26 February, 2010

Fashion talk with Gilles Mendel of J. Mendel brand

Snowy New York City weather could not stop me from attending "Fashion Talks" series at the French Institute Alliance with one of the most creative, humble and entertaining designers, Gilles Mendel. He was the first designer in the series and is followed by Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs. The panel was moderated by always stylish Mary Alice Stephenson. She is one of the world's most sought-after Fashion and Style Expert, contributor to many fashion and business publications, stylist to top celebrities, national fashion ambassador for the Make a Wish Foundation, Free Arts NYC and currently named "Official Style Expert for the Academy Awards" by CNN. I had a privilige of seeing Mary Alice moderate panels before and she has a keen sense for asking the right questions and guide her guests to bring the best out of them. All that while looking stylish under the big screens featuring Gilles Mendel's designs worn by a number of a-list celebrities and models. In this case it was a personal conversation as much as a panel since they've been friends for the past 10 years.
After the audience had a choice of coffee drinks provided by Nespresso® we were settled in for a rare inside view on how a brand like J. Mendel started, people who influenced its direction and what it takes to make is a sustainable fashion success.   
Gilles started the brand's biography by expressing his love and admiration for his Russian jewish grandfather who created J. Mendel brand in early 1920's when he immigrated to Paris. He became a furrier to the world's elite and passed on his superior design and production skills to his son, Gilles' father. He was a renaissance man with an artistic nature who created everything by hand and wrote a book. Gilles' mom who, ironically never got to wear furs, had two little dogs and drove a mini Cooper car was brand's creative consultant. Before Gilles took over the business he tried few professions on his own. He tried to be a rock star and a business man before he finally became the head designer at J.Mendel alongside other family members and it resulted in this fifth-generation family owned fashion brand. Gilles made a decision to move to New York and when "fur" became a dirty word in the 1990's he opened his first boutique on Madison Avenue where he's deeply involved in his "jewel store" and creates all windows himself. Gilles started making dresses to put in the windows at night so his windows wouldn't get broken by "fur haters" and then socialites started coming in for dresses they saw in the windows. That was the beginning of J. Mendel RTW collection and recognition by Bergorf Goodman. Gilles credits his success by having the best people working with him and learning from them. 
His A-list celebrity following is organic and made J. Mendel an international name without paying actresses huge amounts of money and taking care of their entourage. 
Celebrities in J. Mendel left to right: Christina Applegate, Demi Moore, Cameron Diaz, Jane Krakowski, Kate Beckinsale
All of this makes it harder to compete with other brands and current economic climate. With Gilles' positive attitude this challenge resulted in brand expansion with various price points and a new customer base. His 17 year old daughter is in charge of brand's Facebook involvement and wears his dresses to look cool. Gilles also became aware that fashion presentations work best for him since his client can interact with clothes better and the fashion press raved about his latest Fall 2010 presentation. With brand's in-house production and stores on Madison Avenue, Manhasset, Chicago, London, Paris and Moscow along with numerous global retail locations the brand is still growing. Gilles' determination resonates from his appreciation for the hard work, artistry and survival of his jewish family during the war. He believes that he is on the top of his game, happier now then ever and is very excited about his new project, designing for the New York City Ballet. The only thing he wishes is for his parents to see it all now. 
On a personal note, i find Gilles to be a rare breed in the fashion world with his humility, positivity and respect for other people that is simply contagious. He seems to be one of those people who would make an entertaining dinner guest and cheer you up when you are down.  

••Due to technical difficulties the video sound is best when earphones are used. HD video is available.

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