Making It Real

4 minute read
Michele Orecklin

“I was the only furrier who sold fur that didn’t keep you warm.â€

THERE IS AN APPROPRIATE SEASON to wear a fur coat and, as Gilles Mendel learned, an appropriate moment to open a fur-coat salon. Mendel chose the wrong moment. In 1870 in Paris, Mendel’s great-great-grandfather launched a line of furs prized by Russian aristocracy. But in 1995, when Mendel opened the first J. Mendel outpost in New York City, the fur industry was under siege from animal-rights activists, and women who donned a mink in midtown Manhattan risked being pelted with red paint. To protect the windows of his Madison Avenue store from being smashed overnight, Mendel took the fur coats off the mannequins and designed dresses to cover them until the store opened the next day.

Today the fur business has rebounded, and J. Mendel still sells minks that would make a Romanov swoon, but most people who stop by the store aren’t there for the coats. Spotted by nighttime window shoppers, the diversionary dresses soon became a main attraction, and in the late 1990s, Mendel began designing feminine skirts and pantsuits for day and drop-dead dresses for night, many trimmed with a fur collar or hem. In January 2004, he showed his first ready-to-wear collection in New York City. The show drew raves and marked the successful repositioning of the brand from one with a prestigious if slightly fusty reputation for swaddling Park Avenue matrons to one prized by celebrities who like to make an entrance. Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Simpson have been spotted in J. Mendel dresses; Teri Hatcher and Kyra Sedgwick wore them to the Emmys. J. Mendel has also become a staple of the young New York social set, the more stylishly daring though no less moneyed offspring of the company’s former mainstay clients. As Mendel explains the label’s exploding profile in the past two years: “I’ve gone from dressing the mothers to the daughters.â€

Generational succession is something Mendel, 46, observed growing up in Paris, where his father and grandfather worked in the family’s store on the Rue du Faubourg-St. Honoré. At first Mendel was reluctant to join them. “I wanted to come to it from my heart, not by necessity,†he says, but in 1981 he began apprenticing with his father. After eight months, he struck out on his own. “My dream was to open a beautiful store on Madison Avenue,†he says. His first stop in New York City was Fifth Avenue and the headquarters of the Elizabeth Arden salon, where he was hired as chief designer for the in-house fur boutique.

Away from the family atelier, Mendel experimented with fur in ways that defied the teachings of his father. “My father was like a diamond cutter,†he says. “He excelled at what he did, but it didn’t have any connection to the outside world.†Gilles created coats in which he sheared off all the hair so that they felt and looked like cashmere; he cut swaths of mink into pieces and sewed them back together in loose, fragile strips that offered neither bulk nor insulation. “I was the only furrier who sold fur that didn’t keep you warm,†he says.

In 1995 he opened the Madison Avenue store, taking over chief design duties for the label from his father, who still runs the Paris shop. The younger Mendel, however, wouldn’t mind if the company, still privately held, lost the family management by being bought by a fashion conglomerate. “I’d like to do accessories, bags, shoes,†he says. “I’d also have a more global reach. For that, I need additional backing.†His timing seems perfect.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at