Swan Songs: Souvenirs of Paris Elegance

Swan Songs: Souvenirs of Paris Elegance


Today we have the pleasure to publish in extenso the introduction of the excellent book "Swan Songs" by our comrade Réginald-Jérôme de Mans as this thoroughly researched and erudite volume is undoubtedly a "must-have" for any sartorial cognoscenti. During 250 pages, the author takes us on an excursion in the elegant Paris, focusing solely on his own wardrobe and particular memories.

What I like about this book is that what could sound, at first glance, like a "simple" compilation of personal anecdotes, turns out to be in fact a much more profound and thought-provoking work. This book is, in my opinion, a synecdoche - pars pro toto - which invites us to reflect on the state of our consumerist civilisation.

You can order the book here : SWAN SONGS BOOK

Swan Songs: Souvenirs of Paris Elegance

by Réginald-Jérôme de Mans


I said goodbye to an old friend recently. An unremarkable thick single-breasted coat in charcoal wool, a style sometimes dignified with the title Chesterfield, simply put, the most common overcoat style there is. Mine has worn slightly shiny at the corners since I acquired it at a suburban discount store some 25 years ago.

With it I acquired a host of daydreams, so despite its discount price in those gray suburbs it had had enormous value to me. “I think your son’s fallen in love with a coat,” the salesman quipped to my father as I tried it on. It felt like I was trying on a million sophisticated adulthoods. New identities cascaded out of the Chesterfield, turning that mirror’s reflection into a kaleidoscope of possibilities only imaginable in adolescent daydreams. My first overcoat, it replaced parkas and my army surplus jacket. It was my schoolboy coat, my security blanket, a cloak for fantasies of being a poet or a rebel, a cloak that kept me warm wandering the wintry campus of a northeastern prep school I felt twice over a foreigner at. Inside (and incidentally) it bore the name of a well-known French designer, a famous Paris fashion house that for decades had licensed its name to producers of cheap menswear and sportswear all over the world. The particular name does not matter now. What matters is the fascination it provoked in me for a geographically, financially, and esthetically remote dream Paris. To my developing mind, that simple garment telegraphed all the elusive elegance of a completely unfamiliar world, despite its lack of actual connection beyond a licensed name.

I did not know any of this at the time. I had little idea of fashion, less of clothing history, and no interest in either until I owned that coat. However, for me, the coat was promise, new futures: grown-up gravitas in its darkness and conservative cut; dash; even a degree of romance, a reach to some Salinger-esque past of rolling campuses and stone-walled dormitories where earnest students of both sexes strolled in such coats, buttoned against crisp autumn air, discussing the poetry I was just beginning to read in my English Romantics class. I have known for years how precious, how naïve – if not to say slappably entitled – I was back then. And how embarrassing such confessions are now.

The coat both liberated and defined me with an intensity that only those teenage years can generate. Even if I discovered, when it accompanied me to college, that that bittersweet and romantic fantasy world wouldn’t come to someone who shyly hid behind it. As years went by, I had it relined twice, each time taking care to keep the little label on the inside pocket.

I admit that name had mattered to me, despite – or perhaps because of – its unfamiliarity. It was exotic, and so to me evoked exclusive surroundings to which the sheer fact of owning and wearing the coat promised entrée. The name on the label had worked its spell on me. I wanted to learn more about it. The idea of a completely different world suggested to me a completely new self, one that was confident, elegant, accepted, all the things that we don’t feel in adolescence. I wanted to visit the world this coat promised to open up. Thus, on my first trip to Paris, I made a pilgrimage. In the heart of Paris’ Golden Triangle, where ridiculously expensive palace hotels cushion the illusions of foreign tourists, I stepped into the designer’s flagship…and didn’t know what to make of it.

A staid, sober silence engulfed me. Clothes and accessories in tones and designs as hushed as the studiously muted dove-grey house colors hung or were arranged on 18th-century-style furniture. Pearl-grey raincoats hung next to kimono-style dressing gowns made out of scarf silk printed in dully tasteful designs. This world felt far removed from my woolen talisman: even if the clothes were well made, as I had no reason to doubt and no way to judge at the time, my impression was of a tomblike, tastefully correct stasis that had nothing to do with how my coat made me feel.

My coat had made me look forward to a child’s vision of adulthood: a seriousness that could not help being playful. Instead of satisfying my undeserved sense of entitlement, the flagship was unrelatable and bland. There was no place for the imagined reflections of future selves I’d seen in my discount-store mirror. I did not know then that this shop was one of only a few in the world carrying this designer’s boutique line, a prestige operation intended simply to create an image on which branded accessories and regionally licensed ready-to-wear, like my coat, were marketed. A famous name trading on little besides its name. I left, dispirited, brattily wrote “Lave-Moi” (“Wash Me”) with a finger in the grime on the windshield of a very dusty Daimler round the corner, and never returned.

I would discover too late that sometimes a brand’s name actually did mean much more than taste and expense, that sometimes a name really did stand for irreplaceable quality and unexpectedly gorgeous luxury. In all the hubris and bravado that coat could inspire, that same morning I pushed open the door of Hermès’ main store, seeking a pair of gloves against the spring cool. I knew my glove size from fencing, but still tried pair after pair. Brown is fine, but I prefer black. These are lined in silk? Is cashmere (an unattainably rare luxury material to me at the time) available instead? It was. A black pair in unusually soft leather fit snugly on my hand. Coyly, I asked, will they last? “Of course,” came the reply, “c’est du chevreau.

Chevreau. Kidskin. I barely knew what that was. What I knew was that they were a beautifully hand-stitched pair of gloves in the softest, darkest, gently rippled leather lined with dense, warm and soft cashmere, and fit perfectly in the inner breast pocket of my coat, as if to complement and crystallize my fantasies. Returned with my trophy, I showed them to a teacher who was the first well-dressed man I knew, relishing his awed examination of the meltingly soft kid and jealous sneer that “Some poor, defenseless animal had to die for these…”

In truth, my new gloves intimidated me. I recognized how excessive my purchase had been – more expensive than my coat – and set them aside for what I could think of as special occasions and, hopefully, an age at which I would come into all the things my coat-inspired fantasies of dashing identity had promised. Needless to say, that age – like any fantasy of adolescence, except those of the very fortunate – never came. And just as I was beginning to come to terms with the compromises of adulthood, beginning to let myself wear them despite knowing I would never live up to the dreams of self I’d had when I bought them, they disappeared, out of that coat’s inside pocket, never to materialize again.

In some cases, even a truism is true. In this case, it was the truism that we never know what we have until we lose it. Everything I could take for granted with the simple fact of buying a pair of kid gloves from Hermès came undone when I attempted to replace them. In my search, I lost illusions too. The name inside the gloves didn’t just mean expense and pretention, but expertise in craftsmanship and luxury of materials that literally no maker or brand anywhere else could equal. I shattered that myth of fungibility many of us believe, out of inverted snobbery: that a product of similar quality and durability is always available for far cheaper than the same product from a luxury brand. Sometimes a luxury brand delivers all of the quality and magnificence that its name, heritage and pricing promise.

Gloves from England and Italy, the countries more commonly associated with men’s elegance, simply could not compare with what I had lost. The indescribably soft, almost liquid, rippling French kidskin Hermès used in those gloves couldn’t be replicated. Nor could that soft but densely knit cashmere lining, let alone the painstaking skill it had taken Hermès’ glovemakers to finely yet durably hand-stitch them. When I returned to trying the few French glovemakers left, nor could they… nor even the Hermès of more recent years, which told me it no longer was using that incomparably soft leather. Another illusion, that of a brand’s permanence, was shattered.

Where as a teenager I’d tried to learn more about the name in my old coat, as an adult I investigated what had gone into my lost gloves to make them so special. What I discovered over time, historical research, trial and error and long talks with the few remaining members of French craft trades actually rolled back all the cynicism that we sometimes mistake for grown-up maturity. I learned that so much underpinned what I had taken for granted. That French glovemakers had grown up in a handful of towns, Grenoble, Saint-Junien and Millau among them, historically known for certain types of tanning (mégisserie) and perfumery (the latter in order to conceal the vile smells caused by the former). That the remaining French glovemakers prided themselves on the fineness of their leathers and their craft, even if almost none of them could actually obtain the remarkably soft French kid leather that Hermès once used, or hand-sew quite as finely as my lost gloves had been.

My coat, and my gloves, had been passports to imagined new worlds. To me, Paris was one of the new worlds promised in a discount store mirror, a Paris whose monuments were not just those of its skyline but exclusive storyboxes of history and elegance that I thought owning a label would entitle me to enter. Clothes can be those passports, promises of new identity. Those explorations of pretend identity usually end with adolescence, as fantasies of being someone or something else than what we have worked for or failed to wear themselves out. The special qualities of some of these Paris garments, and the stories I discovered about them, never did wear themselves out. Through them I discovered a Paris beyond jewelbox stores and their images of luxury (which my teenage self had thought my coat promised me access to): a world of specialist craftspeople animated by different personal dreams, of immigrants who for centuries came to the French capital seeking new business, new fame and chances at reinvention. Over time I learned stories of invention and inspiration, of uniqueness of make and attention to esoteric detail similar to those that lay behind my deceptively simple, disappeared gloves. Looking back, the myriad possibilities my coat had opened me to have turned out not to be innumerable personal identities, but the discovery of countless untold stories of real inspiration, unexpected beauty, and details both of clothing construction and, perhaps even more interestingly, of history itself. That is what I hope to share in writing this book: a small edifice built on what began as dreams of a spellbound adolescent.  

Lost, my gloves became an unattainable item of beauty whose peerless components and craftsmanship only stood out more the more I tried to replace them. Changing tastes, competition from cheaper alternatives, and diminishing numbers of people entering into most craft trades have meant that even the best makers can change, or lower, their standards of quality in order to stay in business.

I did finally find one tiny French glovemaker still working with the same sort of French kidskin, and still hand-stitching them with incredible attention to detail. They made me cashmere-lined kid gloves in the simple design of those I had lost, that ideal which had taken years of trial and error and experience and disappointment to reproduce.

I realized that, as with my gloves, France concealed (for it certainly has not made them easy to discover) craft makers of wonderful items for men, far less well known than those of certain other countries and yet perhaps better. I also realized that it is almost too late: those makers and sellers of wonderful things, so individualized by custom craft as to be uniquely personal, things that may not have flaunted a label but which made their owners physically and emotionally feel good, are disappearing. They are disappearing either through closure or beyond event horizons of cosmically expanding price. What may remain often subsists as carefully confined, tiny prestige operations for larger luxury brands that use them to confer cachet on their more pedestrian, recognizably branded off-the-rack offerings.

What follows are not memoirs, but memories made physical – souvenirs of unique and uniquely French places and makers, and the whirl of history, culture and politics that surrounded them, even sweeping them away. I can not stop or turn back time, but I try here to reconstruct French shops and makers in both their splendors and their misery, what made them wonderful and what brought or threatens to bring them low. Some have already disappeared into what Don Fabrizio Corbera in The Leopard termed “voluptuous immobility.” A few houses remain, turning out creations in atmospheres that remind me of the wonder I felt in that first, simple coat that promised so many identities, and eventually helped create mine, and in that pair of gloves whose loss taught me how much underlies the marvel of an unexpected excellence.

It is astonishing how the simple pleasures of satisfaction may reside on complicated, technical, and exhausting reasons for their incomparable quality. But then again, we often take for granted the items that accompany our daily life: the shirts, suits, shoes, and other otherwise prosaic items which the makers I write about elevated to an art. Despite the pre-eminence of French fashion brands and designers, most of the addresses I write about are far from household names, if not forgotten, despite their contributions to a uniquely elegant Paris. I want to write these swan songs about my personal experiences and engagement with such places before all of them suffer the same fates as some of their competitors or suppliers, or transform into more mannered, brand-conscious vehicles trading on appearance instead of remarkable product. For many of them – like makers of integrity elsewhere – their fates may be hanging by a thread. Atropine shears sharpen.

I recognize, and remind the reader, that (like the Greek Fate I name-check) the swan song – a burst of song while dying – is only a myth. Our romantic imagination has given song to an animal that lacked one. Myths may have brought me to write this book, and to some of the places I profile: the myths of heritage and traditional craftsmanship; the compelling romance of settings or esthetics. Nonetheless, I write based not only on the fascination my subjects compelled in me, but on my personal experience with and research into them, including much that would tend to dispel the cute stories and superficial romance these labels prefer to spread. Sometimes, behind it all, even the critical eye can find other grounds for fascination. Today, rediscovered by my wife trammeled and fallen at the back of our coat closet (like the privileged possibilities it once promised), I prepare to dispose of my old coat, knowing its nominal Frenchness still did cause me to take a voyage of discovery, not of self, but of the unexpected joys of the wonderful, and search through myths for truth. No investigation, however, can put lyrics to a swan’s song.

What it can do, though, is bridge the forelock-tugging distance of formality and worship that recent clothing writing often features, a distance reinforced by pretentious and portentous syntax meant to suggest that ownership of luxury clothing somehow makes you a man of culture and refinement, a gentleman in some old-fashioned, class-ridden sense of the world. It does nothing of the sort, and if good writers can approach food, cheesy martial arts movies or politics with an educated, critical eye, historical and cultural context, and wit, then men’s clothing, no matter how elusive in time, place or price, can be so examined too. We all have a tendency to celebrate that which we love.

There is still wonder to share.