Thump. A sack full of dresses hits the carpet. Dark floral frocks tumble over one another, while bright scarves coil like snakes in the bottom of the bag. I hold up one large rose-pink square with a purple flamingo stencilled on it, squealing over the bird’s ornery little face. “You like it?” Eva Mendes asks, her low voice rising in communion with a fellow vintage lover. “Take it!”
For FLARE’s cover story, Mendes, 40, and I were supposed to go trolling for vintage together at one of her regular thrift stores, but the paparazzi’s relentless zeal precludes our adventure. Such is the fallout from dating Canadian national treasure and worldwide obsession Ryan Gosling. (The day before our interview, Mendes put persistent pregnancy rumours to rest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, then joked that her Valentine’s Day plans consisted of watching The Notebook with a deep-dish pizza.) So instead of heading out, we settle in on a huge, soft couch in the Beverly Hills home where FLARE’s shoot has just taken place, and start pawing through her favourite vintage pieces. Gosling goss is, unsurprisingly, off limits.
Mendes and He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned met during the filming of 2012’s drama The Place Beyond the Pines, and she next appears on-screen in his directorial debut, the noir fantasy Lost River. (Mendes reportedly plays an underworld theatre club doyenne; the release date is TBD.)
However, she was a bona fide movie star long before she ever set eyes on you-know-who, having graced blockbusters such as Hitch and Ghost Rider. She then went on to appear in acclaimed independent films like Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Holy Motors, and comedies including The Other Guys and Clear History with Larry David. Almost 15 years’ worth of sultry parts in thrillers like Training Day, Out of Time and We Own the Night created a glamorous mirage: many hear Eva Mendes and immediately think sex bomb. In reality, though, her style is refreshingly refined. Mendes lives in swishy, swirling, flowing frocks, from Goodwill shirt-dresses to Prada chiffon gowns. She’s unabashedly a lady.
Such elegance was not always Mendes’ métier, but her transformation seems to have tapped into a collective longing: multiple items from the fall 2013 debut of her demure New York & Company clothing line sold out fast. Her spring offering is now available; both seasons were inspired by her vintage collection, items mostly procured from thrift stores for $10 or less.
The line grew out of Mendes’ frustration with the fact that she couldn’t find updated versions of her preferred styles: “affordable, accessible, ladylike clothes like dresses cut to the knee and blousy things that come in at the waist. When I was wearing [those types of things], so many women would be like, ‘Where’d you get that dress?’ and I’d feel so bad saying, ‘I got it at a thrift shop.’” She dragged a trunkful of her clothes to the New York & Company studio, including a brown frock speckled with white polka dots that she runs out to fetch from the car. This beloved piece (Goodwill, $9) begot a dotted tan shirt-dress in her last collection. After Mendes wore it on Good Morning America, it promptly sold out.
In person, Mendes is a Roy Lichtenstein lithograph, all eyes and brows and luscious mouth rendered in dark, sure strokes. Her rich brunette waves bounce with enviable pneumatics—fitting for a Pantene celebrity ambassador. Today, she’s wearing a purple paisley vintage sundress that flares at the waist. George, the massive, scruffy, Benji-like were-dog that accompanied her to the shoot, lies at our feet; she leans down to rub his apparently distressed tummy. “Oh, boo-boo, are you doing OK?” she coos, apologizing several times and offering to move to an adjacent couch when he begins passing gas with gusto.
As we’re talking, Mendes grazes the shoulder of my hot- pink Value Village shift. “I love this,” she says. I’d worn it in honour of our cover’s retro theme, a sensibility selected by Mendes herself. Weeks in advance, she worked with our fashion director, Tiyana Grulovic, and photographer Guy Aroch to create an entire world for the photo series. Just to be clear—celebrities almost never do this. Mendes even created a character: “Judith Grant,” a stylish yet restless ’50s housewife “with too much time on her hands” who drifts around her perfectly appointed house, waiting for something to happen. “Today I felt really connected to the shoot and the clothes because it’s all stuff I love,” she says.
Mendes grew up in Glendale, Calif., where, she says, “the weather and the easiness to everything” helped inform her style. “When I was 15, nothing could be short enough,” she says. “I had to have those little shorts, those little crop tops.” For her role as a scrappy single-mom waitress in The Place Beyond the Pines, she resurrected her own pair of cheek-skimming cut-offs.
Her love affair with bygone eras also began close to home. In the foreign-film section of the video store down the street from her house, the 19-year-old discovered a new world whose denizens included voluptuous ’60s Italian sirens Monica Vitti, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida.
“I’d choose the film based on the women who spoke to me on the cover. I remember being drawn to those women. They were so exotic. Maybe it was because I could identify with them more than the stars who were popular.” Back then, the celebrities du jour included Sharon Stone, Drew Barrymore, Michelle Pfeiffer and Meg Ryan, while Mendes’ celluloid crushes were “darker, with larger features, bigger noses,” she says. “Twenty years ago, I’m not sure that there were many popular stars who looked like that.”
Once Mendes became a star herself, her evolving style was more scrutinized. Scroll back through her red-carpet history, and you can watch the two sides of Mendes—bombshell versus buttoned-up—battle it out over dozens of film premieres and parties. Deep, deep Vs slice through gauzy long-sleeved gowns. Turtlenecks and genteel cocktail frocks share closet space with décolletage-baring dresses and jeans. Even her previous FLARE cover (January 2004) features Mendes in a very low-cut lace dress, showing off a significant amount of her bodacious assets.
Slowly, Mendes embraced the restraint that suits her so well: the hemlines crept down, the necklines inched up, the sleeves grew long. The less skin she showed, the more confident she looked. “It’s not that I’m against body-conscious clothes: I have worn them on the red carpet or out, but when I’m photographed in them, I always regret it,” she says. “For me, it’s always been the easy way out. When I wear something a little more revealing, I think, Oh, gosh, I should have been more creative.” Now when she has to slink into come-hither clothing for a film or photo shoot, Mendes sees it as just another role to play. “I don’t like when it’s just me and I’m not working. I don’t like feeling like I’m on display.”
One of Mendes’ greatest sartorial triumps was the Gucci she wore to the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Last Night: “I usually stay away from red because it can be too va-va-voom and too much of a statement. But because this was chiffon, it just felt so right. It was an orangey kind of red, and it had long sleeves, went to the floor and had a high neck. I could live in a dress like that. It’s just so comfortable and romantic, and more indicative of my real style.”
Head wraps are another staple. “They’re an easy way for me to feel pulled together, even when I’m not,” she says. “Some kind of scarf or a mini-turban situation. That finishes a not-so-great outfit and polishes up the look a bit.”
Her affection for this type of head wear can be attributed to her Cuban background, she says, along with her love of “colour, pattern and flowy things”—though she adds, “My mother always says she wants to see me in more fitted things! She’s always saying, ‘Show off your body, it’s not always going to be like this!’”
Her mamá regularly emails her daughter critiques of her red-carpet outfits, entitled “Mom’s Review.” “She’s usually on the money,” Mendes says. “If she doesn’t like something, I can usually see why: it didn’t photograph well or looked weird around the waist.”
Mendes — who occasionally works with a stylist — lists Galliano-era Dior and Prada as her favourite fashion labels. Last year, she worked with Miuccia on a peach gown for the Place Beyond the Pines premiere. “Ms. Prada wanted my input. The dress felt really ladylike. We came up with some- thing really sweet, simple and elegant, colourful and easy.”
Easy is a word that comes up over and over during our conversation. “I love easy,” Mendes says, laughing. “There’s a theme.” It suits a star who prefers life away from the paparazzi, and chooses comfort and class over boring bare skin.
George sighs and lumbers to his feet. It’s just about time to go home, so Mendes and I stuff the dresses back into her bag, and she draws me in for an abuelita-warm hug. It’s the night before Valentine’s Day, and I picture George’s cozy evening tomorrow: curled up by his master’s feet, snuffling the occasional pizza crust from Mendes’ outstretched hand, basking in the blue glow of The Notebook.
Photography by Guy Aroch
Styling by Hayley Atkin