By  on October 27, 2006

CHICAGO — Designer Gilles Mendel of J.Mendel is setting his sights on expanding his luxury brand in the U.S. and abroad.

After the successful opening in August of a 1,300-square-foot boutique next to Louis Vuitton along Michigan Avenue here, the fifth-generation French furrier is searching for additional in-store or freestanding boutique space in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and in Moscow, London and Hong Kong, Mendel said during last week's opening party for the store. The event benefited Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, where the party was held.

"We've been developing very fast," he said, and projects $30 million in sales this year from its wholesale and retail operation.

During the last two years, J.Mendel has grown from about 15 employees to almost 120; Mendel is the sole designer. Spurring the growth is the success of his ready-to-wear line, which accounts for 30 percent of sales.

In the store here, cocktail dresses have been bestsellers, especially a $7,600 black dress with sable hem and jeweled appliqué. The boutique has a minimalistic look, similar to that of Mendel's Madison Avenue flagship in New York, with black-and-white marble mosaic floors and mirrored ceilings. Price points range from $1,200 for a blouse to $250,000 for a full-length sable coat.

Maria Stratigakes, vice president of J.Mendel Inc., predicts fur sales here will jump substantially once temperatures dip. Already popular are a short sable swing jacket with a wide leather belt for $95,000 and a lightweight broadtail tiered coat mounted on silk taffeta for $25,000.

Chicago was a natural extension from New York, especially because of its cold winters. Last year, another New York fur designer, Dennis Basso, stepped onto the retail scene here with a freestanding store. "If you sell fur, you better be in the Windy City," Mendel said. "Our style blends so well in Chicago," he added. "We're not ostentatious. Many of our furs don't even look like furs."

Sales at the Chicago location are expected to hit almost $5 million in its first year.

Mendel said he would like to open two to three stores per year, for 12 stores total in the U.S. He said he looks forward to adding shoes, handbags and eyewear to his assortment.J.Mendel operates freestanding stores here and in New York; Aspen, Colo., and Paris, and in-shop locations at Bergdorf Goodman in New York, Hirshleifer's in Manhasset, N.Y., and Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong.

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