Cuff love: inside Charvet, the original Parisian blouse
The appointment is made at 28 Place Vendôme, 3 p.m. Through the stone arches of Charvet’s flagship Parisian headquarters, antique oak tables bearing neat stacks of patterned silk scarves and their signature pastel striped shirts are stationed near the doors; tie racks are categorized by jewel color; the air is scented with the house’s signature smoky scent. Jean-Claude and Anne-Marie Colban, co-directors of Charvet, greet me, “delighted” to show me behind the scenes of their fashion house. I have the impression, as with each visit to Charvet, of going back in time.
Behind the facade of the quirky six-story building lies a 184-year history of shirtmaking that makes Charvet the original shirtmaker, the world’s first dedicated shirt tailor. Founded in 1838 by Joseph-Christophe Charvet, son of Napoleon Bonaparte’s wardrobe and nephew of his seamstress, Charvet is the oldest of the institutions framing Place Vendôme, dating back to before the square became a high jewelry destination. . The location was chosen by Joseph-Christophe’s son, Edouard, as the new headquarters in 1877, when the rue de la Paix adjoining Vendôme became the city’s most important shopping district: the Palais Garnier opera house. had opened its doors on the Place de l’Opéra two years earlier. .
Joseph-Christophe’s innovation was to replace the services of a linen maker and a tailor – who went to their customers to adjust their shirts from basic measurements – with a dedicated area where gentlemen could have their full measurements, before choosing from a huge range of fabrics. Their unique focus on the shirt also allowed them to refine the tailoring techniques used in shirt making, creating an item that offered their customers far greater freedom of movement than traditional garments. Clients such as Marcel Proust, Winston Churchill, Edouard VIII, Charles Baudelaire and, later, Coco Chanel, flocked to Place Vendôme.
In 1965, the Charvet heirs were ready to sell the brand; an American buyer made a sound offer. French President Charles de Gaulle, however, “was not necessarily [an] Americanophile,” says Jean-Claude, and “the idea of seeing her regular blouse slipping through her hands didn’t please her at all.” The Ministry of Industry became “worried” and contacted Charvet’s main fabric supplier, Denis Colban, asking him to find a French buyer. Rather than do so, Colban decided to buy the company himself. “He knew it inside and out,” Jean-Claude says of his father.
Under Colban, Charvet entered a new era by introducing new products and launching ready-to-wear lines of men’s and women’s shirts. He painted the store’s oak furniture black, “to leave plenty of room for the colors,” says Jean-Claude. It was “a stimulation of the brand’s imagination” and new customers like Yves Saint Laurent and John F Kennedy quickly became customers.
This dedication to design was continued by the Colban siblings after the death of their father in 1994. “There is a genre, a taste and almost a flavor that is inherent in Charvet,” Jean-Claude says of the principles they have inherited. “We don’t just recognize our garments by their fit or the craftsmanship involved in making them. There is an aesthetic that we strive to achieve. Their management and continued innovation have attracted a new generation of fans in André-Leon Talley, Carine Roitfeld, Sofia Coppola and David Beckham (although the couple prefer to keep a low profile about the particular tastes of their A-list clientele).
Under the care of Anne-Marie and Jean-Claude, the head office today resembles something between a bazaar and a large living room. The ground floor houses their signature silk belts and cufflinks, suede and leather slippers with their matching clutches, ties, scarves, cashmere and silk-blend polo shirts. The fabrics are rolled up in the shape of cabbage (“our cabbage to us”, says Jean-Claude) to display the different colors and patterns of their accessories: peach, lime, sunny yellow, lilac, chocolate brown, cotton candy pink, midnight blue and shimmering silver. The artist and poet Jean Cocteau, a client in the early 1900s, said: “Charvet where the rainbow takes its ideas”.
The third floor is home to Charvet’s piece de resistance: ready-to-wear shirts (from €410, while special-order shirts, which allow customers to select fabric, collar, cuff styles and sleeve length, start at €480). What makes a charvet special shirt? The yoke, which falls on the shoulders, “is curved to follow the back”, explains Jean-Claude. The button placket, the strip of fabric where the buttons are placed, blends seamlessly into the front of the shirt; each set of stripes, on the body and sleeves, is perfectly aligned, and the thread used on the buttonholes is precisely matched to the hue of the stripes. “So when you look at a shirt or even touch it, you think it’s made from a single piece of fabric,” says Jean-Claude. Precision is the key. “The collar is made up of six layers of unfused fabric,” he says. In the siblings’ office, a magnifying glass looms over a thread counter among piles and piles of fabrics, “woven from specially chosen fabrics”. Gossypium barbadense cotton from the Nile delta”. “The seam is four millimeters from the edge,” he explains of the shirt’s design. “There are 20 stitches per inch”.
Their attention to detail does not go unnoticed. “I have sometimes ordered made-to-measure [Charvet] shirts that I’ve never worn, just for the pleasure of having them made,” confides the artist Ramdane Touhami, behind the relaunch of Officine Universelle Buly. The fourth floor houses offices, the fifth floor hosts bespoke men’s tailoring and the nearly 5,000 rolls of wool, cotton and linen available to choose from. The sixth floor houses the silk workshop: “8,000 variations of more than 300 patterns are created here each year and are used for our ties, scarves and pyjamas”. These are their only fully ready-to-wear pieces, explains Jean-Claude.
The Colbans are constantly drawing on their color archives, some dating back to the early 1900s, to reinvent and create new ones. “If you knew how much time and effort we spent finding the right shade for each of these threads,” says Anne-Marie, running a hand over the fabric of a shirt.
It was this time and these efforts that seduced vogue editor Hamish Bowles. “I crave lots of color in my wardrobe and the exquisite hues of the shades in Charvet’s offering make my heart beat faster. Those ties! Those pocket squares with beautiful deco silk scarf prints!” he says. “There’s such an embarrassment of choice that you know it’s highly unlikely you’ll come across someone wearing the exact same silk tie. And if so… maybe it’s a kindred spirit?
For those looking for the perfect white shirt, customers can choose from Wall of Whites: 104 shades of white and 400 fabric textures and weaves. (Bespoke shirts, based on existing modified and personalized patterns, are from €560; made-to-measure shirts, for which a pattern is created for each customer, from €695.) “Each season, we choose shades that we pull back, while drawing inspiration from things made over 100 years ago. That’s how we renew the brand,” explains Anne-Marie. “Each time, it’s as if everything bloomed again,” she smiles.
The Colbans are attached to the traditions of their house. They stay out of the trend cycle, have avoided creating a communications or marketing department, and have turned down several offers to sell to conglomerate groups. But Charvet is far from being a cocooned institution frozen in the past. “It’s true that we are faithful to our heritage,” says Jean-Claude when I leave the store, but “we make it a point of honor to revisit these things from the past with the eyes of the present. It’s a perilous exercise: finding that space between loyalty to our customers, to what we represent, while always reinventing ourselves”.
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