allows people to bring in old coats, which the furrier's able technicians can then rework, sometimes entirely, and repair and remodel the skins into a new and more modern garment. The concept is not only on par with the movement towards making the fashion industry more environmentally responsible, but, importantly, is also giving a second life to what, for many people, is one of the great classic luxury purchases. And as Gilles Mendel says, "This is couture that costs less than ready-to-wear."
Here we speak to him about the growth of J. Mendel, the state of the fur industry, his favorite women, and his favorite things to do in his adopted hometown.
What is your definition of luxury?
A fantasy to hold, to have, and to share.
If luxury were an....
A Ming vase, a Picasso painting, an amazing pair of cashmere socks! Basically, to me, luxury is the best of the best.
The moment you fall in love... when you believe everything is possible!
A perfect day at the beach.
How do you manage to keep the J. Mendel brand modern while preserving its artisanal fur tradition? What sort of technologies has the company embraced?
We are constantly searching for new techniques to use in working our furs. We are also always breaking the rules for how people conceive the idea of fur; for instance, mixing it with a fabric, and shearing all the hair off.
What makes New York, and not the Paris you left, the place to bring a brand like J. Mendel to a global level of success?
Well, originally I left Paris for New York to set myself apart from my father, who had always been based in Paris. I always found New York to be a fast-paced, thrilling place, and I came here to make my own name, to set myself apart from my family. Now it seems that the world is shrinking. I feel that it has become a global and virtual society – and it no longer matters where your base is.
Why did you feel it was necessary to launch a clothing line on the back of a prestigious fur house? Has the result met your expectations?
It was something my customers were always asking for, as I would always make dresses for my models to wear at night – and in the morning the fabulous Madison Avenue ladies would come in and want to purchase them. Adding ready-to-wear has really helped build a new identity for the J. Mendel brand.
As a child, did you ever think that you might take a different path and not follow the family tradition of furriers? What would it be?
Well, when I was younger, I was at university and I was a commodities broker for a short period of time. Before that, I wanted to be a rock star and a photographer!
What is your favorite type of fur?
I love them all! Fur is one of the most luxurious fabrics in the world.
What is the most luxurious outfit you have ever created?
Well, once we made sheared mink jeans, believing they were the most expensive jeans in the world! Of course, we make many couture evening dresses that are made completely by hand.
Do you have a muse, or at least an imaginary woman who inspires your work?
My customer really inspires me. She is a beautiful, sophisticated, intelligent woman. We add other influences each season, and they usually come from a feeling or an idea inspired by the fabric
Describe the style of the chic New York woman in terms of fur and in general. Does this make New York a unique or ideal environment for fur as a fashion item?
I don't separate fur from the other items that I design. They are all for the same modern woman and she wears them as her life dictates. Many of my customers are socially aware and spend a lot of time raising money for good causes. They are out several nights a week and they have a need for many evening dresses.
Along with unofficial house face Dr. Lisa Airan, many famous women wear J. Mendel for public events. In your opinion, who best represents the J. Mendel spirit?
This house has no one official or unofficial face, although Lisa has been an amazing friend and wonderful client for years. I am incredibly lucky to have many friends that enjoy wearing and buying my clothes. They are all so beautiful I couldn't possibly choose one favorite!
The Maison J. Mendel was founded by Joseph Breitman to meet the needs of an aristocratic Russian clientele. However, due to crucial historical changes, the house had to switch to other markets. Have you ever been thinking of the "grand retour" to new Russia?
Last year, we began selling in Aizel in Moscow, and we did so well there that this year we will be opening a new boutique there.
The world luxury consumption pole has been shifting to Asia and the Middle East. How is J. Mendel reacting to this sea-change?
We have just entered these markets. We are now selling in Dubai and in Turkey. We are also in Hong Kong and Korea. Of course, all of these markets are interesting, and I see this just as a beginning.
What are your notable upcoming store openings or store-in-store launches?
We are expanding every season and have events at all of our boutiques throughout the year. We are opening a new store in Moscow next year that I'm very excited about.
How did the idea of the Atelier de la Métamorphose start?
Actually, the idea started in New York and became very successful right away. Recycling an old or little-used luxury item into a new luxury item is a wonderfully irresistible concept, and an incredibly modern one.
Other than in a strictly financial sense, what's the interest for you in reworking and repairing fur coats that come from other houses?
Really, this is a service we are able to provide to our clients, and it is also one of the most creative forms of design. Making so many clients happy is a great reward.
What sort of end result can someone who brings in an old mink or silver fox coat expect when they come to get the finished item?
They can have a brand new garment in a current style for a fraction of the cost. This is couture that costs less than ready-to-wear! Very few fittings are required; one or two is the norm.
Are there limits to what can in reality be done with an old fur garment without having to resort to remaking it completely?
Yes, of course, that is why you come to us. We are experts, we will give you very realistic advice, and if it can't work out, we are honest and will tell you!
What's a perfect weekend in the life of Gilles Mendel?
Spending time with my children, eating a great meal, and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
What are your top five restaurants/bars/clubs in New York?
The Four Seasons for the duck, The Gramercy Park Hotel, La Goulue, The Lever House, Pho 32 for Korean food.
Where do you shop for yourself?
I wear suits custom-made for me by my friend Thom Browne.
What are your favorite cultural activities and institutions?
The Met, which I support. Also the Whitney and the Neue Galerie Gala.
What's your favorite bookstore?
Rizzoli - they have everything in every language, and a great music section.
Someone on a short visit to New York shouldn't miss... what?
Shopping, eating, the museums – and of course, Central Park!
Describe your own style.
Classic and easy. I have dressed the same way since my early 20's