Gilles Mendel after the spring 2008 show

Last year, Céline Dion wore a custom-made champagne hand-pleated silk-mousseline gown by the French designer J. Mendel to the Academy Awards. Kate Hudson and Demi Moore are also fans of the house, now headed by the fifth-generation family member Gilles Mendel. But we wondered who in Chicago is buying red carpet–ready gowns from J. Mendel’s intimate women’s salon at 919 North Michigan Avenue. And what it’s like to shop at one of Chicago’s high-end havens for the rich, very rich, and even richer.

“This is quite a sophisticated market for me,” Gilles Mendel says of Chicago.

To check out the shop’s appeal, we visited the 1,300-square-foot boutique, a destination well stocked with furs ranging from a $10,500 classic shirred mink jacket to a $220,000 full-length sable coat, flowing gowns priced from $6,000 to $28,000, and distinctive ready-to-wear separates. Here’s what we found:

(1) It’s like Cheers, but the customers are better dressed. J. Mendel is refreshingly attitude free. The doorman, Nick Guadalupe, who has been with the Chicago boutique almost since it opened in August 2006, greets most clients by name.

“We’re not standing here like soldiers; we’re hanging out,” says Nicky Stratigakes, the director of the Chicago salon, adding that it is not uncommon for some clients to enjoy a glass of wine on the weekends.

(2) The boutique’s staff members know who your friends are. Savvy associates ensure that customers avoid a socialite’s worst nightmare: the duplicate-dress disaster. They take note of who purchases what and for which event, and warn clients accordingly. After all, who wants to pay $5,000 for a cocktail dress and run into another woman in the same design?

(3) You need not be present to do major damage. One of Stratigakes’s best Chicago clients shops in the store only twice a year at trunk shows. Stratigakes messengers items to the shopper’s home about every two months.

“She loves to come home and open a package from J. Mendel,” the salon director says, noting that this jet-set client travels often and typically spends $30,000 to $40,000 a year at the store.

(4) There are three kinds of clients (about 75 percent are repeat customers). Those who know what they want and get it. A transaction worth thousands can take only a few minutes.

Those who know what they want, think about it, and get it. The clients’ spouses might or might not be involved in the decision making.

Those who know what they want, think about it, and eventually get it. “It could be months before we close a coat deal, or it could be a year,” Stratigakes says. “It’s like they’re buying a house.”

(5) J. Mendel’s custom designs are an advantage. A client didn’t find exactly what she wanted to wear to her daughter’s wedding, so the boutique is making her a $7,000 sleeveless lavender hand-pleated silk-mousseline column gown with a matching stole.

(6) No Oscar ceremony needed. The Chicago client Cindy Chereskin recently wore an eight-year-old J. Mendel black-and-white wool-bouclé suit to a holiday party and then donned a 1920s-inspired black silk J. Mendel skirt and blouse to attend an event at Tiffany & Company.

“Whenever there is a special occasion, they’re my go-to pieces,” Chereskin says, whether it’s her son’s bar mitzvah or a benefit for the Chicago Botanic Garden. In addition to suits, she owns fur coats, jackets, wraps, and evening dresses by the designer, including a champagne chiffon tuck-pleated Greek goddesslike gown.

Mendel with the actress Diane Kruger (bottom left); the serene interior of the Chicago boutique on North Michigan Avenue (top); Designs from the spring 2008 collection (bottom right)

“I just feel phenomenal in the clothes,” says Chereskin, a mother of two boys who is a member of the costume council at the Chicago History Museum, “and I receive tons of compliments.”

Many of those come from her husband, Benjamin Chereskin, who works at a private equity investment firm. “He loves everything,” she says. “And it gives me a good reason to keep working out.”

Client Linda Levine also has an advocate in her husband, Laurence Levine, a urologist at Rush University Medical Center, who often walks their dog past the Gold Coast store and tells her what looks good in the boutique’s window. “My husband really likes the clothes,” she says. “He does not like spending the money, but he likes the clothes.”

Her favorite J. Mendel design is an Audrey Hepburnish white mink capelet that she wore to an event at the Chicago History Museum. “I was stopped every second in that piece,” says Linda, who, like Cynthia, is on the costume council of the museum. Another favorite is a black sheath dress with mink detailing at the shoulders. “Everyone wants to pet me,” she jokes.

“It’s almost like couture,” Linda says of the clothes. “But they’re no more expensive than a suit from Ermenegildo Zegna for men and less expensive than Chanel.”

“I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetic,” Cynthia says. “It’s elegant clothing that’s modern and fresh. It’s more stylish than it is high fashion.”

As Gilles Mendel says, “In Chicago, my celebrities are all the socially involved ladies.”


photography:  (store Photos) Megan Lovejoy; (all others) courtesy of J. Mendel