Photograph by Mark Hartman; Photography assistant: Nathan Bajar.
Gilles Mendel hasn’t slept in days, and he’s funneling green juice like a frat boy. “Things are crazy,” he says with a hopped-up giggle. “But crazy good!” Three months earlier, the designer (and his new investors) had decided that it was time for J. Mendel, his family’s 146-year-old furrier, to show its first couture collection in Paris. And while there was not much time to pull it all together, the company — which operates out of a sprawling atelier in New York’s Garment District, staffed with dozens of specially trained petites mains—was more than up to the challenge. “We’ve been doing made-to-order for years,” Mendel says the week before his show. “A couture collection isn’t entirely new for us—but it is important.” For inspiration, he drew from personal memories, like the walks he used to take with his father through Paris’s Bois de Boulogne. “I’d carve my name in the trees so we could find our way back,” he says, showing off a pair of thigh-high satin boots covered in beaded childlike scrawls. After Mendel moved to New York, in 1981, he be-friended Keith Haring, and for the collection he reinterpreted the artist’s iconic graffiti murals as beaded and Lurex-embroidered gowns. Many of the pieces have an undone quality—slashed and unbuttoned furs and dresses appear to be falling off the body. Yet to call the clothes “street” would undercut their supreme luxury and craftsmanship. Using a technique specially developed by the house, Mendel has coated sable, fox, and ermine in 14-karat gold, resulting in a series of resplendent looks. “This is my Madison Square Garden moment! To be able to go back to Paris after so many years and show these beautiful clothes… I wish my parents were here—my dad would be so proud.”
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