You know Grandmama’s mink you’ve had for a decade? With fashion’s love affair with fur, there is no better time to rework those pieces gathering dust in the closet.
The past two years have yielded 2 major family deaths. And 3 fur coats. The boxes would arrive from family members with a crumpled post it: Thought you could use this in the tundra!! — a glamorous broadtail evening coat, an 80’s après ski mink jacket (think Wisconsin, not Gstaad) and a dowdy, Grizzly Adams-type number crafted from some unidentified beast. I would stroke the hides affectionately and march them down to our bulging storage box.
After sitting through the pelt peppered runway shows in New York last fall, a light went off in my head. What of the mounds of fur that I had accumulated? Yes, the coats were huge (I am size 2, the coats, size 12) and dated. But-the fur was good and how awesome to sport the clothing of my late grandmother and mom. All I needed was a little help from the masters.
First stop? J Mendel.  Known for concocting sporty –luxe pieces for celebs like Hilary Swank and Cate Blanchett, retooling my stuff should be a snap.
THE Coat: Grandma BROADTAIL Evening Coat, J MENDEL
My grandmother -a chic Manhattan based sculptor –was my icon. While other kids munched tomorrow dogs at Disney, Hilda escorted me to Madame Butterfly. Her wardrobe was eclectic and thrilling: laptop sized Mayan rings and Peruvian belts coexisted with Dietrich style tuxedo jackets.  Like many of European descent, Hilda invested in a few “good” pieces each year. She had this coat made in1951, her first post war purchase. Hildy opted for Persian lamb to stand out from “the march of mink down Madison”.  By the time that the size 14 coat came to me, it still smacked of 50’s flash.
I had the good fortune of having Gilles Mendel officiate my remodel.  Standing in front of the fancy three way mirror, I looked like Nicole Richie in Oprah’s overcoat.
Within ten minutes, the master whipped my shlubby shape into an of- the- moment silhouette. The long coat was hiked to my knees. The poofy sleeves were pinned to a  flattering ¾ length. Ten sizes of fabric were clipped from the back of the coat, the linebacker shoulder pads removed. The neckline, buttons and exaggerated shoulder would be preserved to maintain the coat’s vintage integrity. Cinching a mink belt just below my ribs delivered an old school yet thoroughly modern wasp waist. During the remodel, the delicate fur would be basted with a cotton cloth and re-lined. I would be mailed selections for a new lining. Two months later, I surveyed myself in the same mirror. Very Hollywood. With the extra fur, Gilles crafted a Parisian “pochette” purse for my daughter Brette.
I adored my mother Barbara (who died of lung cancer last June) but she was no fashionista. By the fifth grade, we existed on opposite poles of the style spectrum. Mom had an affinity for slacks with an elasticized waistband. I sported hot pink stretch pants, Candie’s and my grandfather’s golf sweaters belted with leggings. The grey mink’s oversized sleeve and poufy, elasticized drop waist was retro in a tacky, Knot’s Landing kind of way.
Gilles grimaced at my puffy profile and began sketching: Slice off the sleeves! Remove the cheesy zipper! Elongate the collar and voila, an Edie Sedgewick-esque vest emerged. The cream lining would be swapped for daring fuschia. Mom’s monogram would be preserved. The remnant fur was fashioned into swanky mink cuffs and collar for my four year old daughter Isabella’s down coat.
The dowdy brown coat with bracelet cuffs and icky shiny buttons was perfect for my sensible mom: warm and nondescript. I wavered on remodeling what I assumed was blah beaver. But, when Neimans’ resident fur meister Wally Dongo informed me that the coat was actually high quality sheared mink with huge potential, we forged ahead.
The sleeves and body would be narrowed and a “driver’s coat” shape created by taking the length from the ankle to the knee. The buttons were swapped for hidden hook and ring closures, modern turned back cuffs were created. To my delight, this behemoth of a coat is now my favorite. It is stylish and functional; perfect for work, evening and schlepping my kids around.  Mom would be proud.
This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine