It’s a sticky Manhattan day, and I’m gradually melting into my pleather seat at Sant Ambroeus, a charming Milanese café in the West Village. Eva Mendes, however, is as chill as a Popsicle. When my blowout slowly unfurls into frizz, the actress goes quickly into stylist mode, pulling a burnt-orange batik scarf from her Carolina Herrera tote and showing me how to wrap it around my head, Cuban style, to sharpen my look.
"Not that I’m so polished," says Mendes, whose ensemble—a floral Daughters of the Revolution dress paired with the perfect summery espadrilles, her copper-streaked hair pulled up into a just-messy-enough bun—tells a different story. She quickly rattles off a few other secrets that the "great group of women" in her life have taught her: how a puff of baby powder can refresh hair, why she never leaves home without a pair of socks in her purse (for going through airport security) and how she doesn’t mind all the attention her body receives. "Weight is not my issue," she says. "I’ll do anything for a role. For A Place Beyond the Pines, I exercised a lot. I wanted my character to feel really depleted. But my mom didn’t understand why I would want to look that way. She’s constantly telling me I’m too skinny!" And while she eats healthily—no red meat or chicken—she does admit to a weakness for cake, especially meringue cake from Porto’s, a Cuban bakery near her home.
Mendes’ Hollywood journey began with 1998’s Children of the Corn V (other major stars to emerge from those cornfields include Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts). Though that was more than a decade ago—and her résumé now includes well-received turns opposite Will Smith in Hitch and Joaquin Phoenix in We Own the Night—she remembers what it was like to struggle. "You do six auditions a day, you’re changing in your car, you’re living off the coins in your change drawer and having Taco Bell for breakfast, lunch and dinner," she recalls. The thrifty gene she developed during those times has, apparently, stuck with her. "I love a bargain," she says. The next thing I know, she whips off her belt and triumphantly presents me with the tag—it reads $2.99 in blue marker.
Some of Mendes’ favorite fashion excursions, to this day, are to thrift stores—film shoots introduce her to new ones all the time ("I’m like, Salvation Army, great. Goodwill, even better!"). Her "quiet quest" for more dimensional roles has also taken her to some interesting places of late. Mendes just appeared in Larry David’s HBO ensemble comedy Clear History and recently finished How to Catch a Monster, the directorial debut of her boyfriend, Ryan Gosling, in which she plays Cat, a theater-club performer. She’s famously tight-lipped about their relationship. “You can ask about my boyfriend. I just won’t answer,” she says with a wink. Yet her private life is just a click away. "The way my mother keeps track of me is looking me up," she says. "I say, ‘Please, Mother, don’t Google me!’"
What Mendes is effusive about is her wardrobe, so it was kismet when New York & Company approached her about creating a collection. "I never thought I would be a designer, if that’s what I am," she tells me. "And at first, I wasn’t sure I could do it." She ran the idea past her mom, also named Eva, and her two older sisters—something she does with every opportunity. ("Except the films I pick," she jokes. "They’d like me to do Hitch over and over again.") The Mendes women were insistent. "They were like, ‘Evie, you have to do this!’" Her sisters were the motivating force behind the collection, which debuts September 19. As she guides me through the lookbook, she perks up as if she’s just been chosen first for the kickball team. It’s easy to imagine her affordably chic "day to dinner" looks being worn on women of all ages, sizes and professions. "My customer is not a fan of the way tabloids cover celebrity style: ‘Who wore it best?’" she says, her smile noticeably fading. "It’s disastrous for women’s self-esteem. With fashion, there is no right or wrong."
Mendes’ favorite pieces include a black shift with lace across the décolleté. A jacquard dress with half sleeves offers a sleek silhouette that, she promises, looks good on a size 2 or a size 12. "Very Dolce Vita," she says. "Fellini-approved." A bodysuit was inspired by the one she wore as a shopgirl back at the Glendale Galleria in high school, snaps at the crotch and all. "It takes me back to the ’90s, when girls like Mariah Carey were killing that look that my friends all loved. And we still do!" The looks evoke that exotic, European coquettishness that Mendes exudes so naturally. "Monica Vitti, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida—they are who I gravitated to at my local video-rental store as a kid," she says. "I was definitely looking for women I could relate to."
With must-see movies, a Hollywood power-couple relationship and a new clothing line, Eva Mendes has become one of those role models herself. Still, she insists, she feels like a regular girl from the Valley. "Of course, to feel beautiful, you have to have healthy self-esteem and work on yourself, and that can be hard," she says. "And there are days when I don’t feel great, but I put on my favorite dress and throw a scarf in my hair, and it makes all the difference. Hopefully my line can do that for women. Even if you’re not feeling your best, let’s admit it, the right outfit helps."