There seem to be fewer desireable items unique to a place. Leaving aside the bespoke, which is always best ordered and fitted in the presence of the cutter or maker, nowadays almost everything is available on Google for comparison shopping, flipped on ebay by some enterprising parallel importer or made especially for discount sale through Gilt. If it isn’t online, once the magazines discover it, some boutique in New York will pick it up and pretty soon a brand expansion will bring the fragrance, the bath robe and the limited edition tote bag with purchase to these fine stores.
I am for progress and renewal. Unfortunately, redevelopment in the historic shopping areas of the world usually means homogenization to a standard of boring, set to the thudding Abercrombie & Fitch drumbeat that echoes down Savile Row (I felt very sorry for the shirtless doormen when Abercrombie & Fitch opened that shop on a cold January day). Still, this is a consumer concern, not one of encroachment on cultural or archaeological areas. At the same time, changes to retail areas generally seem intended to fulfill the most expedient desires for gain and appeal to similarly expedient convenience, or our pretensions to taste and social status rather than to any real sense of beauty, let alone originality or edification. Taken to its logical if extreme conclusion, perhaps one day we all will buy our factory food from a hypermarket, eat corn syrup, salt and hydrogenated oils in various configurations at similar franchise restaurants, obtain diabetes in a cup from an American-style chain café, pay anything from very little to very much (depending on our sensitivity to different kinds of marketing) for essentially the same cheaply-made clothes, and go to a multiplex to watch some ghastly CGI nightmare less convincing than the old Ray Harryhausen stop-action stuff.
There are still oases of originality in this encroaching desert of sameness that make one cry, as the old joke goes, “Vive la difference!” Since Will asks, there are still a few items of clothing, shoes and accessories available in Paris that can’t be found elsewhere, such as the exquisite new line of Massaro ready-to-wear shoes, Jacques Ferrand’s off-the-wall leathergoods, and the silks on offer at the baroque little boutique L’escalier d’argent in the gardens of the Palais-Royal.
Both L’escalier's location and its merchandise are compelling to those of us who remain impressionable tourists at heart. Despite its name, the Palais-Royal was never inhabited by French royalty, IIRC – the cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin made it their homes and eventually it was carved up into separate residences, becoming by the 18th-century a bit of red-light area. Le Grand Véfour is there, as are old shops selling bizarre items like toy soldiers, the vintage couture shop Didier Ludot, a few designers, and this boutique, selling magnificent ties based on 18th-century French fabric designs. The proprietor’s wife comes from the Jacquard family which invented that loom, or so he informed me, and the magnificent brocades are made up for the shop and then handmade – still in France, last time I looked into ties and, for the flamboyant, ornate waistcoats, although those are costumey enough to appeal to a riverboat gambler. The owner and his wife are genial and warm, and their charmingly odd little shop also sells cashmere shawls and old military and map prints. Prices are relatively reasonable, particularly given the original designs and the quality construction.
It was also interesting to me that L’escalier d’argent’s ties are made in France now that the most famous French tiemaker (apart from Hermès and, I suppose, Charvet), Breuer, has begun labeling its ties “Designed in France, Made in Italy,” as if intangible French design should be a strong selling counterpoint to their change in place of manufacture. The Renault Le Car and the current Bibliothèque Nationale were also designed in France, but no one should be proud of those. I’m sure one doesn’t need to look back to 18th-century fabrics for laurels French design can rest on or for gloriously magnificent imperfections – even, say, the beauty and creativity present in Jean Nouvel’s less practical building designs.
Interesting clothiers like L’escalier d’argent are often small and family-owned, and are getting rarer – according to our friends on the French blogs (hi boys), the infamous Left Bank shop Arnys is being purchased by LVMH, possibly in order to use its location to compete with a sprawling new Hermès store across the street. Like many family-owned businesses in France, L’escalier d’argent is closed for a period in August and, I would guess, at the beginning of the year, inconvenient for time-pressed tourists. However, if one expects the convenience and accessibility of a suburban Neiman-Marcus, one ought to expect its soul-killing unimaginative selection of the pompous and the pedestrian as well. Plan ahead or visit at a different time of year.
Despite their designs being inspired by the old, L’escalier d’argent’s ties work well with the new – some, such as the woven feather pattern, may require something of a sense of humor, but work well with, say, a light orange zephyr shirt, while the bright red woven pictured is gorgeous with a variety of different colors and patterns. While their woven silk is soft and substantial, the ties themselves are not oppressively thick and tie a good knot. Something interesting for the journey, even if going home simply involves stepping on the Métro.