Making It Real

Gilles Mendel upends his family's Old World furrier traditions to attract a new generation

“I was the only furrier who sold fur that didn't keep you warm.”

THERE IS AN APPROPRIATE SEASON to wear a fur coat and, as Gilles Mendel learned, an appropriate moment to open a fur-coat salon. Mendel chose the wrong moment. In 1870 in Paris, Mendel's great-great-grandfather launched a line of furs prized by Russian aristocracy. But in 1995, when Mendel opened the first J. Mendel outpost in New York City, the fur industry was under siege from animal-rights activists, and women who donned a mink in midtown Manhattan risked being pelted with red paint. To protect the windows of his...

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