Dunhill's Deco Treasures
The Vintage Collection
It's 7:22 on a cold March morning, and he can feel the damp ground through his shoes, but Stephen di Renza, Dunhill's accessories guru, is on a mission, scouring Paris' antiques flea markets for vintage Dunhill lighters, silver airplane models, Art Deco hat stands, shagreen cigarette cases.
"You have to be restrained as you look. So much of this is about taking what you find and putting it in a new context," says di Renza, snapping up a 1920s fine-waffle-weave white-linen tuxedo vest at one stand, debating between ornamented silver swizzle sticks at another. All the while he scans the tables and chats, in fluent French, with the proprietors he has come to know during his years of making the vintage rounds in France and England.
Tall and thin, di Renza, the former Paris fashion director for Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, looks like actor Jeff Goldblum, if Goldblum wore antique tortoiseshell glasses and spoke American English with the syntax of a man who's lived half his life abroad. "This is really a celebration of artisanal work, eh?"
Di Renza, 43, is a retro-cool forager searching out original Dunhill products and others with a like-minded aesthetic to include in the Vintage Collection, which is distributed to just five of the company's 75 stores. The store at Paris' 15 Rue de la Paix (one of three Dunhill stores in the city), just off Place Vendôme, has the largest assortment of di Renza's finds; Dunhill boutiques in New York, Tokyo, Osaka, and Hong Kong each have a number of cases displaying vintage objects, such as elegantly engraved travel, grooming, and bar accessories.
"We're not inventing history. This is what we really do and what we've always done," he says. "Alfred Dunhill was a person who gave a real twist to his things: They were high-quality but fun, or a little wacky, or involved a little gadgetry, but always high-quality."
In the 1890s, Dunhill, an eccentric inventor, transformed his family's London saddlery business into a store for motoring accessories, termed "motorities," posh paraphernalia like bespoke leather coats and custom-designed lights engineered for Rolls-Royce interiors. He followed with aeronautical accessories termed "avorities." In 1907, Dunhill opened his first tobacco shop in St. James's, selling lighters for which the company is still well known. In 1924 he came to Paris and, unable to obtain a tobacco permit, started to sell cocktail and smoking accessories.
Since Dunhill's original British shops were destroyed during World War II, 15 Rue de la Paix is the only prewar shop left. Over the years, it has been redecorated to follow contemporary tastes. Last January, di Renza turned it into a laboratory for vintage chic, restoring the original mahogany window frames, uncovering the marble floors, and reintroducing a powerful sense of privileged craftsmanship. The wares include handcrafted silver and gold retractable pencils ($220-$980) and elegant pieces such as a cobalt-blue crystal Baccarat pitcher, used to serve pastis ($1,525), and a silver-plated Christofle ice bucket ($595).
Di Renza also added contemporary luxuries inspired by the past, installing a "white shirt bar" with 100 varieties of cottons, linens, and silks, presided over by Marc Lauwers, one of the last French master shirt-pattern makers. The shirts are produced in the only remaining factory in France that handsews them, from the collars to the buttonholes. Di Renza also commissioned craftsmen to make a limited-edition supple leather motoring coat ($4,270-$7,860), based on Dunhill's original turn-of-the-century design.
"Our other small handsewn leather goods come from an artisan who apprenticed as a young man at Hermès," says di Renza. "These are lined only in skin, with no cardboard. The edges are not dyed, they're burnt with a hot iron and then with beeswax. This is how things were done years ago, which is why, when you find something from the 1930s, it still exists."
Furniture, most of it antique, is for sale, too, and di Renza replaces it every 15 days, calling on designers and artisans to exhibit their finds.
A few times a season he hits the road, going with the 7 a.m. "stampede" of antiques dealers into various halles d'exposition in big cities and small villages throughout France and northern England, where he has developed his own network of dealers.
Di Renza's strategy appears to be working. Sting, for example, who is noted for his impeccable eclectic tastes, recently browsed at 15 Rue de la Paix among the original bronze hood ornaments, mounted on marble and representing the Greek goddess Nike, a Polo player, and a downhill skier—all the fruits of di Renza's relentless search.
"What's so wonderful is that the artisans still exist," he says. "Clearly it's not a path chosen by many. It's a niche. It's niche, eh?"
Dunhill, 15 Rue de la Paix, Paris, 33-1-42-61-58-40. The Vintage Collection is also available at other select locations; www.dunhill.com.