NEW YORK — Few designers are content with selling a single product category when the currency of success is an entire lifestyle brand — and Gilles Mendel is no exception.

The fifth-generation furrier, who moved here 20 years ago from Paris to establish J. Mendel in the U.S., wants to widen the scope of his business.

Four years ago he ventured into ready-to-wear, which accounts for 28 percent of sales, up from 5 percent two years ago. “Fur has a very high value per unit, and ready-to-wear sells more units,” Mendel said in an interview.

The success of rtw gave Mendel confidence to diversify even more. Handbags and shoes are on tap for spring, and jewelry is in the offing, a natural extension of the brand, particularly since Mendel once designed for Cartier.

“Soon you’re going to see home furnishings,” he said. “You’re going to see the whole world of J. Mendel. The dream I had was to be a full-fledged luxury brand, not just a furrier.”

The company, which will do $30 million in sales this year, has worked to convince consumers that J. Mendel stands for more than furs. An ad campaign for the spring collection features models wearing cocktail dresses and evening gowns in fabrics such as chiffon, silk, tulle and organza.

Now that rtw is established and new products are in the pipeline, Mendel is opening stores. A 1,300-square-foot boutique is to open July 31 at 919 North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The store, which is projected to do $5 million in sales in the first year, has black and white marble mosaic floors, custom-made furniture, bronze fixtures and mirrored ceilings, a design that’s similar to the J. Mendel flagship on Madison Avenue, which Mendel described as “luxurious and minimalist. It’s very rich and dramatic.”

“I experimented with rtw at Bergdorf Goodman and it became such an instant success,” Mendel said, referring to the in-store shop at the Fifth Avenue retailer. “That’s the reason I’m opening the Chicago store and other boutiques. The rtw is such a substantial business in New York, it’s time for us to go to other cities. We’re expanding the brand in all the major markets in America. We’re looking at San Francisco and Los Angeles.”

This story first appeared in the July 25, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Other J. Mendel locations in the U.S. include a boutique at Hirshleifer’s at the Americana Manhasset in Manhasset, N.Y., and a unit in Aspen.

Prices range from $1,000 for a blouse to $250,000 for a full-length sable coat. A gray silk hand-pleated dress with antique beading from the spring collection is $5,400; an anthracite mink coat, $19,500, and a black broadtail clutch with beading, $2,100.

Mendel knows the Windy City. In the early Eighties, when the J. Mendel fur salon was located at Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue, he traveled the country doing trunk shows in all the locations where Arden had stores.

“In Chicago, I dressed a lot of the women who shopped on Michigan Avenue,” he said. “I was the talented Frenchman with an atelier on the seventh floor of Elizabeth Arden.”

There are a limited number of upscale locations, and Mendel is waiting in line with other luxury brands for space to become available.

“Chicago just came up first,” he said. “We want to be with neighbors like Louis Vuitton and Chanel.”

The company’s Paris boutique is on Rue St. Honoré, and Mendel is looking for space in London and Milan. There’s a J. Mendel boutique at Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong, and Mendel has his eye on Japan.

“It’s not going to happen this year, but in the next five years,” he said.

The company plans to open three stores a year for the next five years. Mendel said he has been approached by venture capitalists and investment bankers, but he isn’t looking for investors at the moment. He’d rather retain control over the business and the product.

“I grew up in a very artistic world in Paris,” he said. “My parents and grandparents were very particular. We always felt our retail store was like our home.”

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