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A J. Mendel gown is truly something to behold. It defines elegance and femininity, accentuating the female shape with playful necklines, intricate detailing, exquisite layering, and flattering silhouettes. Over the years, the designer behind the label Gilles Mendel kept hearing from his clients that they wished they could have this or that dress from a past season. No wonder, as Mendel designs for the timelessly chic woman. For his resort 2016 line, he decided to oblige by unveiling the J. Mendel Modern Heirloom Collection, a group of eight evening gowns from the archives that have been revived and can be custom-ordered in the material and color of one’s choice. The only question left for his clients is, where do we sign up?
WHITEWALL: How did this idea for such a unique collection—both in heritage and its bespoke possibility—come about?
GILLES MENDEL: The idea behind the Modern Heirloom Collection first came about because clients kept asking to special-order classic J. Mendel gowns from past collections—styles that were definitively J. Mendel in their combination of elegance, femininity, lightness, and movement. So why not offer all of our clients the chance to re-create their favorite J. Mendel gown in their dream color? The desire was already there.
WW: How did you choose the eight gowns?
GM: I’ve always referred to my gowns as “modern heirlooms,” because they have a sort of timeless beauty that makes them just as appealing today as when they first went down the runway. So that was the criteria for selection when I was searching the J. Mendel archives for this collection: Each gown needed to look like something a woman would love and wear and hold on to forever.
WW: Could you highlight two or three of the gowns for us and share why you chose them for this? Are there any particular characteristics about them that stand out for you—even years later?
GM: I chose the Maeve gown because it really showcases the expertise of the J. Mendel atelier. Created using a technically sophisticated bias mounted herringbone technique, a house signature, it nonetheless conveys a sense of lightness and ease despite the intensity of the workmanship.
The Nathalie gown is probably one of my most definitive creations to date—the illusion tulle neckline and hand-pleated silk chiffon skirt are both quintessential J. Mendel motifs. This gown has been photographed countless times and is without a doubt among my all-time best-selling styles. Originally inspired by Degas’s paintings of ballerinas, it’s a classic, forever-beautiful dress. A dress made for dancing!
WW: Looking through your archives, what is that like for you? Are you reliving the design process? Do you remember each dress? Does it connect to a moment outside the studio in your life?
GM: As a designer, it’s natural to look back in one’s archive for inspiration and technical references, so selecting styles for the Modern Heirloom Collection wasn’t difficult. Each gown still felt fresh to me, a strong point of reference. Which is not to say I can remember everything I’ve ever designed quite as clearly! Sometimes one just moves on, and there’s a disconnect from the past.
WW: You say that the collection title, “Modern Heirlooms,” is because the gowns are timeless. Are you always looking to design something timeless?
GM: The design process is largely an intuitive one. When designing a new collection, one is always committed fully to the moment—usually to a couple of seasons ahead, in fact—rather than thinking about whether or not the garment will have timeless appeal. That tends to happen incidentally rather than consciously. But I do think, in general, gowns and special-occasion dresses ought to have a more lasting kind of beauty, unless they’re only ever going to be worn once! At the end of the day, beauty trumps trend.
WW: Can you tell us more about how these dresses can be custom-ordered in different colors and fabrics? Do you have any personal favorite fabric or color options?
GM: Each gown should ideally be ordered in the same fabrication as the original, but one can choose from more than a hundred different shades of color. My personal inclination would be toward using lighter, watercolor shades, which tend to be more in keeping with the ethereal, romantic essence of these Modern Heirloom styles.
WW: These gowns could only be worn for incredibly special moments. Do you recall any special occasions where you’ve seen them worn, at either an event or awards show—something that specifically touched you?
GM: Taylor Swift wore a white version of the Jacqueline gown to the European Music Awards in 2012 and looked phenomenal in it!
WW: It seems like a big part of this collection is rooted in story—the story of the making of the dress, the J. Mendel woman . . . Would you consider your approach to design a bit like storytelling?
GM: Designing for me is an intuitive process. One is following a mood, an impulse, a feeling. But as the collection develops, I usually start thinking about the woman I’m designing for. Who is she? How does she live? Where is she going? One season it might be Jane Birkin as envisioned in a Serge Gainsbourg song; another might be Angelica Huston as seen through the lens of Helmut Newton. A little bit of storytelling starts to take hold, without things getting too literal.
This article is published in Whitewall‘s winter 2016 Lifestyle Issue.