By Rory Winston
Having been brought up in a middle class Jewish neighborhood, to this day it’s difficult not to smile whenever I hear the words ‘dry cleaner.’ Throughout my adolescence the profession evoked a series of one-liners. Whether it was an elderly family member misquoting Myron Cohen’s “Mister, that ticket’s over ten years old… Okay, okay - it’ll be ready next Tuesday,” or a friend of my father recounting Woody Allen’s stand-up riff about aliens from the far reaches of our galaxy entrusting our planet with their laundry, dry cleaning had always been a staple punch line to an ever changing joke. By the time I was attending University, it was Jerry Seinfeld who revived the classic theme by sharing his discovery that ‘dry cleaning’ was an oxymoron: ‘dry and cleaning – how is this even possible? We know they’ve got liquid hidden somewhere on the premises.’
While the image I harbored about most professions had changed by the time I was an adult, dry cleaning remained immutable: although people who cooked exceptionally well or made a perfect pair of pants were no longer mothers or grandmothers but Michelin star chefs and haute couture designers, people who did dry cleaning – well, my imagination had hit an impasse. It was not until I discovered Madame Paulette that I realized that not only was dry cleaning an overlooked art but – when mastered and done to perfection – it was an art that elicited the same level of imagination, research, testing, creativity and obsessive passion that one relegates to the geniuses behind enduring works bearing the title ‘masterpiece.’
Although it may have been Lady Macbeth who ran about endlessly ranting “Out damn spot! Out I say,” it is none other than John Mahdessian who has succeeded at this demanding task even in places where other University accredited men have failed. Inventing techniques to suit unprecedented situations, Mahdessian not only managed to create a means of reversing oxidation and yellowing but has essentially been able to restore otherwise faded and corrupted garments to their original color and luster by soaking them in custom made solutions.
Eliminating mildew and reviving fabrics whose colors have bled all over one another, Mahdessian has resurrected vintage costumes and designer heirlooms that even professional art restorers and auction houses had all but given up on. With acumen for chemistry, an eye for authenticity and colors and a keen awareness of design and integrity of product, Mahdessian has created a laboratory-cum-atelier capable of tackling all range of problems. In addition, he has created what can best be described as a think tank for revolutionary and creative solutions in the field of clothing and fabric restoration. It is little wonder that Madame Paulette has been entrusted with tasks ranging from restoring an original Winston Churchill general’s coat to the entire cast of costumes in the original Wizard of Oz - a project commissioned by the esteemed Disney Museum. With clients that range from the highly distinguished Anna Wintour to Kate Hudson, to the late Princess Diana, (just to name a few), Madame Paulette has become a noble House of creative restoration in its own right.
Like all great institutions – whether it be the School of Rembrandt or Chanel, today’s Madame Paulette has seven subdivisions which include a Bridal Apparel, Cleaning and preservation sector (collaborating with numerous world renowned designers from Vera Wang to Monique Lhuillier to Christian Dior to Oscar de la Renta), a hand laundering department and a high caliber tailoring sector. Besides this, they have their signature flagship department on whose inception the entire business had begun, the design apparel section that deals with both Prêt a Porter and Couture.
As family traditions go, Madame Paulette dates back several generations to a woman of that name – a French lady who had settled with her Armenian born husband in New York, a man who was so devoted to his wife that he built an entire business primarily to service her highly valued private couture collections. The man in question was John’s great uncle.
Shortly after his uncle got sick, John’s own father gave up his own aspirations to become an accountant and took over the business for him. Upon his great uncle’s death, Madame Paulette moved back to Paris and John’s dad ran the dry cleaning firm for the next 30 years. Just as John himself was graduating college and starting to work on Wall Street, history was to repeat itself. This time it was John’s father who had gotten sick and John eventually ended up coming to his rescue, abandoning his own dreams and taking over the business.
But dynasties are strange creatures. They redirect the passions of those who marry themselves to their cause and inculcate them with new dreams and aspirations. And so it was that John ended up not only being wholly devoted to making Madame Paulette work as a business but channeling his own desires through her, he reinvented the dry cleaning firm till it included everything from restoring elements of high end interiors (Donald Trump’s private plane included) to complementing their clothing reparations to include leather and furs.
Seinfeld was right. Mahdessian did have liquids hidden on the premises – especially invented, highly effective solutions that could resuscitate an otherwise dead garment. If the joke is on anybody today, it’s probably on comedy legends like Seinfeld and Woody Allen themselves since if it came to serious restoration or cleaning, it’s unlikely they’d turn to any place else than Madame Paulette.