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March 30, 2010

Charvet & The Well-Tailored Man

The French shirtmaker

Jean-Claude Colban pauses for a moment when asked just how many fabrics are available to the customer in search of a bespoke shirt. "Well, it's not easy to say exactly--the numbers keep changing. New fabrics are always being added and others dropped, but I should say certainly more than three thousand."

Colban is director of Charvet, the French shirtmaker founded in Paris in 1838. But having the largest selection of fine shirtings in the world--sea-island and Egyptian cotton broadcloths and royal oxfords, gabardines and voiles, gossamer batistes and chambrays; silks woven in France, Switzerland, and Italy; Irish and French linens, even denim--is just the beginning. Charvet, which occupies a grand hôtel on Place Vendôme, also has an extraordinary selection of silk neckwear (not to mention silk pajamas and robes, pocket squares and braces), and any man who has aspired to sartorial splendor in the last 150 years has most likely been a customer here: Edouard Manet and Marcel Proust, Gary Cooper and John F. Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle and King Edward VII. And funnily enough, in this day and age when too many men seem to be tricking out their wardrobes with things that would look more at home in a gym or a beer commercial, Charvet has noticed no diminution of enthusiasm for its elegant accoutrements. Admittedly, it has made a few concessions to a more modern style. It's now possible to find sport shirts with one-piece collars and handsome sweaters in pure cashmere--or a lightweight silk-and-cashmere blend if you prefer. But the emphasis has always been on dress shirts and neckwear, custom or ready-made.

Today, many Charvet customers prefer a slightly longer point on their spread collars, a higher collar stance, and a bit more texture in the cloth; cotton twills, royal oxfords, and fancy weaves are particular favorites. But it's all very discreet, really--nothing too trendy, bold, or brash.

There is a rational opulence at work here, the natural inheritance of taste and style. Multistripes (all with mother-of-pearl buttons, of course), whether crisp or muted, are in harmonizing shades that exude urbanity and confidence.

And Charvet's neckwear has always been prized for the extraordinary quality of its silks--satins, twills, crepes, Ottomans, repps, failles, and grenadines. Ties are sewn entirely by hand, and can even be made with seven-fold construction, a painstaking old-world technique that produces a tie that is soft, fluid, and impeccably elegant. The most sybaritic offering is a tie made of a cashmere-silk fabric woven with airy finesse on special Jacquard looms.

When Lord Sebastian Flyte, perhaps Evelyn Waugh's most famous character, makes his appearance in Brideshead Revisited, he wears dove-gray flannels, a white crepe de Chine shirt, and a Charvet tie with a postage-stamp pattern. For Waugh, that touch was the height of sophistication. It still is.

Ready-made shirts, $150-$250; custom-made, $265-$365 (allow four weeks; five for monogramming). Charvet, 28 Place Vendôme, Paris; 33-1-42-60-30-70.