Francesco Smalto Bespoke
It is the autumn of 1670 and Moliére has just completed a hilarious five-act comedy ballet.
The funky title of Moliere’s play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (The Middle-Class Aristocrat) creates so much curiosity that an urgent need is created in Paris to obtain a seat for the show.
The opening performance is at the court of Louis XIV at the Chateau of Chambord. It is here that we meet the main character, Mr. Jourdain, who has just come into a large sum of money from his father, who made his riches as a cloth merchant. Delirious from the windfall of his father’s inheritance, Mr. Jourdain decides that as a wealthy man, he should not belong to the middle-class anymore–and takes the decision to transform from a bourgeois into an aristocrat.
Fun is mercilessly poked at the pretentiousness of the middle-class and also at the vanity of the aristocrats.
The title of the play alone contains the power of suggestion, and men throughout Paris secretly must have asked themselves, perhaps for the first time… Is it possible for a man who is not a noble to become a gentleman? Is it possible for even me to do so?
We notice in stories where people transform themselves, that they usually get better clothes (except for the billionaire social media founder who continues to dress like a university freshman). Monsieur Jourdain is no exception, and after being fitted for ‘aristocratic clothing’, he is elated when the tailor’s boy addresses him mockingly as My Lord.
Moliere has stirred the pot, and the topics of clothing, behavior, and social class are now open for discussion. Over the next two centuries, the divide between the classes becomes blurred and the craft of tailoring evolves to offer elegant clothes to anyone with ability to afford such clothing.
Between 1923 and 1962, four Parisian tailoring institutions will enter Paris. If not for the resiliency of these four ateliers–in addition to only a handful of smaller tailoring houses throughout France that remain with us today–the entire art of French tailoring would be lost, and that would be a great loss indeed.
AHH, THE FRENCH
Lino Ventura in Cifonelli and Jean Gabin. In France, the art of tailoring is consecrated in a carnal connection between armhole and sleeve head.
The French, being aesthetic by nature, have long had a fascination with clothes. And when your tailor lives in Paris, there is no question that the suit that he makes will look distinctively French.
Sometimes you can get a better view of an exquisite room in a chateau by peering through the door keyhole before entering the room. French tailoring is like this.
When you step back instead of forward to comprehend the concave pagoda shoulder, the elongated silhouette, the gradual suppression of the waist and the subtle flair of the skirt—it is then that the gestalt of French tailoring can be more fully perceived…however, be sure to step in closely to get a view of the masterfully-made milanese buttonhole.
Conversely, the opposite approach seems to be true when learning about English tailoring, as stepping squarely into the middle of the puddle of English craftsmanship and getting knee-to-knee with the masters that create the beauty of Savile Row suiting, feels like the natural approach to take in order to begin to understand the nuances of the art.
But when in Paris, and visiting houses like Cifonelli, Camps de Luca, Smalto, or Arnys-Berluti, taking a step backwards seems like the natural thing to do, if only to perceive the mood of the art—because in order to really understand the cachet of French tailoring, one must feel the intrigue of the je ne sais quoi, and it is at this time that one can begin to truly appreciate what defines French cachet, or the unique signature borne out of l’air de haute couture that is found in French tailoring.
French tailoring has a specific “stamp” in terms of detailing, gradual waist suppression, the signature skirt flair, a more narrow trouser leg, and the universally recognizable regal posture created by the high armhole cut and la cigarette shoulder.
But it is the je ne sais quoi emitted from the man who wears French tailored suit that creates the phenomenon of French cachet–a certain aristocratic air so powerful that when a man wearing a French tailored suit walks by, he continually evokes the question: “Who is he”?
Only in the last five to ten years has the merits of French tailors (likely totaling a single-digit number of tailors in France), received the global respect and attention that they deserve. Today, more and more men are becoming versed in the merits of French tailoring. Many of these male-elegance-polyglots are fluent in the language of English and Italian tailoring, and have a newfound appreciation for French craftsmanship.
What are some concrete cues that make a crafted garment ‘French’ ?
1. EXHAUSTIVE ATTENTION TO DETAIL
The heralded Camps de Luca Teardrop, The Rake Online
Inner finishing details of an Arnys bespoke coat.
Half lined sport coat by Cifonelli
Some ideologies are difficult to describe. Take, for instance the experience of finding a great hair stylist.
During such a service, you may be surprised to receive a scalp massage (historically known as ‘Shiatsu’, originating from 7th century Japan and based on Chinese medicine). The massage is not mentioned as part of the service, but is done anyway in order to give the client pleasure, even if no one is aware of the gesture except the client and the stylist. Perhaps this particular approach of delivering more than is asked is about going the extra mile for the customer, or maybe it’s a way to stand apart from the other stylists.
In this spirit, not only can the French tailor surprise you by doing things like giving you alterations that you never asked for, but he also has a work ethic that can be as equally delightful. In an attempt to describe this work ethic, we use the example of an interview of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, former editor of TIME Magazine. During the interview, the topic turned to Steve’s inspiration: his father. In explaining the core values he assimilated from his dad, Isaacson revealed:
“Paul Jobs was a salt-of-the-earth guy who was a great mechanic. And he taught his son Steve how to make great things…once when they were building a fence, [his father] said, “You got to make the back of the fence that nobody will see just as good-looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know, and that will show that you’re dedicated to making something perfect.”
With a similar philosophy, French tailoring houses naturally go the extra kilometer for the customer and more times than not, deliver more than what is expected. Fine stitching and intricate finishing details are worked into each garment, not only on the outside–but also on the inside–and there is an obsession to be as precise as possible with a passion that approaches madness.
Yet there is another good reason for hypersensitive attention to detail among French tailors…there are only four tailoring powerhouses in France along with a handful of small ateliers, and it is these tailors that set the standard for how the world interprets “French tailoring”. Put simply, these artisans are well aware of their limited numbers and feel a serious responsibility to represent France at its best.
Add to this that residing in Paris, the mecca of haute couture, naturally spreads an incurable virus throughout every segment of the clothing community to reach for the highest level within one’s capacity when crafting products that are made in France.
With standards set so high (as well as taxation for merchants), perhaps it is not so surprising that there aren’t more tailors that are willing to break ground and join the ranks of the French tailoring business.
2. LA RIGUEUR OF THE SHOULDER
Among the most distinctive characteristics of a French tailored piece is the shoulder, and the pagoda shoulder reigns in France.
Notice the shoulder-line above, starting from the side of the neck and ending at the tip of the shoulder. Now, visually locate the downward “swoop” in the shoulder line and notice the morphology of your own shoulder. Many bodies are naturally shaped this way. This downward swoop is called a concave shoulder.
The effect of the cigarette roll or padding or roping attached to the top of the shoulder is exaggerated by the effect of this concave shoulder line and creates a look that is particularly rakish and definitely French.
The sleeve is set high, the shoulder fit is snug and the famed feature of the crescent shaped la cigarette at the end of the shoulder pulls the posture upwards.
While the British have a clean, straight-lined, structured traditional shoulder, and the Italians have either the knocked-down Neapolitan shoulder, or the (closer to French) Roman shoulder, the French shoulder expresses itself uniquely.
For example, the Cifonelli shoulder is forward-cut and felted with an iron. It is not correct to refer to the Cifonelli shoulder as a ‘roped’ shoulder (a common error), since to form the signature crescent shoulder known as la cigarette, Cifonelli opts to forego roping and instead work exclusively with layers of wadding and pieces of fabric to build up the shoulder. These fabric pieces are hand wadded, stretched and shaped and worked into the shoulder area. Armholes are cut high, which gives the shoulders a posture boost and a pronounced regal air. The high armholes create a distinctly close fit, but at the same time allow for a surprising ease of arm movement.
The jackets of Camps de Luca and Smalto also have a high cut armscye with the signature crescent pagoda shoulder, but are not opposed to using handmade padding or roping to get the finished look.
The atelier at Arnys (acquired by Berluti in 2012, while retaining the original tailors and the Arnys name) usually crafts a slightly softer shoulder, staying true to the aura of left-bank swag, and securing an Arnys cult following of men loyal to the brand for life.
3. THE FRENCH CUT – The Silhouette
The French silhouette can be said to be born in Rome, spread to Milan, later crossing the Alps to France for its own interpretation.
The silhouette was softer in the 1920s and became more fitted over time…perhaps inspired by the rage in Italy for a closer fit in the 1940s, when Brioni, as an answer to the post-war hunger for something fresh, started nipping the waist of the formerly boxy men’s suit jacket, thus creating a more slender overall line. The resulting silhouette– termed “Ordine Dorico” (the Columnar Look) mimicked the shape of the columns in the Forum and although less conservative, was very flattering to the figure.
French tailors kept their fingers firmly on the pulse of the elegant gentleman, and responded accordingly with its own interpretation of the style.
The 1960s evangelized the look of the French silhouette through pop culture icons such as Jacques Dutronc.
Smalto Bespoke, 1964
Smalto Bespoke 2012
Characteristics of the silhouette:
* Shoulders: Upright with high armholes, comfortably stiff, oftentimes with a concave line running from the side of the neck to the tip of the shoulder, exaggerated by shoulder roping or the cigarette roll.
* Waist: Pinched on larger sizes, in all other sizes a gradual suppression of the waist area.
*Vents: Flared and especially neat in appearance.
* Chest: Oftentimes a wider lapel covers a significant area of the chest with shoulders angled inwards to reveal a small chest area.
* Trousers: Slimmer cut with a higher waist, typically without cuffs.
4. THE LAPEL AND THE NOTCH
The lapel is typically of substantial width and the notch is usually set high to elongate the silhouette. Each French house takes particular care to craft a signature notch, very clean and specifically shaped. The famous signature shape of the Camps de Luca ‘le cran Camps‘ is one of the better known notch designs.
The Famous Camps de Luca notch lapel. source: high-toned.fr
5. MILANESE BUTTONHOLES
Parisian houses prefer the more tediously crafted raised Milanese buttonhole.The Milanese buttonhole by Cifonelli continues to draw gasps from tailors across the continents.
6. FRENCH HOUSE SPECIALTIES
CIFONELLI: La Cigarette shoulder, extremely high armscye, small chest, signature skirt flare.
I could recognise a Cifonelli shoulder from a distance of a hundred metres”. ~Karl Lagerfeld. Photo: Greg Jacomet in Cifonelli.
CAMPS DE LUCA: famous notch, ultra sleek vents, hidden drop pocket.
The Camps de Luca “creased vent” is especially impressive and smooth, melting like butter against the back of the coat.
SMALTO: Roped shoulder, Smalto distinctive notch, active button placed slightly lower to elongate the silhouette.
ARNYS (now BERLUTI) : French soft tailoring, nice silhouette for the larger gentleman, famous for its casual coat “La Forestière”
The devout following of Arnys (Berluti) is not to be underestimated. Pictured here, the über-elegant Michel Grimbert of Maison Arnys, Rive Gauche–channeling Winston Churchill
Arnys – the Forestière, originally made for architect Le Corbusier in 1947 as a working city jacket. It is still in demand today in all Berluti shops and is considered an iconic piece.
A PETITE CHRONOLOGY…
1923 – Hailing from Rome, Italy, Arturo Cifonelli opens Maison Cifonelli in Paris.
1933 – Jankel Grimbert establishes the Parisian upscale boutique Arnys.
1948 – Mario de Luca sets up shop in Paris.
1962 – After leaving Camps, Francesco Smalto opens Maison Smalto in Paris.
1969 – Spanish master Joseph Camps and Mario De Luca create Camps de Luca.
2000’s – Claude Rousseau and Gabriel Gonzalez join Cifonelli.
2012 – Berluti purchases Arnys, while retaining the original tailors and the Arnys Atelier name.