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Gilles Mendel on fashion, innovation, and tradition

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.

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.

OR: What do you think makes a great luxury brand?

Mendel: A great luxury brand is true to its tradition and history. Luxury to me is timeless. It’s something that is unique, that has the highest level of craftsmanship. We do fashion, but as a luxury house. Luxury is something that is special, that feels unique for you.

We live today, obviously, in a global world. The market is global, and luxury brands are also getting more and more global. I think that in this market, J. Mendel has a very unique niche because we are artisans. I think more and more that J. Mendel is not about a label, it’s not about a logo. It’s about the product. I think luxury gets appreciated when it’s about the product and not logo-oriented. I think that wealthy consumers today are looking for products that are special, that are unique, where you can see the workmanship in the garment, and you can also not automatically identify it with what your neighbor might be wearing.

Globally, the luxury market seems to go directly to those most special things. That’s why I think big houses today try to do things to measure. Everyone is trying to recreate a niche of uniqueness in a world of disposable fashion. Wealthy people want to spend money on something extraordinary, something that doesn’t look like what someone else can acquire. Our brand definitely caters to that customer. I think that a very exclusive clientele appreciates and understands our craftsmanship. They understand the quality; they understand the modernity of the product, but also its exclusivity. I think exclusivity becomes essential in this troubled market.

OR: What’s next for you and for the company?

Mendel: There are different categories that we want to develop further. Obviously, accessories are very important, especially bags. We are looking to further develop bags and leather goods, basically. There are natural affinities with J. Mendel. We want to develop home furnishings, for example. There is no more natural extension to the fur and the ready-to-wear sides of our business than to bring all those details and all that refinement and femininity to home furnishings, whether they’re fur blankets or pillows or upholstered furniture. All these things are part of our future. Outerwear is another idea. We started as a company that makes coats for the wintertime, so naturally we want to do more fur-lined coats, things for skiing and so on. This a project we’re working on. We want to bring perfume into the equation. That will come once we have reached a certain amount of distribution worldwide. We are getting there slowly, but we need a little time before moving to perfume.

OR: Are there people in the industry that you regard as real visionaries?

Mendel: In fashion, I would say that you have iconic designers like Karl Lagerfeld or Alexander McQueen.

OR: What was it like to work with Snoopy?

Mendel: I loved it. It was not that difficult: you have clear DNA and a clear picture of what the brand is about. Belle had to wear my little ethereal dress. It was fun. I love to play with cartoons, I love the challenge of bringing new ideas and a little piece of my experience to a world that is so different from mine. My best experience like that in the past was when I did two ballets for the New York City Ballet with Peter Martins. Working with dancers was extraordinary. It brought freshness to my eyes. I felt I was on vacation every day in the studio in the New York City Ballet atelier, because when you bring hand-pleated dresses to life on dancers — it’s heaven. It’s a lot of fun. I want to do more of those projects.