BY HAL RUBENSTEIN
There is a volcanic explosion of fabric on too many runways these days; dresses boasting tsunami waves of ruffles, ballooning sleeves, endless trains, obliterated waists, and necklines ending just under the chin line. Gilles Mendel is having none of it. The Paris-born, fourth-generation designer (his great-grandfather was furrier to the royal house of the Romanovs in Russia), prefers to swath women’s frames in sinuous, diaphanous, intricately pleated, draped and gracefully detailed gowns and dresses that make them appear as if they’re being carried by the wind. It is hardly surprising that such diverse stars as Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson, Claire Danes, Celine Dion and Heidi Klum look like eager fools for love when wearing J. Mendel’s romantic creations (the “J.” is in honor of his father, Jacques). Mendel has labeled his clothes “modern heirlooms”. When you see these pictures, you may want to start a collection of keepsakes.
HR: In a world that is becoming more casual you are steadfastly in favor of elegance. Why does elegance remain so important to you?
GM: I strive for these qualities because these are the principles that I learned from my father and the talented artisans who worked for him. They had such a high regard for their craft and for women. But don’t think you can’t be elegant and casual at the same time because you can achieve both when you design clothes that are not only beautiful but comfortable and versatile.
HR: Your family’s atelier established its heritage in the fur industry. How did that skill influence your ready-to-wear collections?
GM: The atelier earned a reputation for unexpected lightness and modernity in their furs and I have applied the same techniques onto fabric. Women don’t want clothes that weigh them down or hamper their movement. But more important to me was the way a garment was finished with equal quality both inside and out. No matter where you look, you see the hand of a craftsman. That’s the key to all luxury, whether you’re choosing a dress, a bag or a ring. No matter how you look and how you turn it, you see the same impeccable quality in the workmanship. Women today understand and appreciate such high standards.
At the heart of true beauty is self-confidence. That has never changed. - Gilles Mendel
HR: How has your eye for beauty changed since you first launched your collection in 2003?
GM: I would say my aesthetic is the same, but over time I’ve gotten a better understanding of my customer and what she needs from her clothes to make her feel more desirable and that’s important because at the heart of true beauty is self-confidence. That has never changed.
HR: And what do they want?
GM: Women want to feel sensual but protected. They want to look feminine but not fragile. They love clothes that are light and ethereal but if they aren’t well-constructed, she won’t feel comfortable wearing them.
HR: Other designers today have gone crazy for volume. You have stayed away from it.
GM: I stay on my course. All that volume is great for editorial and advertising, but a woman wants to express herself with her clothes, not get lost in them. My customers are health conscious and take care of their bodies so why would they want to hide them? Also, in this era of sustainability, all that extra fabric seems a bit of a waste.
HR: Your clothes are often standouts on the red carpet. What defines their appeal?
GM: Certain rules of attraction don’t change. Women will always love clothes that make them appear slim and elongate the body. I offer a silhouette that shows who is inside. Today’s woman isn’t afraid. She wants to enjoy the experience of being noticed. And a woman can show off her waist – which I think is essential - whether she is a size 2 or 12 if you create clothes that strategically graze the body. I consider my clothes timeless with a twist. I like to think I am creating modern heirlooms.
Jewelry is strategic to any wardrobe. Since anything that sparkles attracts the eye, it can be important for highlighting specific features of both the dress and the wearer. Just like how Gabriel’s Fine Jewelry pairs magnificently with my dresses. - Gilles Mendel
HR: Since you claim they are timeless, is there something in the past, an era, a movie, a designer that you regard as a seminal inspiration?
GM: I am always intrigued by art and painting, and my girlfriend gets dressed everyday with such care and delight she certainly can qualify as my muse. But when I was young, I just adored watching the fantasy of dance as romance that swirled around Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. That era was magical and so glamorous.
HR: What does a sophisticated woman owe herself when she goes shopping for something special to wear?
GM: She has to have a good time and not be afraid to explore new territories. She should not see it as a chore but a celebration of herself and search until she finds that happy moment.
HR: What is she looking for that sets her apart from prior generations?
GM: Beauty is still beauty. I don’t think the overall concept has changed that much, except today we are aware of beauty on a more global scale, which has made women more accepting of their own individuality. Now they make their own decisions, have their own point of view, and do not need, or even ask, approval from their partner.
HR: Do you think of accessories when you are designing? How essential is jewelry in finishing a look?
GM: Jewelry is strategic to any wardrobe. Since anything that sparkles attracts the eye, it can be important for highlighting specific features of both the dress and the wearer. Just like how Gabriel’s Fine Jewelry pairs magnificently with my dresses.
HR: Do you like costume jewelry? Geometric pieces? Vintage? Show stoppers?
GM: I love diamonds and pearls because they’re always special and always timeless. I especially like when jewelry has an emotional connection to someone special and isn’t worn simply because it’s on trend. You can always tell when jewelry carries a history. It almost shines brighter. When I think of my mother, I always remember a black onyx and diamond ring from the 20’s that she never took off. But it is also important to remember that we wear clothes day and night, so it’s foolish for anyone to buy a piece they love and then wait for a special occasion to wear it. Dressing is a celebration of yourself. We should always look our best, since it is part of being positive, which is so important to one’s well-being. So, buy that great piece of jewelry and wear it with a beautiful dress or suit or wear it with nothing.