I had a friend in New York who invited me to stay with her. I had a book, my book of drawings. My friend said to me, “You should go to Bergdorf and go and see Dawn Mello,” who at the time was the head of Bergdorf Goodman. I went to see Dawn with my book, and Dawn looked at it and said, with a smile, “Very nice. I know your company in Paris, but you know, Gilles . . . .” She followed that up, eventually, by saying “Why don’t you go and see our head furrier, the manager of the fur salon on the second floor?” At the time, the salon was Fendi. I went downstairs and I met the young man who was running the salon. I don’t think he connected with me either, so I left sort of discouraged.
I was having lunch couple of days before I was due to head back to Paris. It was at a place called Trader’s. Trader’s was a restaurant, like a saloon, where the gefilte fish and the pastrami sandwiches were crossing the table. I say saloon because you had to push open two doors to get into the restaurant, which was on 30th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the fur market was. All the furriers would go there, all the industry would have lunch there. I’m sitting there with a broker — his name was Alvin Glickman — who was buying fur for my dad. I tell Alvin, “You know, I’m really sad. I’ve been doing this, and nothing. At the moment, I’m not prepared to ask my family to invest millions of dollars on Madison Avenue, and I don’t have any other alternative, so I think I’m going to have to go back to Paris.” Another gentleman passed by and Alvin introduced me to him. This other guy says, “But your store in Paris is beautiful. Maybe you should go and talk to Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue. They have on the second floor a place where they sell fashion, and I don’t think they are really happy with what they are doing.” After lunch I went uptown. I went to Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street. Got inside. On the second floor was a grand ballroom. It was amazing. The mannequins were in disarray, not even standing straight. They were carrying quite different designers, but it was really not a happy representation.
I look at the space: amazing, grand, right on Fifth Avenue. So I go back, I talk to the manager. I got to meet the president the same day. The president of Elizabeth Arden, in those days, was a gentleman called Joe Ronchetti. We spoke, and on a handshake I stayed 15 years at Arden with a contract for 20 percent on sales. That’s it.
At Arden I dressed everyone from the Kennedys to Maria Shriver to Nancy Reagan to Betsy Bloomingdale to Liza Minnelli — on and on and on. All these very extraordinary people would come. It was for me the most amazing way to open my experience to the American market, and to build a certain confidence. All these people really understood and appreciated my expertise and my designs and the workmanship, the quality that we were offering. It was during my time at Arden that I started to play with fur and to work on the techniques I’d seen my father use. Experience can be your worst enemy. My dad and my grandfather were extraordinary craftsmen, right? They knew how to work the product beautifully — but they were also limited by that. The material was worked without really considering new technology and the wants and needs of contemporary women. It was easier for me, not being next to the master, to challenge, to push the boundaries of what I had learned, what I knew was possible.
OR: What are the roles that tradition and innovation play in your work and how do you manage the tension between them?
Mendel: In my world of artisans and fur masters like my parents and my grandparents, they had so much knowledge, and they knew so much that they became blinded by all their experience. You start to function on automatic and very quickly you become very critical of anything that is not what you are used to.
When I came to America, my whole conviction was that fur should really be treated like fabric, and that fur should be light. Fur is a very unique product. It’s all about the touch; for me, it’s the most beautiful material that exists. There’s so many ways fur can be, and there’s so many materials available, so it depends really on the mood that you are in. Sable is an extraordinary material. It combines lightness and warmth, and it’s also extremely, extremely luxurious and silky. Chinchilla is a very unique material as well. It’s very light, but it’s very full.
Sable is a reminder of my background. The best sables in the world come from Russia, which is where my grandparents come from. It has this royal aspect. But today, even sable can be worked in ways that have nothing anymore to do with the way my dad used to work them. What is so special about J. Mendel, or at least what I do, is that I have built through time an extraordinary atelier of people, like my father had, and despite our drive to be innovative, to break the rules, everything is done with the same passion and the same know-how that I learned from my father.
That’s a big difference. Technology and the mass market have brought other ways of working this material down to a level that is not what I do. I keep exactly the same standards as my father, I’m as rigorous, and maybe even more at certain times to respect all the knowledge that I got from my family. What I learned from my father is that the making of a garment is even more important than the design itself.
Gilles Mendel is the award-winning creative director of J. Mendel.