Thursday, July 7, 2011

Guest Post: Reminiscences of Hilditch & Key Paris

by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans


The underrated Carlo Brandelli, former creative director for the Savile Row tailors Kilgour, once complained that if Savile Row was in France, the street of tailors would enjoy protected status from greedy developers and mass-marketing multinationals. Anyone wishing to see how wrong he was need only walk down the streets which used to be the equivalent of London’s Savile Row and Jermyn Street, the traditional homes of each city’s custom tailors, shirtmakers, hatters and bootmakers. Any of us who visit Paris – and any Parisians who are interested enough to read this – bring our particular set of dreams and impressions that we superimpose on the places we visit and end up reconciling them with the realities we encounter of escalating prices, changing product and inexorably, new storefronts pushing out the old.

Old travel guides from the 1920s through the 1960s set out the basic geography for such a walk: tailors were concentrated in the area roughly south of the Opéra, including rue de la Paix, avenue de l’Opera, rue Tronchet and rue Auber. Shirtmakers, bootmakers, hatters and assorted haberdashers studded the Place Vendôme, then lined its tributary the rue de Castiglione and the rue de Rivoli, whose sidewalks still contain the remains of mosaics that might as well date from ancient Rome: scarred, dirty, half-covered with uneven blacktop in places, bearing the names of tenants generally long gone: Rhodes et Brousse, Aquascutum, and most famously Sulka. Down rue de Rivoli odd names like “Bon” and “Harold” now accompany souvenir shops and tourist-trap cafes. A few relatively well-preserved mosaics mark some luxurious addresses that persist to this day: the Hotel Meurice, where the German command dwelt during World War II, hard by the tearoom Angelina, itself a repository for tourists to superimpose their dreams over a faded reality. I cannot recall if the Hotel Brighton, where Lord Byron once stayed, is still where its sidewalk mosaic promises, although generations of Graham Greene fans can continue to be disappointed with the shabby Hotel St. James & Albany. The presence of a very large WH Smith’s can still remind the perceptive flâneur that the formerly luxurious walk down the covered arcades of the rue de Rivoli was also an Anglophilic one.

From the Edwardian period at the end of the 19th century onwards century luxury goods purveyors trading on British pre-eminence opened up branches in Paris with bespoke operations separate from their parents’. So it was that the Paris branch of Washington Tremlett, which used to be at 244 rue de Rivoli, allegedly invented the four-in-hand (i.e. modern) necktie for a client to wear to the Opéra, and the Paris branch of the bespoke bootmakers John Lobb gained as many devoted customers as its London parent. (Now under separate ownership from Lobb London, Lobb Paris sells ready-to-wear as well as maintaining a bespoke product that is rather better regarded than that of its ancestor in St. James’s.) The lamented Edouard & Butler of Bond Street jostled for place and notoriety with Charvet, its neighbor in the Place Vendôme.

Hilditch & Key’s Paris shop is at the grey end of the rue de Rivoli, near the Place de la Concorde. A faded banner hangs in the arcade. It is difficult to read, whether due to the dim greyness, grime or the yellowing of age. Any mosaic in the sidewalk has long been concreted over. Inside, a magnificent cage elevator with the H&K monogram could serve as an allegory for the shop itself: once an elegant conveyance that took customers up a single floor, now permanently out of service for not being up to modern codes. A similar one at the deep-pocketed Hermès some blocks away still runs. Wood shelving holds ready-to-wear shirts, the same as those sold in H&K’s London shop. It looks like it might date from the founding of the Paris shop itself, either 1913 or 1925 depending on whom one talks to.

But we are in search of what set Hilditch & Key Paris apart. That, too, is disappearing into the past and into dreams. No more of the madder silk or cashmere dressing gowns that the house used to pride itself on, although a few cotton and wool robes with silk braiding and tasseled belts still maintain their dignity. The excellent two-ply Scottish cashmere sweaters in gorgeous colors are there until they sell out. It is taking years. Some of the handmade silk ties also appear to have been in the shop for 20 or 30 years – and that’s not a bad thing. Michael Drake, the founder of the tiemaker Drake’s, recently recalled that the Paris shop’s ties were once too discreet to carry a label or a keeper to hold the narrow end of the tie in order to avoid the(rather low) possibility of the narrow end creasing the front of the tie. This would have been in the late 1970s or early 1980s, when Drake’s created some of the most luxurious and extravagantly superfluous scarves imaginable for the Paris branch: cashmere-silk squares 33” on a side hand-printed with medieval images including themes from the enigmatic La Dame à la licorne tapestry series and scenes of razm u bazm (feasting and fighting) reminiscent of Persian illuminated manuscripts such as the Shahnama. Over time, Drake’s appears to have broken its connection to the shop, but they have continued to sell what remained of these along with silk scarves printed with romantic images that are as good as anything I’ve seen from Hermès.

How does one wear these things? In recent years, Drake’s has issued similar prints on a more pedestrian wool and silk in pocket squares or on oblong scarves. The latter at least have the same shape as the common winter muffler so the wearer can plead cold. But do the vividly colored Hilditch Paris squares require us to steal our spouses’ Hermès scarf folding guide? Do we have the front to wear this around our friends, let alone our colleagues? We can take inspiration from the late Philippe Noiret, who favored Charvet for his shirts and suits but nonchalantly looped a H&K Paris unicorn-themed cashmere-silk scarf around his neck. Wear it when chilly, wear it and forget it, wear it to include something luxurious in your everyday attire, wear it as a souvenir of Paris that is more portable than an Eiffel tower snow globe or a postcard of someone’s ass, wear it to remember the Paris shop and what it stood for. For the Paris shop is discontinuing these scarves too: the number of copies that would have to be ordered for a new run are simply too many, the number of takers too gradual. So I take one, Persian-style images of leopards hunting and devouring antelopes or some other ungulates. That will serve the deer right for eating my flowers. Fanciful and gossamer-thin like the dreams and conceits it captures. The price is high, although less than what Drake’s charges for its long printed scarves in wool.

It is the sale period, although the scarves are not in the sale. The sales take place like clockwork at the same time as those in the London shop, which in the last 15 or 20 years has reimposed its dominance. Sized socks, a rarity, appear in the sales – French over-the-calf hosiery in the lightest cotton lisle or merino wool (the more exotic colors, materials and patterns long since having sold out). It is an affordable luxury, owning socks that actually are the same size as your foot. Previously the Paris shop was more or less independent of its London eponym, allowing it to offer items like those described above that couldn’t be found elsewhere. In today’s world where online auctions and enterprising parallel importation have made almost anything a commodity, I would think that this originality would be an asset. However, tastes and retail models change and certain things – such as quality and luxury without compromise – can’t alone support a shop when many brands’ flagships operate as loss leaders supported by licenses and discount sales. There is a reason, after all, why all the shirtmakers and furnishers have dwindled away on rue de Rivoli and its surrounding streets – Gelot the hatters retreated from Place Vendôme to a floor of the Lanvin men’s shop and is now dormant; Tremlett, Edouard & Butler, Boivin, Poirier, d’Ahetze are all forgotten, and Place Vendôme and rue de la Paix now principally serve as showcases for LVMH and Richemont’s competing stables of jewelers and luxury watch brands. Rents rise, and people want the convenient over the custom, the internationally recognizable over the hard-to-find original. And Jermyn Street, the home of Hilditch & Key’s London shops, has itself fallen victim to this as more and more of its residents now operate on a near-permanent discount basis selling approximations of the classic British shirt made to lower standards by cheaper labor.

So the atmosphere in the Paris shop is genteel decline. The staff are a bit gruff until they realize you are a serious customer, although their fatalism remains. The fitting room the last time I had to try something on there was a cubby in the back storeroom, a far cry from the fitting rooms at Charvet or Lanvin which are bigger than some French hotel rooms I have stayed in and probably have thicker walls. The shop’s own bespoke shirtmaking workrooms on the mezzanine of the Paris shop shut down, although they continue to use an excellent subcontractor to assemble the shirts (almost all Parisian shirtmakers use subcontractors to assemble their shirts, with the exception of Charvet, which has its own facilities).

Despite the upbeat and dated articles about the Paris shop on the Hilditch & Key website, the staff of the London shop are reluctant to discuss it, or even to pass on customer queries to the Paris shop. This is rather rich as it is the customers of the Paris branch who have been responsible for most of Hilditch & Key’s fame in recent decades. The Paris shop’s ateliers turn out the postmodern, architectural creations Karl Lagerfeld designs and make the prototype shirts worn by the models on Chanel’s runways; Lagerfeld is easily the most visible and vocal Hilditch & Key customer and never misses an opportunity to mention or recommend them, as Prince Albert of Monaco apparently found. It is difficult to imagine the rather staid London branch turning out Lagerfeld’s high-collared flamboyant pieces. Recently French President and would-be First Consul Nicolas Sarkozy also became a high-profile customer of the Paris shop’s ready-to-wear, apparently at the behest of his ex-model wife Carla Bruni, and indeed a strong current of French fashion and its muses washed up at the door of the Paris shop, including Elle Macpherson, Paloma Picasso, Kenzo and Jane Birkin. In contrast, the most famous living customers of the London shop are Jeffrey Archer and Fran Lebowitz. While any custom maker can lay claim to an illustrious past clientele, that of the Paris shop is particularly impressive: Yves Saint-Laurent, Igor Stravinsky, war hero, writer and diplomat Romain Gary, “gentleman pornographer” and publisher of Lolita Maurice Girodias, Marlene Dietrich, royal pariah the Duke of Windsor (for whom the Paris shop designed a cutaway collar now used in the ready-to-wear line), hell, even Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Shah of Iran.

The Paris shop has recently been a bit more cheerful, particularly with the installation of the hatters Bates on the top floor. Surprisingly, it is doing a roaring trade in Paris. Like Hilditch & Key Paris, Bates Hatters on Jermyn Street had been a quaint shop out of time, as famous for its 1920s stuffed cat Binks as for its classic selection of hats. When it was forced out of its premises by developers a few years ago, the London Hilditch & Key shop allowed it to move in. It is ironic that the hatters taken in by the London shop are helping the Paris shop to survive. Of course, French Anglophilia hasn’t quite died off yet, and I am certain that French Internet Gentlemen would flock if the shop sold button boots, monocles, boating blazers, fancy vests, colorful suspenders and other distortions of le style anglais.

So what is left? Dreams. You aren’t reading this if you don’t dream. The late Jean-Louis Dumas-Hermès very wisely put it 20 years ago that “If people stopped dreaming, we would go out of business.” They continue, and so they continue. Hermès will survive on the strength of its tie and scarf business (and some tacky cheap keychains) carrying its other activities, and for now Charvet’s expensive ready-to-wear and iconic ties support its unimpeachable bespoke services. What was once at Hilditch & Key Paris was individual, sometimes eccentric, often extraordinary. What is left is a question each of us must ask himself once faced with the reality of the present. For now, there is a very new shop on rue de la Paix promising to sell the best of Naples, including ostentatiously hand-stitched ties and Mario Talarico umbrellas. I prefer to search for what is left and save it for what meaning it once had.

Every step can echo with meaning. Remember when you walk on mosaics you may be stepping on memories.

Photo: cdarville

17 comments:

Daedalus said...

Ah, remembering times past. I think a similar decline can be observed in virtually all capital cities.

Here is a video on Domhoff a Dutch tailoring giant which went out of business. Other tailoring firms are mentioned as well. The clip has subtitles:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1900390742662352177

gentleman mac said...

Will, I love this post; it is very well put about the state of things. Although I have always understood and appreciated your perspective, this article sheds even more positive light on it. Thanks.

Tim said...

I guess I'm the odd one out. The subject matter is fine and interesting enough but I found myself getting bored and tired of reading all that text. Between the length and run-ons, I couldn't get through the thing. I enjoy Will's writing that gets to the point and keeps me coming back every day.

NJS said...

Right up my street. Might I respectfully say: well done in commissioning this piece and well done in writing it.

NJS said...

Tim: I take your point. But not for the reason that you might think. I thought, in reading the post, that it was a fine thing that a Frenchman could write such well-honed English; even though it is more common to find a bilingual Frenchman than a bilingual Englishman. Still, I thought that it would be refreshing to find even many Englishmen who could, nowadays, write such good English. A friend has a law firm in the London suburbs. He has taken to running his letters, to his counterparts, in other law firms, through a computer programme to 'dumb them down', because he started finding that his counterparts, in the other firms, simply did not understand his excellent English. It is certainly true that simple English is a standard to be aimed for (rather than 'for which to be aimed'), but it must give us pause to reflect that, these days, even English-speaking 'professionals' are flumoxed by a sentence that contains more than a couple of clauses. If one is writing a piece (such as the post in question), which calls for a stream of expressive thought; then short, stubby sentences just do not do the trick!

moddey screbbagh said...

This was an extremely well written and interesting piece. I hope it is the first of many from your mysterious guest contributor.

Андрей said...

R-J, a terrific piece!

I agree that all this newfound Neapolitan fad doesn't compare in a slightest with what Paris used to offer. (And still has to offer -- in limitied quantities and for exorbitant prices.)

El Aristócrata said...

What a post!
Wonderful article.

I just got three shirts from them bought with the "sales by mail" and I think H&K offers one of the best value for money.

Best regards Will

r. rafael said...

Alan Flusser wrote about Hilditch and Key in his early '80s book Making the Man. The two times I went to Paris I made sure to stop in for a tie.

The Hotel Bristol on Rue Fauborg St. Honore has a working elevator of the type described here. Its grill was designed by Lerman while he was being hidden by Hippolyte Jammet from the Nazis during WWII.

NJS said...

I agree that the poster seems 'mysterious' and both he and his family seem internet-shy, as there is zero on several searches...

Will said...

The name is a nom de plume.

lgcintra said...

Extraordinary post, Will. I´ve been reading A Suitable Wardrobe for three years now and this post is surely on a golden league. I this post we share your dreams. Next time in Paris, I will certainly make the pilgrimage. Thanks.

NJS said...

A nom de plume, eh? Well, he almost certainly isn't English and I'd guess either French or American but, if American, an American in Paris - and one who has been in Paris for some time. But, no doubt, there is a reason to adopt a nom de guerre and I shan't probe!

Sarde said...

Fantastic post. I learn so much from your site and take every post as an opportunity to deepen my knowledge and appreciation of menswear- past, present, and future. I'll be sure to stop in when next in Paris. It makes me want to turn away from internet "flash sales" and put my money toward helping keep these institutions alive.

maxwell said...

I am bit surprised that nobody remarked that the guest author was RJMan. There is no French aristocratic name as "de Mans" and it is pretty obvious that the contributor is a native English speaker

NJS said...

Nice one, Maxwell (if true). There are, though, Frenchmen who have mastered English well enough to write English like this. Some even learned it, under American influence, credibly to use 'postcard of an ass' and 'pocket square'; neither of which many Englishman would use (let alone, both together): it would be 'bottom' and 'handkerchief'. Hence my surmise that the poster might be an American in Paris, so to speak. Well done to you for standing far enough back to see le bois, en depit des arbres.

max b said...

I'm in the fashion business. It is so good to learn that doing our job at best, we can be remembered and write a little piece of the life's history of our customers. This is the part of my job I love, trying to do something people will remember. With all the respect for the people who make the "real" history, obviously.