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March 30, 2010

Paris for Men Only

The discreet charms of bespoke style

The English invented the concept of bespoke back in the days of Beau Brummell and certain Londoners still consider such clothing de rigueur. In Italy the maestros of Naples, hidden in their nameless shops, stitch up impeccable, elegantly careless spalla camicia for their clients. As for Paris, the closest it gets to bespoke is haute couture, with armies of women toiling in the ateliers of grand fashion houses.

Or so goes the common wisdom.

But to fashion-minded insiders, Paris does reveal its own world of custom artisans—for men only. They’re just disguised as shoe-repair stores or tucked into tiny workshops with only a discreet nameplate to identify them. Or perhaps they are hidden in plain sight in a famous shrine to fashion.

It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. I recently enlisted the help of Michael Alden, who received his first handmade clothes in high school, when he inherited his grandfather’s Anderson & Sheppard suits. He makes the ideal tour guide for uncovering bespoke luxe in the world capital of style.

Well-Suited: Shirts, Jackets, Pants

Charvet is best known for the silks and shirts on its first two floors as well as for its history. The store has been in the Place Vendôme in the heart of Paris since 1838. But on the fifth floor of this former grand hôtel particulier is a secret that the city’s most stylish men (rock-star philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy is a devotee) have somehow kept to themselves for 40 years. It’s a room lined with some 4,500 suit fabrics, all in whole bolts—"so you can hold the cloth up against yourself and see how it will really look," says Anne-Marie Colban, the soft-spoken and effortlessly charming woman who runs the shop with her brother, Jean-Claude. "It’s so hard to tell anything with a swatch." This is where Jean-Jacques, Charvet’s maître-tailleur for the past decade, does his work.

The fitting process is unique: Jean-Jacques first measures, then he builds a basted toile suit around the client, disassembles it, and traces it on paper to make the pattern. This way he knows what the measurements look like in three dimensions before getting to work. After that there are two more fittings to perfect the fit and details, such as pockets that bellow inward so no bulges interrupt the line of the suit. It all takes about four weeks, from toile version to exquisitely hand-tailored final product.

When asked about a house style, Jean-Jacques smiles. He says he believes in talking to clients to get a sense of what they need and who they are. If he can create something in their style and not his own, he’s done his job.

Less obscure, in fact a heavyweight in the category of bespoke suits as well as shirts, is Arnys in the Seventh Arrondissement. Established in 1933, Arnys for years catered to the intellectuals of the Left Bank—among them Jean Cocteau, André Gide, and even Orson Welles—and developed a reputation for what it advertises as the casual smart look.

Best Foot Forward: The French Shoe

"It’s a cliché to say that French shoes are a melding of British and Italian. But my shoes…" What Pierre Corthay means by this eloquent understatement is that in his case, the comparisons are actually accurate. Corthay spent two years at John Lobb in Paris before moving to Berluti, where he did custom work and de-signed for its ready-to-wear line.

Sixteen years ago the shoemaker struck out on his own and opened Corthay. The shoes he crafts now are a combination of Italian flair and English simplicity, all long, sleek lines and chiseled toes—in other words, uniquely Parisian. He currently produces about 100 pairs a year for a largely French clientele. He did, however, recently fill an order for 50 pairs of bespoke golf shoes for the members of an American golf club. "The owner is a client," Corthay explains, "and he wanted to give people a special gift for joining the club."

For those who don’t need a custom fit—or who simply can’t bear to wait the five months for the shoes to be made—he started a ready-to-wear line in 2001, now produced at his own eight-person factory just outside the city. They are created with the same materials as the bespoke shoes and have the same impeccable lines. "I believe that a shoe has to look beautiful from every angle," Corthay says, "like a sports car or a piece of sculpture."

And, of course, there is always John Lobb, where Corthay trained. Lobb, which is owned by Hermès, has locations in Paris, London, New York, and elsewhere. For many devoted to the shoe sur mesure, it remains the go-to source. Like Lobb, Crockett & Jones is an English transplant with a long history in handmade shoes. Its first Paris shop, on Rue Chauveau-Lagarde, opened in 1998, followed by a location within Turnbull & Asser on East 57th Street in New York.

Significant Touches: Belts, Bags, Boxes

From the street, Duret Paris looks like any other shop, a tiny storefront set in a long row of gray stone 19th-century buildings. It impersonates the kind of place that locals in the working-class Tenth might go to get their shoes resoled. But when Alden-Verity takes me inside, it’s immediately apparent that the shop is anything but typical. There are the shoes waiting for repair, for one thing: Lobb, Green, Weston, Aubercy. Then there’s the proprietor. Mickaël Benarroch is self-taught in a country ruled by professional training programs. Nothing less than sheer energy and dogged dedication took him from being a shoe repairman to a master craftsman. And since he’s located in the same city as Vuitton, Hermès, and Goyard, Benarroch has been able to assemble a small team of workers who understand and share his commitment. "I make things my way, with absolute control," he says. "That way I know I produce the best."

So he handstitches the ostrich on his cigar humidors and conceals the electric-pink lining inside his sober buffalo-hide briefcase so that only the owner can see it. He hand-dyes the alligator belts to make sure they’re the perfect shade of blue to match a suit. All his hardware is handcrafted by a jeweler to his specifications, finished so that every buckle and lock fits perfectly. But perhaps the best part is the delivery time, which is weeks, not months.

For the Wrist: A Perfect Watch Strap

At the intersection where a modern glass-and-steel high-rise meets a quintessentially Parisian 18th-century street stands the Perrin family’s Atelier du Bracelet Parisien. It’s one of the only places in the world where you can customize your own watchband. ABP, as it is known, offers all the standard leathers (box calf, buffalo, kangaroo) and the obvious exotics (alligator, ostrich, lizard). You can choose from less common options as well, such as shagreen with a choice of pearls—that is, large pearl-hued scales from the spine of a ray. Then there is the question of color, the shape of the band, the type of hardware.…

Fortunately, ABP has ready help for the indecisive. I was told that while I could select my leather and color, I could also trust the Perrins’ combined 60-plus years of experience to make the rest of the choices for me.

In the Details: Buttons, Bow Ties, Jeans

"We had been bespoke customers for some years, but we wanted something that was more youthful than what we had been able to get," Régis Decour, a onetime consultant, told me. So two and a half years ago he and his partner, Philippe Le Blan, founded Eglé Bespoke. They fashion made-to-measure shirts from 2,500 fabrics, with a slim fit and individual touches such as laser-engraved buttons, as well as custom jeans, often created with Japanese selvage denim. Both take about three weeks and one fitting to produce.

But the duo’s most interesting offering is a kind of bridge between the French world of fashion and English bespoke. The two men scour design schools in France, England, America, and Germany and select a group of students whose work they feel dovetails with their streamlined, modern take on shirts. Eglé then offers custom-fitted, strictly limited-edition versions of the designs to their clients. Their name for this marriage of haute couture and bespoke? Haute mesure.

Meanwhile, on Rue du Pont Neuf, Alexis Mabille presents the proudly frivolous with his handmade bow ties. The 30-year-old designer belongs to a new generation of young dandies known for clothing with ambisexual flair. After an apprenticeship with Ungaro and nine years spent developing costume jewelry for Dior, Mabille recently debuted his latest, a bow tie collection called Treizeor. Made to be worn by women and men alike, the ties come in silks, velvets, lace, plaids, and even fur.

Mark Van De Walle also writes in this issue about James Purdey & Sons, London’s best shotgun maker.

Bespoke Shops

Arnys 14 Rue de Sèvres; 33-1/45-48-76-99. Suits, from $6,500; one month to complete

Atelier du Bracelet Parisien 7 Rue St.-Hyacinthe; 33-1/42-86-13-70. Alligator band, $215; three to ten days

Charrvet 28 Place Vendôme; 33-1/42-60-30-70. Suits, from $3,110; four weeks

Corthay 1 Rue Volney; 33-1/42-61-08-89. Shoes, from $3,630; five months

Crockett & Jones 14 Rue Chauveau-Lagarde; 33-1/44-94-01-74. Shoes, from $3,240; four to six months

Duret Paris 29 Rue Duret; 33-1/40-67-93-05. Belts, from $455; three weeks

Egle Bespoke 26 Rue du Mont Thabor; 33-1/44-15-98-31. Shirts, from $155; two to three weeks

John Lobb 21 Rue Boissy d’Anglas; 33-1/42-65-24-45. Shoes, from $5,000; six to eight months

Alexis Mabille Bow ties, $150-$1,000; by appointment only, myrthe@impasse13.com; two to five weeks