Sunday, March 12, 2006

What's My Line?


In a small office overlooking the Ritz, Jean-Claude Colban sits at his desk for hours on end, selecting various shades of purple and pink, examining endless bolts of cloth and living with his shirt and tie designs as a vintner lives with his grapes. Monsieur Colban is the co-president of Charvet, his family's company, which is to men's style what Château Latour is to fine wine.

Colban is an erudite man of the old school, well versed in politics and the arts, finance and business, history and food. He speaks of Proust with great warmth ("Oh, indeed! Swann wears a Charvet tie"). He speaks of the competition with polite disdain ("We cannot ask people in the morning to work slow and then to work fast in the afternoon"). And he speaks of the new generation of "super, super, super-trendies" who have discovered the pleasure of ordering made-to-measure shirts because "custom is ideal for the new, narrower suits where the fit of the shirt is key."

But Colban is above all a haberdasher. He knows about cut: how the torso lies when the sleeve moves. He knows the importance of detail: the pearly cuff link, the dimpled knot, the collar stay. And he knows about color: the proper complement of tie and pocket square is his stock in trade.

This appreciation of subtle detail has been in the company's genes since 1838, when Christophe Charvet began making shirts for aristocratic members of the Paris Jockey Club. Like all shirtmakers in those days, Christophe toted his fine wares to clients' hôtels particuliers because gentlemen's shops did not yet exist in the capital. But Christophe, whose father looked after the wardrobe of Napoleon I, had amassed too many fine linens for one horse cart and decided to open a store on the Rue de Richelieu.

Christophe's son Edouard had his own flair for innovation and moved the shop to Place Vendôme, the city's most fashionable address. Albert, Prince of Wales, became a client, as did just about every foppish blue blood in Europe. After World War I, Charvet introduced fine cottons that could be woven into the beautifully colored stripes that remain a signature of the venerable house. Denis Colban, Jean-Claude's father, saved Charvet from an American takeover in 1966 on a tip from de Gaulle; the prominent textile executive could not bear the idea that Le General's shirtmaker would leave French hands, so he bought it himself.

Denis extended the company's offerings to women and established the business of finely made off-the-peg shirts in addition to bespoke. He also decided to pile some 6,000 varieties of poplin, piqué and twill in full view of the customer, where they remain. And there the innovation stops: the Charvet shirts you order today are created with the same handmade care once given the Duke of Windsor, John F. Kennedy and de Gaulle.

Which is why Charvet remains mythic in the minds of men who see an object of desire in a finely made shirt. The Maharajah of Patiala ordered 86 dozen shirts on the eve of the Depression. In "Expensive Habits," the writer Peter Mayle considers Gatsby's shirt addiction as Mayle enters the Charvet shop for the first time "with a light step and a trembling wallet." Alan Flusser notes in his guide "Style and the Man" that "Gatsby would have expired from overstimulation" at the sight of the beautiful fabrics on offer.

Colban lights up when he speaks of the clients shopping on the floors below his office: "One gentleman has his-and-hers pajamas made in the colors of the flags of the countries they will visit on their yacht, and another can only calm himself after a fight with his wife by buying a Charvet tie."

But it's the little things that give him the greatest pleasure. "The stitching on a standard collar is four millimeters from the edge," he says, explaining the special magic of a custom-made shirt. "In bespoke we can make it closer if you prefer." The passion in his voice begins to rise. "And we never fuse collars. When the collar is fused, it is dead." The passion rises further still. "Shirts must be properly ironed. Americans put too much starch in their shirts!" Gatsby must have gone through a lot of starch.

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