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There’s only one mess John Mahdessian, the owner of New York’s swankiest specialty dry cleaning concern, Madame Paulette, won’t touch. “That [Real Housewives] reunion is so dirty that even me, the cleaner to the stars, couldn't clean that mess up.”
Mahdessian is the boyfriend of New York housewife Dorinda Medley, who joined the Bravo franchise in 2015 with John in tow. He quickly became a divisive presence among Medley's co-stars, who criticized him for what they felt was his unceasing sales-y schtick, for his partying, for being too sweaty. The bad feelings are mutual; of his paramour's castmates, he says, "I'd need to bring the FDNY and the NYPD, let one fight the crime, one fight all the mess, and I'll take out the grime, and maybe we'll clean up that crew."
In an interview with Racked, Mahdessian talked about how he turned a family business into the dry cleaner to the stars, his brush with reality TV fame, and what’s next for Madame Paulette.
Let’s begin with the matter of Bethenny Frankel’s moths. When the star of the New York City version of the Housewives franchise found her Manhattan apartment besieged by moths, she called Mahdessian in a panic.
If one is lucky enough to have New York City's premiere specialty cleaner on speed-dial, the time to call is when moths invade your $4.2 million lower Manhattan home. But it takes a brass set to call in a favor from a man you've called a cow to his face, and described on television by saying he's "shady," “turns people off," and "never misses the opportunity to do the wrong thing," even going so far as to say his girlfriend "knows what he is, and it makes her self-conscious."
But call Mahdessian Bethenny did. "Guess the nice guy who came to her rescue? It was me. Her entire wardrobe, her entire home." (A rep for Frankel declined to comment on the call.) He demurs when asked how, exactly, he eradicated the Skinnygirl founder's winged invaders. But he makes it clear that he takes his job seriously, regardless of whether he's called upon to remove a red wine stain or a fleet of insects from someone's home. "Our team is geared up like the Black Ops. You go in, every different terrain, and the enemy is gonna pose different threats and you got to be ready to take out your enemy."
If you’re wondering how an Armenian family came to own a dry cleaning business with a distinctly French name, wonder no more.
Mahdessian's great-uncle, Andy Minassian, founded the business out of exasperation: His wife was a collector of French couture and every year they flew to Paris to have her wardrobe maintained. At the time, there was no one in New York who could perform that kind of work. Finally, fed up with the travel, Minassian announced that he was opening up a cleaning business so that they could service his wife’s couture collection without the use of a passport.
Her name, of course, was Paulette.
Mahdessian's father, Noubar, arrived in the US from Cyprus in 1959 and went to work at Madame Paulette while taking evening courses at NYU, where he studied accounting. When his uncle got sick early in Noubar's tenure at Madame Paulette, he set accounting aside and took over the business. Minassian died shortly after. Paulette moved back to Paris.
Noubar's big break came in the form of a piece in New York magazine heralding his ability to eliminate stains that no one else could remove. "I said, 'That was great, Dad, you got a write-up!' He says, 'Oh it's terrible.' I said, 'Why?' and he goes, 'Because all they would do is bring me their problem pieces! It was headache after headache after headache.'" Out of all of those headaches, however, sprang a specialty cleaning business worth an estimated $5 million.
Mahdessian didn't set out to take over the family business. He always fancied himself an entrepreneur, running a flea market booth at age 14, out of which he sold everything from racquetball equipment to jewelry, "whatever I could get my hands on." Later, while in college at Villanova, Mahdessian passed on the lifeguarding jobs that were popular among his peers in favor of selling real estate. "I was always very liquid in college. I played Division I lacrosse, I was in a big lacrosse house, sponsoring all the keg parties, it was a lot of fun. I remember renting out my Giorgio Armani suits to my friends for interviews. I was hustling."
Mahdessian hustled his way into a post-graduate job on Wall Street with his signature bravado. "I'm sure I would have crushed it, because I have a good work ethic. Being Armenian, there [were] a lot of sacrifices from my family, my heritage, you know, the genocide. So when I heard all the stories about how I got to where I am, through my family and their legacy, working six or seven days a week for ten hours a day wasn't an issue. I was far from lazy."
The summer before starting his investment banking job, he decided to help his father run Madame Paulette. And, like his father before him, an unexpected illness led Mahdessian to abandon his plans and focus his hustle on expanding the family business. "I wanted to be there for my father, because I didn't think he was going to be around much longer; the chemicals back then were bad. So I gave up my aspirations and literally after being in business for 30 years, my dad, I retired him in six months. He was old school, I was new. He didn't take credit cards!"
Part of Mahdessian’s new-school approach involved playing mad scientist on nights and weekends. He describes his process of slavishly testing methods and techniques as "a very expensive education that I put myself through." While Mahdessian won't give up any of his secrets, one technique that he still uses is the literal deconstruction and resewing of garments, which allows him to treat only the soiled area, while leaving the rest of the fabric untouched. His dogged pursuit paid off, and he counts the restoration of Princess Diana's gowns and a museum-bound collection of 1920s-era Chanel pieces among his many successes. He lights up when describing the arrival of the Chanel trove: "I blew dust off the box and said, 'What do we have here?’ and then POOF! I brought all these things back to life for the exhibit at the Met."
Humble, he is not. But he puts the work in, using the same hustle that served him so well at the flea market, at Villanova, and in his early years running Madame Paulette.
"I am a guy that — where most people become complacent in anything in their life, their relationship, their business, whatever it is — I like to raise the bar. That's what I did in this industry, I took what I had and I raised the bar. People would give me garments that they couldn't pay me enough and I would take it as a personal task and try to figure out how to do it. Like, an ink pen would blow up and I would take apart the whole jacket, remove the ink and put it back together."
Mahdessian tells the story of a client in possession of a vast Pierre Balmain collection from the 1950s that was slated to go to a museum for exhibition. Shortly before she was due to consign the gowns for display, her Fifth Avenue apartment was flooded. The Balmain collection was ruined; the water caused the dye to bleed, and the wet garments developed mold. Several museum curators told her it was a total loss and that if she could salvage even one piece, it would be a miracle. Those same curators told her to discard her collection.
She called Mahdessian in tears. "John, I've had a tragedy."
"Okay, great," came his reply.
He took every piece apart. He created a solution that would treat the mildew and the fugitive dyes but preserve the integrity of the original fabric and color. He watched each piece as it took its "bath" to ensure that it only stayed in the solution for the exact amount of time it needed and not a minute longer. He neutralized the fabric. He reconditioned it so that it would have its original feel. And then he sewed every piece back together by hand.
It took a year. But in the end, Mahdessian restored 90 of the 100 water-damaged Balmain pieces. His client cried again, but this time they were tears of joy.
These days, Mahdessian is hard at work at democratizing his services. Currently, the barrier to entry at Madame Paulette is quite high; most people don't have $350 to spend to dry clean a single gown, much less a wardrobe that demands such bespoke servicing. But most of us do have stains, and Mahdessian is about to bring a single-use stain kit to market that will treat virtually every stain type possible.
There's an educational component to the kit as well, designed to demystify the handling of different fabric types. Mahdessian is at his most likable when he gets into the weeds on stain removal techniques. “The most important thing is addressing it as quick as possible. Time is your biggest enemy. [And] you should know your fabrics. This kit [has] all the tools for all consumers to remove any stains from any fabrics — wool, cashmere, blends, polyesters, whatever, silks, including mohair.
“Let’s say you get a little dot of a ballpoint pen, and if you don’t know how to remove it, it’s just going to grow and spread. Water will help things migrate, [so] you always need an absorbent cloth and need to flush it through. And there’s a method of removing stains. The first method is to remove the oil — let’s say the stain is a creamy tomato sauce. You have cream, you have tomato and you have oil, so you have all three properties. You’re supposed to remove the oil first, then the tomato, then the cream, in that order. So if you use something to remove cream first, it’s very likely that you can set the tomato stain. Not to get complicated."
Reader, he got complicated. And it was a joy to behold.
As for Housewives, he feels that he doesn't need the exposure. He's been approached to do a show of his own, which he describes as The View-meets-Antiques Roadshow. "I'm an institution — I have over 80 active billionaires, I ship worldwide every day. Maybe for people in Arkansas or Indiana, places where they may not know that a company like mine exists … if you're a real connoisseur, you do your homework. We get recommended from all the designer boutiques on Madison Avenue, from all the interior designers."
He's also not a fan of the show. "I don't even think I watched every episode, I hate to say it. If I want to watch a bunch of women going at it, you can just step out to any bar at midnight or 1 o'clock in the morning and see the same thing going on in some circle."
But there's one thing he appreciates about the Bravo franchise as a whole: the regularity with which the women throw wine at and on one another. "I just see dollar signs. When they say 'It's ruined!' I'm like 'Cha-ching!"