Gilles Mendel had greeted 69 members of the press, many of them one-by-one, when I arrived—number 70—to see his spring collection in a glass-walled penthouse at the top of the Standard East hotel.
He’d been at it since 9 a.m., explaining the inspiration for his collection over and over and over again, and was still spry and energetic and affable nearly nine hours later—an observation worth dwelling on when most high-powered designers don’t have the time of day for press, unless you’re Anna Wintour.
“Let me tell you today was amazing,” he said, standing beside one of his intricately beaded evening gowns that looked more like couture than ready-to-wear. “I don’t see many people after my runway because they run!”
Indeed, Wintour dashes off as soon as designers take their bows, and others are close behind. With his presentation on Wednesday, Mendel, who serves as fifth-generation CEO and creative director of the fashion house (it was founded in St. Petersburg in 1870, then relocated to Paris), was able to show his designs up close: a breathtaking oxblood fur coat with a cut-out grid pattern (fur is a house signature and “not just for winter,” Mendel explained); hand-worked geometric lace and paper-thin leather boleros and capes; breathtaking, beaded evening gowns which—despite all the beadwork—look like second skins. And all of it was made in Mendel’s two New York ateliers in the Garment District, where he oversees the house’s ready-to-wear collections.
“I have met more people today than at any of my shows, and they were all very present! I can relate to people in this setting and it’s more constructive than meeting them in between six other people,” he said. “It’s less stressful. I feel like Fashion Week is just such a zoo now!”
He does not go to shows, but he’d visited a friend on the Upper East Side on Tuesday and found that several blocks on Madison Avenue had been cut off for Ralph Lauren’s big show on Wednesday evening.
“It’s a different vibe here,” he said with a warm smile.
Uptown, a stretch of Madison Avenue had indeed been shut down, save for a bus lane. A sweaty man in running garb was more than a little peeved that a police officer demanded to know his address before letting him pass through a gated off area on 72nd Street, adjacent to a limestone mansion—home to Ralph Lauren’s New York City flagship store, where the designer staged his first see-now-shop-now collection in back-to-back runway presentations.
The first show was mostly for select clients from around the world, who sat in sisal-covered bleachers atop comfy white cotton cushions—almost too comfy, for the fashion week-weary, who sank into their seats and listened to jazz music before the show began. Lauren had turned the sidewalk into a runway and his Madison Ave flagship into a set.
“For me, this is the ultimate expression of luxury,” Lauren wrote of his first see-now-buy-now collection in a note given to guests. “You are changing the way you live and the way you want to shop, and we are changing with you and for you.”
There were subtle changes in the collection, too, which was technically season-less but had plenty of pieces to stave off the coming autumn chill, like suede jackets and sweater trenches with Navajo prints, or a distressed leather bomber paired with pinstripe trousers modeled by Kendall Jenner.
The theme was predominantly Western, except for the Oscar-ready evening wear: micro-sequined sheath dresses in electric blue, yellow, and pink were without Western touches except for thin, brown leather straps with tiny belt buckles. Lauren also cast several classic Ralph models from the early aughts: Stella Tennant, who wore one of the suede coats and layers of silver jewelry, along with Carolyn Murphy and Liya Kebede, who modeled still more Navajo prints.
Lauren came out at the end in a faded denim shirt, faded jeans, and cowboy boots, and—with a little Fred Astaire tap dance move—cued the parting of gray curtains on the giant store windows for the big reveal: a video of a rearing horse and mannequins showcasing pieces we’d just seen on the runway.
If the cushy seats and stately setting had seemed glamorous, what came next was even more of a treat.
Guests were welcomed inside the store, where dishy male caterers in white jackets carried silver trays of champagne and water-filled wine glasses with delicate lime slices floating at the surface. David Lauren, Ralph’s son, shook hands and urged us all to “please, please come upstairs!”
So we did—and, for those who have never been to Lauren’s Madison Avenue store, it was like wandering around the designer’s living room. Winding limestone stairs with a wrought-iron railing led up to the second floor, where Lauren and his longtime wife Ricky (the two recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary) posed for photographs between two beckoningly plush couches.
It was as though we’d all been invited to an intimate Lauren family gathering, if family gatherings were also shopping extravaganzas.
“That’s really cute,” a young woman said to her husband, holding up a blazer.
“No way are you wearing that,” he sniffed, putting it back on a rack. She spent the next hour trying on every piece of clothing in the store.
“This jacket has a whole...vibe,” another woman said to me, trying on the same piece Stella Tennant had worn. This was less the language of fashion—asymmetric this, macramé that—than the language of money: she would walk out with at least $10,000 worth of clothing.
As would a middle-aged French woman in a flashy floral jumpsuit. “My husband is going to kill me!” she giggled to another guest.
Suddenly, models descended from the third floor, teetering on stilettos as they slowly made their way downstairs for round two—this time for the media. Jenner seemed sullen.
“She looked downright miserable on the catwalk!” said a British woman who had flown with a friend from London for the show, having won a ticket at auction.
“I didn’t even know her surname,” her friend tittered. “I said, I don’t see any Kardashians! Their bottoms are like mine—too big for fashion shows!”
Twenty minutes later, Anna Wintour breezed into the couch area with Lauren.
“Congratulations, it was so chic!” she said, her voice climbing to an unrecognizably high register—nothing like the voice we know from Vogue.com videos and The September Issue. “And the girls were just gorgeous!”
Lauren put both hands on her infamous bob and winked.
A cameraman caught Alba taking a selfie on Snapchat, framing her face with a filter that gave her dog ears and a long tongue. Could he film her doing that, he asked gingerly?
“Sure, let me just post it first. Isn’t it cute?”
After all the celebrities and shoppers had left, I found the British ladies drinking champagne and discussing Kendall Jenner again, this time with one of the pretty waiters—an 18-year-old from Idaho who confessed he was wildly in love with the supermodel.
“Oh, but you could do so much better!” one of them enthused, taking a tiny, caviar-covered pancake off his silver tray and holding her glass up for another waiter to see. “More champagne, please!”