Why So Quiet Gilles Mendel?

DespIte having dressed celebrities and first ladies, Gilles Mendel has always preferred to be one of New York’s less conspicuous fashion designers.

In step with that under-the-radar reputation, he quietly started focusing on custom designs before last May’s Met Gala. Earlier in the year, speaking with his daughter Chloe about the Greek goddess-inspired wedding gown he would design for her — as well as his striking ensemble for her husband and Smashing Pumpkins’ lead singer Billy Corgan — made Mendel realize how much he enjoyed the craftsmanship of such endeavors and made him get more organized about providing that kind of service.

He takes design seriously, having been a Cooper Hewitt National Design Prize winner and a visiting designer of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. As a test run, he designed Met Gala gowns for Jennifer Soros and Lisa Airan, and quickly enjoyed being able to do exceptional pieces with sophisticated craftsmanship and embroidery. That solidified the idea for House of Gilles, which, true to form, the designer has not publicized, aside from a new site and contact information for House of Gilles Instagram.

That was all several clients needed.

“I am trying to stay very low-key and extremely private at the moment. Believe it or not, I have been very busy,” he said, laughing. “My goal is to create a capsule collection that I will show or present early next year.”

Lisa Airan

Lisa Airan

Image Courtesy House of Gilles

During the second half of this year, Mendel has created seven or eight gowns, with each creation taking two to three months. “I feel very strongly that today there is not really that [level of] service in America. I feel like I am a hidden gem.”

Creating a personalized experience with the client that includes collaboration and conversations about experiences was an objective. While studio visits are welcome, the designer also meets with clients in their hotels or homes. Residential meetings can be more productive because clients can show Mendel “some objects, the world they live in and what they are looking for,” he said. Most clients prefer to first communicate via email and calls before meeting.

He continues to sketch but also has been playing around with AI. In fact, his two Met Gala gowns were inspired by AI designs that he had created before any sketching was done. “They were each completely inspired by an AI image. Today, when I work with clients, I sketch but I also play with AI. I can use their images to basically sketch on their images so that they can see in 3D the dresses that I can design for them. That has made a big, big difference for them. I manipulate the images myself, which has been very efficient and successful so far.”

Accustomed to often sending many sketches to clients for options and to impress them “with the beauty of looking at beautiful sketches,” Mendel said AI is like nearly creating a toile for them. They can see where the fit might bind or if the neckline is too open, he said.

The starting point is $35,000 and it can go up to $100,000 or more. “Doing very beautiful, artistic pieces has always been a passion of mine. It is something that I get really excited about. I enjoy developing new fabrics with French mills and working with expert pattern-makers, seamstresses and embroiders extraordinary craftsmanship around me,” Mendel said.

Having full control of the operations with the help of a few top-shelf specialists is another plus. “These are really handmade clothes that are done with a lot of attention, love and care,” he said. “I enjoy this enormously. You can control the quality and make something extremely personal. It’s really a piece of art.”

Chloe Mendel

At their wedding this past fall, Chloe Mendel and Billy Corgan (wearing House of Gilles designs) with their children Clementine and Augustine.

Photo by Danielle Simone/Courtesy Chloe Mendel

For years Mendel designed and ran J. Mendel, a fifth-generation atelier that specializes in fur and eveningwear resources that also had a Madison Avenue store. Taylor Swift, Scarlett Johansson, Nicole Kidman, Amal Clooney and Olivia Munn are among the numerous celebrities who have hit the red carpet in his designs. In 2015, Stallion Inc., a privately held New York family business, acquired the stake from Gores Group, the L.A. private equity company. After J. Mendel filed for bankruptcy in 2018, Dennis Basso took it over under his company’s umbrella. Mendel continues to support the J. Mendel brand creatively, but is not involved with any of the business dealings. J. Mendel styles are now sold in Basso’s new East 57th Street store.

His personal designer reverence is for John Galliano’s “amazing” work for Maison Margiela and previously for Dior, while Rick Owens and Riccardo Tisci are two other favorites. “I love all of those designers who love to innovate, but at the same time, have these extraordinary skills and talent. These are the ones that inspire me today.”

In terms of photographers, Mendel favors iconic ones like Richard Avedon versus the contemporary. “Images from those classic, extraordinary photographers is the world that I really love. They are what I spend most of my time looking at and what inspires me. They also elevated the world of couture that I am trying to explore again,” Mendel said.

Fully engaged with this new venture, Mendel said the potential is already evident. In touch daily with his daughter, who is cofounder and creative director of Maison Atia, he also tries to visit her in Chicago’s Highland Park neighborhood as often as he can. “I love to see my family and my grandchildren. She has two children [Augustine and Clementine],” he said. “I am very close to her husband. He is amazing.”

Their lakeside home and the nearby woodsy area with walking and biking trails “feels like a different world” than New York City, Mendel said.

With presidential campaigning well underway, Mendel was asked if he would do any custom designs for Melania Trump should she ask. The former first lady wore a J. Mendel gown to a state dinner for the Australian prime minister in 2019 and another to a state dinner in England in 2018. (The latter was purchased in the J. Mendel store.) “At the moment I am welcoming anyone who wants to come see me to see if I can make something for them. Politically though, I’m a designer, I’m not a politician,” he said, laughing.

Agreeing about how any public statements about ongoing global conflicts and politics are often controversial due to individuals’ strong views, Mendel said, “Overall, I want great experiences with what I do. That is the luxury that I have today. I can choose my clients. Overall, I would rather choose clients who are looking for something very festive and happy. That’s why I am concentrating on things like bridal and people who want to celebrate a beautiful event in their life.”

Chloe Mendel

Chloe Mendel wearing a wedding gown designed by her father.

Photo by Danielle Simone/Courtesy Chloe Mendel

As for what’s most interesting in fashion, Mendel said, “Everything is becoming so industrial. The reason I am excited to do what I am doing is because I am coming back to a place that has more value, uniqueness and sophistication. Sometimes I go against the wind, but to me, it feels right. Fashion, in general, is moving really fast. It’s a storm that I am trying not to follow.”

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