From Russia with Love

An Interview with Gilles Mendel

Gilles Mendel combines forward design thinking with ultra-traditional techniques.

Courtesy J. Mendel. Gilles Mendel combines forward design thinking with ultra-traditional techniques.

Octavian Report: The House of Mendel has existed in various forms since 1870 — can you give us a bit of background on its origins and transformations?

Gilles Mendel: The House of Mendel was started in Saint Petersburg by my great-grandfather. Like my grandfather and like my father, he was an extraordinary artisan as a furrier. What was special about them is that they really had the skill to work the furs like no one else. They had a talent for innovation. That’s what brought them very quickly to the attention of the Romanovs, who hired them to do pieces for them. When my grandfather left Saint Petersburg and emigrated in the 1920s to France, to Paris, he came with this kind of skill. He really had something that no one else had. It was through his experience and through his skill that he was able to open a store in Paris and start to dress the elegant ladies of France.

I would say that the whole story of J. Mendel from the very beginning is all about craftsmanship. It’s all about these people who had a lot of pride in making their product, which was at the time fur. When my grandfather came to France, my father was his apprentice, and they had a store in Paris. They moved the store to different locations. The one that I knew when I was a kid was the one they had on the rue Saint-Honoré. The store was small-scale, like a beautiful little jewel store. It was not about, in those days, fashion so much as it was about innovation. The way they were working the fur was so unique. They kept their business small and very private. It was sort of a best-kept secret in Paris for a long time.

My father continued that tradition in that boutique. When I was a kid, obviously, I used to go and admire this extraordinary man. My dad was more than just a furrier, he was an artist — a painter, a writer, a poet. He was a very handsome man, like my grandfather. A little diamond ring on the pinky. But this man who was always dressed like a lord, you would look at him working on the table of his atelier, nailing skins or making a chinchilla coat, and it was like looking at an architecture plan. It was nearly like Le Nôtre redoing the gardens of Versailles. It was the aesthetic, the elegance of the way everything was stapled.
All those techniques passed from my great-grandfather to my grandfather to my father. They had those skills. They had this skill of understanding all those things and making those beautiful, flawless coats. I grew up living and looking in Paris. When I was a kid, in the summertime when it was very hot, my father used to throw me in his basket of sables. I would be sleeping in the vaults, the cold vaults, with sables around me to keep me warm.

OR: How and when did you know that you wanted to go into the family business, and what was it like bringing it from Europe to America?

Mendel: In Paris the environment was such that I couldn’t even conceive of bringing something else to the table. I never woke up in the morning and wanted to dress a doll. My parents never really pushed me in any way, hoping that I would continue the tradition.

But this is what happened. My mother was an extraordinary little lady, very beautiful. Not that she was buying couture, but she was always dressed amazingly well. She always had around her amazing designers, friends of hers. They all loved her: Jean-Charles de Castelbajac; Bernard Perris, who in those days was a big designer who opened a place in New York, and then he became head designer of Jean-Louis Scherrer in Paris. Anyway, I looked at her, and she used to always have innovative clothes, and she had an extraordinary, great style. She would take me with her in her little Mini. She would say, “Come; we’re going to see Bernard Perris, he’s making a dress for me. Why don’t you come?” I have this image still in my mind of going to his studio and looking at him drawing. He had an assistant coloring all his drawings. I suddenly felt this energy that I had never known, because I never came from that world. I came from a world that is specific, like the world of diamond cutters. We knew how to cut fur like the best diamond cutter knows how to cut diamonds. I never really imagined that I could also get involved in making the ring that goes around that diamond.

So how could I contribute to my parents’ world, already so perfect? I thought maybe one way was to export myself. Maybe I could reinvent myself. America was very appealing to me. I talked to my father. I said, “Listen, the only way I would want to work with you is if I can bring something to you. The first thing I can bring is design. Why don’t we work with other fashion designers, and collaborate with them to do something together?” He agreed. The winter I started to work with him, I designed; we collaborated with two people. One was Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, and the other was Bernard Perris. We did for both of them one collection, a fur collection. After that it took me just four months, basically, to move to America.

I knew I was not going to learn more in Paris, so I went to the United States on a two-week visa, believe it or not. Just to check, to look and to dream about maybe finding a store in New York. My idea was that I was going to design a collection, my dad would make the collection in Paris, and I would sell it in a store. The problem was Madison Avenue.