A French literature professor and critic once derided the “intellectual masturbations” of the mid century existentialists in their Saint-Germain-des-Près cafes on the Paris Left Bank. He hadn’t seen anything yet. Saint-Germain-des-Près enjoyed a reputation as an intellectual area, neighboring as it does the universities in the Latin Quarter, as well as a past connection to the fabled nobility of the old-money Faubourg Saint-Germain. At the time that Jean-Paul Sartre and his ilk congregated in the area, it was somewhat down at heel. A café offered free heat and shelter to an impoverished writer and his visitors there could pay for their own drinks. Since the middle of the last century, a variety of luxury brands have moved into that area. The institutions already there survive, or survived for a time, by claiming a luxury status of their own – the Café Flore, the bookstore La Hune, and the soon-to-be defunct outfitters Arnys. They laid claim to the intellectual heritage of past customers and the intellectual pretensions of a moneyed new clientele and prospered… at the pleasure of the multinational conglomerates who now dominate what passes for luxury and taste. One of them, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) has now acquired Arnys, and in the usual process of retail phagocytosis, plans to turn its shop into a new flagship for Berluti, the flashy LVMH shoe line which has just expanded into clothing.
Let us backtrack, for the hypothetical reader who, laudably, does not read the sanity-challenging Internet forums on men’s clothing and may not know what Arnys is. Founded in the early 1900s by Jankel Grimbert, Arnys dominated a corner of the rue de Sèvres for most of a century. Its expansive vitrines were windows into a universe of fanciful, romantic escapism where its clothes and accessories mixed the trappings of aristocratic decadence with affectations of intellectual eccentricity. Every item sold in the store, from its uselessly delicate wool and silk Gallo socks to its glimmering array of gold cuff links with cabochon-studded seashells from Trianon, was either of the highest quality or the most luxurious design, and sometimes both. Nowhere else could you expect to find seasonal collections with an evening cape collared in the lushest, most luminous swakara astrakhan, or ties as uncompromisingly designed as their Cravates d’atelier, completely unlined seven-fold ties stitched by hand out of a square of heavy woven silk with ridiculously over-the-top hand-rolled hems. Like most unlined seven-folds, they were prone to crumpling perfectly in keeping with the decadent aesthetic of the house. Arnys also popularized the cran tailleur in ready-to-wear, the iconic oddly fishmouthed lapel notch that is supposed to be peculiar to French bespoke tailoring. Despite its ready-to-wear focus, Arnys embraced a certain pose of epicurean decadence, and some of my more sensible French friends detested Arnys for what they judged to be its phony noblesse déchue look.
What Arnys may have been most famous for, however, was its Forestière jacket, a horribly unflattering officer-collared jacket allegedly designed for Le Corbusier, at one time a neighbor on rue de Sèvres. For some time Arnys has no longer referred to Corbusier by name in discussing the jacket, so I’m betting that his heirs or his foundation leaned on them to stop, but the iconic connection has been forged and men of pretension across the world adopted this monstrosity to show their fellow Alan Flusser readers that they were somehow more artistic than their conventionally dressed brethren. The Forestière was allegedly inspired by a forester’s or gamekeeper’s coat from the Sologne, and Arnys dug deep into the archives of military, noble and country clothing for its inspirations, interpreting them in luxurious materials. Some of the much better realized interpretations were the Norton, Livingstone and Solférino jackets, and the incredibly precious Fifre trousers, which had a very broad, multiple-buttoned waistband and very tapered legs, essentially requiring one to have the physique of a disenfranchised noble or fluffy-haired youthful romantic.
Not all of Arnys’ creations were successes – its many less-inspired misfires, even for those of us who fit the willowy moneyed French romantic ideal, verged on those of an International Male catalog on its least coded , most puzzling days. Certainly the canvas onesie Arnys proposed for this summer ranks and reeks among those. But its designs have been consistently creative without much regard to contemporary fashion trends. In that at least it resembled its replacement, Berluti, which – all sniping as to quality and Olga Berluti’s purple puffery aside – has been incredibly influential in shoe design for the last decade, and which at its best offered unexpectedly creative, dashing, romantic designs and colors.
It came as something of a surprise to see that all of the press about the LVMH acquisition of Arnys refers to Arnys as a custom tailor, for Arnys was never principally known for its bespoke. It offered bespoke tailoring at dissuasive prices (nearing five figures), and to my knowledge I have never seen Arnys bespoke tailoring in person. Those more in the know than I have savaged it, not for its very French handwork but for its cut and fit, although I have learned to wait and make my own judgment from personal experience in these matters. For those interested in making their own evaluation, the only well-known customer of Arnys bespoke to my knowledge is Nicolas Sarkozy’s hapless former prime minister François Fillon. Arnys also prided itself on employing Michel Korn , who had run the bespoke shirt operation at Sulka Paris and Francesco Smalto, but every real shirtmaker in Paris is quick to look down his or her nose and mention that Korn was a salesman, not a shirtmaker (which makes a difference in fitting customers and perfecting their patterns). With Arnys’ minimum order of three or five shirts at over 500 euros a shirt, it was impossible to try the house shirtmaker on a whim, as I had one afternoon with Lanvin following a massage and haircut among the vieux beaux at Desfossé.
No, the reason the press, typically ill-informed and quoting from corporate media releases in these matters, referred to Arnys as a bespoke tailor is because LVMH has stated that the acquisition would allow Berluti to provide custom clothing under the “Berluti by Arnys” line. As mentioned above, Berluti launched ready-to-wear clothing earlier this year, part of a scheme of expansion and monetization of the Berluti brand which has been part of the LVMH stable since the early 1990s, when LVMH owner Bernard Arnault purchased Berluti, allegedly to keep his bespoke shoemaker from going out of business. What it has now done is acquire the right to use some very conveniently located real estate and a prestigious name that it can exploit, for Arnys’ current location stands just across the street from a gigantic new Hermès store, its first on the Left Bank. As LVMH was momentarily frustrated in its attempts at a creeping takeover of Hermès recently, this is war.
While I never purchased much from Arnys – a slack jacket (the one in the photos) here, a 12-ply shawl-collared cardigan there – I’ll miss it. It created a world of myth borne out in its catalogs and occasional ads, many of which featured real customers rather than models. When it worked, it could be sublime, a glory of turnback-cuffed, expansive-collared, military-buttoned dash that could do for its wearer what Jacques-Louis David did for Napoleon. Its staff, too, were always correct, friendly, and helpful, no matter how little or how infrequently one purchased, remembering me after an absence of years. And certainly, on some plane it was perfect for those of us playing at princelings incognito in our Left Bank apartments, lined with editions of the Pléiade and putty-colored, very srs, publications of the NRF. Congratulatory of our intellectualism and obscurantism, reclining in a L.O.V.E. Editions chair upholstered in silk velvet, Arnys allowed its customers to feel they were part of a meritocracy of elegance.
My friend Michael Alden of the London Lounge once made the Parthian shot that Arnys and Berluti shared the same clientele of arrivistes and wannabes seeking instantly recognizable factory-made clothing with a handmade esthetic. Perhaps he was right.
So I have a suggestion for LVMH and Berluti, a suggestion that will no doubt go nowhere since this is just teh internet and I am just, in the words of an online wit, “some guy with a ridiculous name that Will has write on his site occasionally”: retain Dominique Lelys, the visionary designer of Arnys’ ready-to-wear, instead of Berluti’s current Alessando Sartori, whose creations, to judge from Berluti’s clothing ads, would have seemed tired and derivative back in 2006. Let Dominique Lelys take Berluti ready-to-wear forward with the eye for eclecticism and evocation that Arnys always had, and not let Arnys stand for some chimera of co-branded bespoke that no one will buy anyway. With Arnys’ passing a great artist does not die in me, for one never lived, but a great illusion loses its way.
By Réginald-Jérôme de Mans