By  on September 13, 2011

WASHINGTON — Gilles Mendel, the designer behind J.Mendel, moved mountains to be honored by First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Tuesday as the winner of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards fashion design category accolade.

The mountain Mendel moved was his own runway show, which he pushed back from Tuesday to Wednesday because the White House ceremony honoring the National Design Awards winners fell right in the middle of New York Fashion Week.

But Mendel, who beat out Prabal Gurung and Jason Wu for the fashion design award, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think this would happen. It’s so surreal to me,” Mendel told WWD. “It’s even more surreal when I think I have a show tomorrow at Lincoln Center. It’s really a moment of history for me and my company.”

After meeting the First Lady for the first time at a reception before the luncheon at the White House, Mendel said, “I complimented her for her great sense of style and being so generous.”

Mendel, who was seated at Obama’s table for the luncheon, launched his ready-to-wear collection in 2003, the same year he became a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Before that, he ran a fifth-generation family fur house founded in 1870.

Obama, who has won the praise of the fashion industry for her support of American fashion designers, paid homage to the inspiration behind design, as the honorary patron of the National Design Awards. Quoting American designer Milton Glaser, Obama said, “Good design is good citizenship.”

“These men and women have breathed new life into our homes and our workplaces, the clothes we wear, the products we use every day and even the most basic ways we process information,” the First Lady said. “A trip to the park is just a bit more refreshing. A book or a chart more readable. A commute to work more palatable, unless you were stuck on the train today. But while we ooh and ahh at their handiwork, we may take for granted all the blood, sweat and tears that went into the process of creation. We will never see all of those late nights spent tinkering and perfecting. We’ll never experience the long hours hunched over a drafting board or staring blankly at a computer screen. So, honorees, today is about honoring not just your designs but also the years of hard work that brought you here today.”

In addition to Mendel, National Design Awards were given to Matthew Carter, a principal of Carter & Cone Type Inc., who designed some of the most recognizable typefaces in use today and was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement award; Steven Heller, co-chair of the School of Visual Arts and author and editor of more than 130 books on graphic design, satiric art and popular culture, who received the Design Mind award; Knoll, which received the Corporate and Institutional Achievement award; Continuum for product design, and Shelton, Mindel & Associates for interior design.

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