Recently, Will asked me if all I wanted to be known for was writing book reviews and obituaries. I have begun to branch out, but nontheless thought it important to comment on the death of Old England in Paris. Reports of its impending death are not exaggerated. As it has not yet shut its doors to my knowledge, consider this a chronicle of a death foretold. It closes this year.
For decades, continental Europe and some parts of South America manifested a particular type of middle-class Anglophilia. The great and the good wore the conservative and hoary and shops in expensive areas of town bore names intended to evoke the Britishness of their owners or their merchandise. The wearers put their own stamp on the look, creating a style anglais distinct from the real thing – to the extent it ever existed. As recently as 15 years ago, a luxury department store like Le Bon Marché in Paris contained endless rows of Burberrys (with pre-relaunch genitive “s”) and stank with the oil of innumerable Barbours. I envied the French, Italians and Germans who could wear the latter new without the metaphorical stench of British class presumptions upon them (Le Bon Marché is now owned by LVMH, which has modernized its clothing floors with designer shop-in-shops and the like, while smaller boutiques specializing in Scottish woolens have been pushed out or hang by the cobwebs of their merchandise).
Old England, dominating a dark wood-paneled corner of the boulevard des Capucines, was the cathedral of this retail Anglophilia. It wasn’t until I began preparing this piece that I was reminded it was founded in 1867, a full ten years before Queen Victoria became Empress of India and decades before Zola penned his novel about those newfangled department stores, Au Bonheur des Dames. In other words, Old England preceded the recognition of the British monarch as head of an empire and had existed for years before large-scale retail emporia became a phenomenon. It’s no accident that it was founded under the Second Empire of Napoleon III, whose return from exile in England had been financed in part by the Savile Row tailor Henry Poole (no joke).
Old England's merchandise was similarly informed, and presented in surroundings of baronial splendor: three sprawling floors with wood-paneled walls, discreet display cases for smaller items and tables groaning with cashmeres from the best knitters standing on expanses of Oriental carpets. While it didn’t maintain the livery department advertised in its 1920s catalogs, for over a century Old England stood as an embassy for goods more British than the British themselves. Its staff may have been as fusty and diplomatic, but were refreshingly knowledgeable about their product, which came to include Chester Barrie suits, Brigg umbrellas with a variety of handles, Turnbull & Asser shirts and Drakes ties, along with own-label handstitched gloves and leathergoods, all in an enormous selection of sizes, patterns and colors. For decades Old England maintained a dedicated corner for Edward Green, the best British ready-to-wear shoemaker, which was so comprehensive Green treated it as its only shop outside of London. However, clothes were only part of the Landseer-esque picture: Old England also prided itself on its Fortnum & Mason teas and sundries, its Penhaligon perfumes, its whisky selection and its Smythson stationery.
The sun set slowly on Old England. French Anglophilia conflicted with younger generations’ neophilia. Classicism is good and well, but tweedy conservatism no longer sold on the women’s floors and by the end of the 20th century Old England was part of the brand stable of Richemont, a luxury conglomerate owning Dunhill, Montblanc, the gunmaker Purdey, Cartier and a host of watch names. Although Richemont attempted to update Old England while retaining its atmosphere, it also sacrificed some of the more expensive quality offerings in favor of more cheaply-made items from its own portfolio.
Anglophilia dies out slowly. Mentioning Hugh Grant to even the most branchée and blasée French girl still elicits a strange melty reaction and a coo of “Ewe Grant… he is soooo Briteesh!” As it happens, So British is the name of Old England’s 2002 vanity book, a pudding of fashion syncretism that intersperses close-up pictures of the tweeds, knitwear, and duffel coats in every color sold at Old England with images of the sort of person we are supposed to think shops there: 1950s upper-class London toffs shot by Burt Glinn, a young Malcolm McDowell in stills from If… and Oh! Lucky Man!, the elegant subjects of paintings and fashion illustrations by the likes of Boutet de Monvel, and past paragons of style such as the Duke of Windsor and Leslie Howard, without regard for the adopted Englishness of the one and the abdicated Englishness of the other. Hugh Grant’s current charm lies in his tarnish, his ability to manifest the ignoble and brazen behind a gilded façade, but the Françaises’ conception of Grant is arrested in the floppy-haired, blinking glow of his first rise to prominence. Similarly, Old England reflected, and its book documents the French idealization of an England of Ascot Royal Enclosures and Monty’s duffel coat, Malcolm McDowell’s early films minus their subversion, shooting parties on grouse moors and Wimbledon cream teas. Or is it strawberries? My acquired cultural references forsake me. It’s very difficult to see pictures of a young Malcolm McDowell without thinking of A Clockwork Orange, which depicts a very different England where one isn’t Singin’ in the Rain because of a Brigg umbrella.
A clothing brand coming out with a book is the equivalent of dealing the Death card in tarot: if not death, then major change is in the air: relaunch, expansion and dilution, or indeed a last gasp. New owner Albert Goldberg, unable to make a profit, took a payment from Richemont to vacate the space. Goldberg, who founded the French brand Façonnable, had attempted to use Old England as a base for his new brand Albert Arts. Instead, the store which spawned so many pretenders that its ads used to trumpet proudly “Aucune Succursale” (“No Other Locations”) will be turned into a gigantic multi-brand watch store with, according to the papers, the goal of attracting large groups of Chinese tourists. As every jeweler and watch brand imaginable has shops within a few blocks of Old England, I was surprised there was a niche for this, but (according to La Tribune) nearby department stores already pay kickbacks to Chinese tour operators who bring their charges to find all the watches they want under one roof.
A smaller world makes us confront our ideals. The Eurostar and the Internet made the real England a lot easier to get to and comparison shopping on Old England’s merchandise possible. It isn’t quite true that Old England became too expensive to live. However often my friends complained about the price of their scarves or how much I overpaid for a bottle of Scotch that turned out not to be an exclusive, there’s clearly a clientele out there willing to pay many times more for a cheap ETA watch movement attached to a flashy logo. The shell of Old England will reopen as the watch store Bucherer at the end of 2012. I expect many a tourist will walk by and momentarily think that the big watch store has a nifty façade. They’ll then end up at a palatial nearby Starbucks and wonder what that used to be (it used to be a bank).
The makers Old England carried, those that still exist, will carry on: Edward Green and Penhaligon opened their own Paris shops recently; Swaine Adeney Brigg umbrellas sell at a few umbrella shops; Fortnums tea is not hard to come by.
Why care? The market will decide. But nothing like it existed before, and nothing like it will again, a monument to an ideal, as mongrel and bastardized as that ideal was. The materials and labor to make Old England – or some of its merchandise - would be too expensive today.
What is left? Years ago, a beautiful, conflicted girl paused on the Champs-Elysées and said to me, “C’est la frime, baby.” She was right. It’s all for show.
-Written by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans