Fur is the new pashmina," says Gilles Mendel, wrapping me up in a sky-blue knitted mink shawl. Mendel, perhaps the best fur man in New York, is an old-fashioned artisan, a fifth-generation furrier who is his own designer: He creates, start to finish, the great mink classics, as well as shawls and stoles, muffs and cuffs, the super-sheared mink suit with its little bolero jacket and the snappy peacoat. "This mink peacoat is the trend, and it looks fabulous, a strong masculine shape on a woman's body," says Mendel, whose furs are sold in the United States only at his own Madison Avenue boutique and at Bergdorf Goodman. The workmanship on his clothes is, everyone agrees, fine, but Mendel is also innovative and, occasionally, by traditional standards, outrageous. Some of his mink is grooved and sheared to look like corduroy. There's a white mink tunic he shows with a bikini bottom. There's the brown mink shoulder bag. "I want people to wear mink on the beach, throw it on the floor, sleep with it," he says. "It makes my father lose his hair that I sometimes shave my fur."
I always think of mink as a New York state of mind. I think of Bette Davis and Celeste Holm in their minks in that quintessential New York movie All About Eve. And New York is the heart of the business; all the best coats are made here from American skins. (The best minks, all farmed, are American.) Gilles Mendel has lived and worked in the city for almost 20 years, and I've come to his studio on West 30th Street in the Fur District to learn how to choose a great mink and see how he turns that fur into the fashion "fabric" of choice.
At 46, this impish blue-eyed Frenchman, who once played rock guitar and loves to eat and cook, is gregarious, funny, and sexy and passionate about fur. On his desk are pictures of his children, ages seven and nine, in big fur hats. At a similar age, on summer days in Paris, Gilles could be found in his father's cold vault, snuggled in a basket of luscious furs. It's probably genetic. As far back as 1830, Gilles' great-great-grandfather was traveling in Siberia and China looking for great furs for the Russian nobility. His son ran a shop in St. Petersburg patronized by the Russian court but, like other Russian Jews, fled the motherland during the pogroms of the late 19th century. He went first to Warsaw, then Paris, where his son, Raphael, set up the business that his son, Jacques Mendel (Gilles' father), still runs.
Gilles Mendel was born in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, where he still has an apartment. With an MBA (and a dozen years on the French ski team), he started as a grain trader, then went into the family business. "It is," he says, "a love affair between me and my father." In 1982, he came to New York. He started selling furs at Elizabeth Arden and found himself with an atelier that had once belonged to Oscar de la Renta. "I was in heaven," he says. There followed the boutique on Madison Avenue (opened in 1995), then Bergdorf Goodman. Mendel had become a New Yorker of note.
At his studio, even while I'm swaggering around in my mink "pashmina" or trying on a blond "corduroy" mink trench coat, I'm thinking, How do I know? How do I choose? Though mink may now be just another "fabric," buying one is still an event. And I want the best. I want to know how to get it. Unlike diamonds, there's no independent body to provide a certificate.
According to Mendel, you shouldn't pay less than $10,000 for a mink coat or $7,500 for a jacket. With high-style items, a stenciled-mink cape, say, or a super-sheared orange vest, you're buying fashion as much as anything, though you can still ask about the quality and origin of the fur. But let's say you want a fabulous mink coat. There are a few other easy guidelines.
There is the classic mink, which is what your mother wore; its "furry," immensely beautiful, and very warm. (They call it "long hair" in the trade, and it comes in any one of a number of natural colors, across a spectrum from white to black. Then there is sheared mink, which can be either natural or dyed. It is just as warm as the long hair but understated; it looks and feels just like thick plush velvet.
"Whether it's long hair or sheared," explains Mendel, "you should touch the fur, feel it, try it on. You should try on a lot of coats. With good mink the hair should be very dense; extremely high density means that the fur is long-lasting." (Another top New York furrier, Nick Pologeorgis, concurs: "What you should look for in a fur are good-quality pelts, a great-fitting garment, and the best workmanship.")
Mendel has his own New York factory where the skins are worked. This is an exacting, labor-intensive business, the work done mostly by hand. The dying is done in Paris or Milan.
When it comes to a choice between female and male mink skins, Mendel, who for the most part uses female skins, thinks it's largely a question of the times and of taste. "Females are smaller, lighter in weight, their skin is thinner; the males are bigger, heavier, and hairier," he says. "In Europe, at least until the seventies, heavy meant luxurious. Even now some women feel happier with a heavy fur coat. They feel that it's warmer, though that's an illusion. After all, fine cashmere is a good deal lighter and warmer than lamb's wool."
Once you've fingered the mink and decided the fur is the good stuff, what about the coat itself? A great mink coat is determined by more than just the pelts. "You really need to compare, and quickly your eye becomes critical," Mendel says. "Look at the overall coat. It should look homogenous, like a single piece of fur, as if it had come off a bolt of cloth. Mother Nature doesn't make two animals the same, so this is part of the art of assembling pelts."
Is the mink natural or dyed? Neither is better, but it should be sold as what it is, says Mendel, who works from a palette of dozens of colors. Some manufacturers dye fur to disguise bad pelts, and the imperfections show even more than they would with natural mink.
Finally, Mendel suggests that you look at the seams, the connections of the sleeves to the body, the facing. "If it looks weird," Mendel states bluntly, "it is weird. There's something wrong."
Later that day, wearing one of his white mink overcoats, I'm with Gilles Mendel at his Madison Avenue boutique. He's pulling coats off the rack, the classic mahogany mink, the awesome sables, a "black velvet" chinchilla, with its subtle whites, grays, and blacks. ("Chinchilla makes a fantastic blanket!" he says.)
His enthusiasm is infectious. Like other great artisans, he wants his customers—he wants everyone—to have the best. Mink, of course. "Or, should you have the budget, Russian sable." Mendel takes one off a hanger, looks it over, strokes it like a lover. "Russian Barguzin sable is a classic dream coat. As with mink, sable should have that homogeneous coloration, but the fur should be dark with silvery tips, and it can cost well over a hundred thousand dollars. Go on," he says, holding it for me. "It should make you feel like a million bucks."
And it does. It certainly does.
Picking a Pelt
General Rules for Buying a Mink
1. Remember, all the best mink is "ranched."
2. Touch it, feel it, wear it.
3. The hair should be long and dense and feel very silky.
4. It should be sold as what it is, natural or dyed mink.
5. Look at the overall garment; it should appear homogenous. It should have integrity, and the hair should be perfect—not because it was combed but because Mother Nature made it that way.
6. Look at the seams, the connections of the sleeves to body. If it looks wrong, it is wrong.
7. Prices for a great mink coat should start around $10,000; a jacket, $7,500.
8. Even if you're buying a high-fashion piece, the super-sheared, the "corduroy," it should still be made of the best mink.
Some Prices at J. Mendel
Mink knitted shawl: $2,500.
Super-sheared mink suit: $12,000.
Brown mink shoulder bag: $2,200-$3,500.
Sheared white mink tunic: $6,500.
Golden shaved- and grooved-mink trench coat: $17,000.
Classic top-of-the-line mahogany mink stroller: knee-length coat, up to $12,000; full-length coat, up to $18,000.
Sheared black "corduroy" mink peacoat: $9,500.
Classic mink peacoat: $12,000.
White horizontal-mink overcoat: $14,500.
Basic sheared-mink jacket: $7,000.
"Black velvet" chinchilla coat: $45,000.
Chinchilla king-size bedspread: $75,000.
Russian Barguzin sable (lined in printed silk), seven-eighths length: $45,000-$75,000; long coat: $70,000-$140,000.
J. Mendel, 723 Madison Avenue; 212-832-5830.
Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets; 212-753-7300. (A J. Mendel accessories counter will open later in the year on the ground floor at Bergdorf's.)
In Paris: 396 Rue St. Honoré; 33-1-42-61-75-77; fax: 33-1-42-60-36-94.
If you want to buy direct from a top New York furrier's showroom and factory, there's Pologeorgis Furs. Nick Pologeorgis sells top-quality minks ($8,000-$18,000) as well as fur accessories (scarves run $300-$8,000). Pologeorgis Furs is located at 143 West 29th Street. By appointment: 212-563-2250.