Interview : Meet the Parisian Gentleman (and his shoes)

Hugo JACOMET

Interview : Meet the Parisian Gentleman (and his shoes)

This article is the transcript of a recent interview by French blog Dark Planneur.

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Darkplanneur :  What is your website’s mission ? How do you define a Parisian Gentleman, what are his values, his iconic brands, his favorite shoes ?

Hugo Jacomet : Parisian Gentleman is, or so I hope, an atypical media which isn’t limited to talking about clothes, do’s and dont’s and how-to topics, or even writing strictly about how to dress in style.

PG’s goal is to preach about the benefits of a more elegant life and to go beyond the simple topic of clothing and practical advice on how to tie a tie, for instance. I believe in the virtues of an elegant life – a good sartorial education can change one’s life in major ways.

Elegance is a subject that can’t be tackled without some sort of reflection on the world surrounding us. Yet the pursuit of elegance is often considered frivolous by naysayers, especially when it comes to men’s elegance. But for those who take time to study the subject, it quickly becomes apparent that elegance as a concept is more complex than it seems, as it quickly shows its formidable paradoxical colours: elegance denotes both fortitude and ease, is both stiff and graceful, exacting yet blurred, plain yet flowery, reflecting modesty and prance. It is not only the attribute, but also the gesture.

Hence, the lines blur as we explore the heterogeneous yet strongly interconnected blend of charm, sociability, aesthetics, technique and personal ethics. Breathing clarity into such an interconnected opulence requires a cataloguing of elegances to enhance the sometimes soulless cataloguing of garments.

A Parisian Gentleman is, by nature, impossible to define without including a number of nuances–the main point being that a gentleman must develop a style all his own, free from the dictum of trendsetters. A gentleman’s values are gained through a proverbial resistance, which fights against a society full of members who are blindly ready-to-wear, eat, feel and think. This resistance is a form of elegant disdain directed at the practice of mediocracy.

A gentleman’s icons are not brands, but people ; artisans, tailors, bootmakers, shirtmakers…real craftspersons. Such icons are no longer named Marc Jacobs, Hedi Slimane or Karl Lagarfeld, but rather Lorenzo Cifonelli, Marc de Luca, Pierre Corthay, Jean-Claude Colban or Anthony Delos.

A gentleman’s favorite shoes may be his bespoke shoes, financial means permitting of course–or at least his made-to-order shoes for which he chose the last (i.e., the shape, the essence of the shoe’s overall aesthetics), the design, the material and the patina, according to personal style preferences.

Berluti Alessandro

Corthay Arca

John Lobb William

J.M. Weston 180

Aubercy Lawrence

That said, many models of shoes have become heavily influential with time : we can mention Berluti’s “Alessandro” wholecut, Corthay’s “Arca” two eyelets derby, John Lobb’s “William” double monk strap, J.M. Weston’s “180” penny loafer, or Aubercy’s “Lawrence” Balmoral boot.

DP : Consider the shoe buying habits of those under 30, how has the attitude of these young men evolved with the market ? What motivates this specific demographic to buy shoes ? What are the brands and models they seek most ? Are blogs influential in such purchases ?

HJ : There’s an ongoing revolution in this specific age group in terms of shoe purchases. About every 18 months, we publish the PG Shoe Selection – likely the most extensive work of its kind in the world, with more than 60 brands curated and reviewed.

The PG Shoe Selection is our most popular publication- with more than 350 000 visits across the French and English versions, which can create an avalanche of attention and shoe orders for lesser-known brands in the selection. Some shoe brands have even been challenged to meet the demand our selection generates.

But why is our selection met with such enthusiasm ? We believe it’s because of the focus on the product itself, including leather quality and the understanding of the level of craftsmanship that goes into the shoe’s creation. We’re not interested in marketing fluff and attempt to “tune out” such nonsense.

About six or seven years ago (when I created PG),  few people knew the difference between Blake, Blake-Rapid, Good-Year, Norwegian and handwelting. Nowadays, young people are more educated and passionate about what goes into making a quality pair of shoes, including the technical aspects. Choosing a shoe goes beyond the need to protect one’s feet and mindless shoe-branding, and now includes understanding the quality of the product itself. Trust me when I say the subject is no longer the exclusive domain of a handful of crazy people arguing endlessly within the confines of a specialized fora.

The passion for shoes is a phenomenon that’s going global, so brands are forced to adapt in order to survive. Quality has to rise to meet the educated customer’s demand. The time when brands could sell plastic at the price of gold is coming to a close.

In terms of the influence of blogs, I believe blogs and websites have become dominant in the industry. No one trusts a double-spread in a glossy paper magazine anymore, whereas blogs have a faithful and dedicated readership. It’s all a matter of trust and credibility.

And building up that trust is hard work. At PG, we will soon celebrate our 7th anniversary with more than 1,500 articles published in 4 languages. If you think you “only” need an Instagram account (even with tons of followers) to influence the internet crowd, then think again. I know several men’s style brands struggling to make a dent in the market, despite having a quarter of a million or more followers on Instagram.

DP : Many brands seem torn between riding on their glorious past, and refreshing their strategies and products to appeal to a more contemporary crowd. What is your take on the subject ? What brands are most successful in finding balance between past and present ?

HJ : Fabricated stories abound in the industry to stake a claim on a barely-existent-heritage. It’s extremely hard to disprove even the wildest claims, so the tradition-washing is reaching absurd new heights :

Take Uncle Robert, for instance, a distant and obscure family member who went for a two-week internship serving coffee at a leather factory in 1920, since he wasn’t so great at school, and his family didn’t know what to do with him.

Well thanks to the tradition-washing, Uncle Robert has become the posthumous founder of a dynasty of legendary craftsmen, and the brand can now attach “EST. 1920” to their logo, while minstrels sing all about the fabricated lifetime of dear Uncle Rob. It’s ridiculous, dishonest, and short-sighted. Consumers are wising-up, even if many marketing departments don’t seem to think so. The backlash is coming – you can’t market dust and false relics forever.

An educated consumer, and trust me when I say customers in our area of expertise are indeed more and more educated, doesn’t give a damn about when a company was founded. What matters is the product, the style of the product, and the quality of the product.

That said, there is a certain romantic, quasi-philosophical aspect that applies to the purchase of a luxury item. Gille Lipovetsky explains it beautifully in his 2002 book “Le Luxe Eternel” :

Luxury has always had a tight link with the very concept of time – Patrons of the Arts of old, going back as far as the Antiquity, spent fortunes to have their life and memories immortalized. Nowadays, luxury brands are doing the same, even though they use a paradoxical means to do so.

On one hand there’s a constant need for innovation : that is the logic that drives fashion and today’s times. On the other hand, luxury brands still have to celebrate their founding myth, their ancestral traditions, and their skills. The same ambivalence is found in the act of consumption : we want to be in the know, we want the latest things, but we also enjoy what has a certain “temporal” depth.

Luxury items are not consumed thoughtlessly ; they have an almost ritualistic dimension that is part of the pleasure. We are buying something memorable, something that will last–it’s a purchasable and enjoyable piece of eternity. In today’s ready-to-throw society, luxury is a counterweight that invokes a deep sense of time and mortality. Paradoxically, there is a metaphysical dimension to the most materialistic of passions.

Some brands managed to find a fine balance between past and present in the industry ; brands like John Lobb (Hermès) or Berluti (LVMH) for instance.

DP : Let’s conclude by an express Brand Review !

– Berluti ? The house from whom the shoe revolution came. In the 1980s, Olga Berluti transformed an object of necessity into an object of desire. All shoe lovers should own an Alessandro or a Warhol. No matter how fragile the shoe may turn out to be – Berluti shoes are jewels.

– John Lobb ? The absolute reference when it comes to ultra classic, deeply conservative shoes. John Lobb is quite the unique beast and the brand owes as much to Paris as it does to London : when Hermès bought Lobb in 1976, the Parisian workshop that employed Parisian bootmakers had already been around since 1902. If Berluti is like a Ferrari, John Lobb is like an Aston Martin. Discreet, elegant, and almost without peers on the Bespoke range.

– J.M. Weston ? : One of the most amazing manufacture in the world. J.M. Weston is a splendid representative of the “Made-In-France” excellence…all about quality and durability. A pair of Weston Chasse shoes is so sturdy and well-made that it may well outlive its owner.

– Edward Green ? : As British as British gets – the late John Lustik was an amazing talent, and his creations never go out of style. Edward Green is a splendid house, though it will have to watch its back : Gaziano & Girling is on the rise (Tony Gaziano being, incidentally, the former head of Bespoke at Green).

– Tod’s ? Not much to say. Tod’s marketing is brilliant, efficient, and based on a single “car-shoe” model, but the brand lacks substance for most modern shoe lovers.

– Church’s ? My first true pair of shoes was a Derby Grafton I bought in 1982, so Church’s has an emotional dimension for me, though the brand has arguably lost its way since then. Prada buying Church’s is like Louboutin buying Lobb, or Toyota buying Bugatti. It makes little sense – though the brands quality seems to be slightly on the rise since a few years.