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J.Mendel Brand Keeps Up Expansion, Repositioning

In the past few years, the label has quietly entered new markets and introduced new categories.

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NEW YORK — In the three years since the Great Recession started, J.Mendel has quietly been making headway, entering new markets, introducing new categories and broadening its reputation beyond featherweight mink coats and sable strollers.

The company, which owns and operates three boutiques and four concept shops, has seen wholesale volume leap by 120 percent, according to president and chief operating officer Susan Sokol. Launching “high day dresses” (to be worn to work and beyond), the brand now offers a wider price range and diversified collection, shows four times a year instead of twice and has refined its logo and packaging with the help of Laird + Partners. Orders for the 250-style fall collection, which is twice the size of last fall’s line, have increased by more than 25 percent, Sokol said. Retail prices for daytime dresses start at $1,750, and elaborate gowns go up to $25,000, though an alligator dress tops off at $32,000. There is also a wide range of prices for fur, with a knitted fur vest or small bolero retailing for $3,500 and a full-length sable coat selling for $180,000.

J.Mendel’s wholesale volume now accounts for 35 percent of the company’s annual sales compared with 15 percent three years ago, Sokol said. Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Joyce stores are among J.Mendel’s key accounts. In addition to its boutiques in New York, Paris and Moscow, the company has concept shops at Bergdorf Goodman and Hirshleifer’s in Manhasset, N.Y., as well as Harrods in London and Saks Jandel in Chevy Chase, Md.

The Gores Group, which took a significant stake in J.Mendel in 2010, has been surprised in a good way by how quickly the business has developed, said founder Alec Gores. “Sometimes the biggest risk is making sure everyone gets along,” he said. “We are very excited about the five-year plan. We have a real opportunity to grow the business going forward with the support of Gilles and Susan.”

With distribution in 30 countries, the company continues to make inroads into new markets. To have a presence during the European collections, J.Mendel executives showed the line to international buyers earlier this month in Paris.

The designer’s first ad campaign since 2005 will debut in September issues of several magazines. Images from that shoot will be used on the company’s Web site, which is being retooled to have more of a “fluid integration of content, commerce and social media,” Sokol said. E-commerce including some exclusive products, will also be part of the equation once the revised site launches in September.

As part of the company’s plans to broaden its presence in China, it is now active on Weibo, the China-based microblog that is a cross between Twitter and Facebook with 300 million registered users. In November, the company introduced a J.Mendel bridal Tumblr page that offers a backstage view of the design process, as well as photographs that have provided inspiration.

Being more strategic about dressing Hollywood starlets is another means of repositioning the brand without screaming the news. Angelina Jolie, Rooney Mara, Kristin Stewart and Emma Stone are among the stars who have worn J.Mendel gowns on the red carpet as of late. (Malin Akerman and Claire Danes have also been photographed wearing the label.) Such celebrities convey the “graceful and youthful feeling in spirit and age” that Trey Laird’s team captured in the J.Mendel brand book that Sokol’s team is using as an internal road map in terms of “who we are as a brand and where we want to go.”

This year the company expects to finalize a partnership for optical and luxury eyewear as well as sunglasses, which should debut next year or in 2014, according to Sokol. Fragrance is another opportunity that Sokol is warming up to and aims to have ironed out by the end of this year. This fall, luxury handbags will be sold exclusively in J.Mendel stores with retail prices starting at $2,500 for a leather tote and going up to $25,000 for an exotic skin, sable-lined style. Small leather goods such as iPhone and iPad cases present another opportunity, Sokol said. The same can be said for footwear, which ideally would be introduced through a partnership, Sokol said. Mendel collaborates with Manolo Blahnik for the shoes his models wear on the runway. As for whether that arrangement may lead to something more formal, Sokol said, “He would be amazing. He is known for such unbelievable quality.”

As part of its plan to round out its assortment, J.Mendel is adding more fur-trimmed sweaters including cashmere ones, which Mendel has not done in the past. There is also a greater emphasis on cloth and leather outerwear trimmed with fur. As the company has extended its assortment, it has hired more people to work in the expanded atelier in its Seventh Avenue space. J.Mendel is “one of the few luxury houses based here that has the ability to do everything and anything on-site,” Sokol said.

J.Mendel is building accessories sales through its freestanding stores and, as of this fall, on its Web site. Expanding on the loyal following it has developed through its Harrods concept shop, J.Mendel aims to open a London store in the next year to 18 months. The company may renovate its Rue Saint-Honoré boutique or perhaps look for a new location in Paris, she said. As for how the designer has steadily transformed the company into a global luxury label from a fifth-generation French fur house, Mendel said, “It is very exciting but it takes time.”

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