Book Review: Made in Paris

Coincident with the widespread realization in Europe and the United States that almost everything they consume was made elsewhere came a movement to buy domestic production. More recently, as the bourgeoisie of those same areas have found themselves increasingly distanced not only from the means of production but the means of earning a living through the socially accepted credentialing of education, a younger generation has rediscovered the apparent pleasures of buying local and of learning, or at least affecting, a craft.  Closeness to the acts of cultivation and creation have acquired resonance even deeper than the economic anxiety and borderline jingoism which had spurred the earlier movements to buy domestic.  Now, consuming items made, harvested, roasted or cured locally has become through a sort of substantiation the consuming of a kind of truth we deem lacking in our everyday life.

Books revealing the presence of the locally made can no longer simply be anthropological profiles, like Andrew Lawson’s 1978 survey Handmade in London, which described drawers of wire and industrial artisans along with the custom bootmakers of Mayfair without romanticizing one or the other. Instead, they are now inescapably romantic.  Christine Taconnet, the author of Made in Paris: Le guide qui dévoile tout ce qui se fabrique à Paris (The guide that reveals everything that is made in Paris), remarks that the makers now left in Paris include to a large degree small luxury operations making a brand’s most expensive and exclusive pieces – the vestigial workrooms of haute couture labels supported, in general, by perfumes and expensive ready-to-wear made in factories in Italy. Along with those remain a few niche professions – gilders and bookbinders, certain musical instrument makers, and a few random living fossils of other species.  

Made in Paris accompanied an exposition of the same name held at the city hall of Paris last fall that featured a number of the book’s subjects.  I am not qualified to evaluate all of the different makers it names – from makers of Brie cheese or jambon de Paris (literally, Paris ham and allegedly still made in the courtyard of one building in the Eleventh Arrondissement) to workers in tooled leather (cuir de Cordoue, not to be confused with cordovan leather) to braiders and corders (passementiers), and more. I can with some surprise believe that the most prestigious jewelers in Paris still maintain small workrooms in or near their staggeringly expensive showrooms for the custom orders of the oligarchs and kleptocrats who have taken over more and more of the world’s wealth.  In contrast to this acceptance, however, I can apply my own firsthand knowledge and experience, and the information I have gleaned from over a decade of frank discussions with many in the trade, to the entries on men’s clothing and accessories here, and the reader may extrapolate my evaluation of those sections to the rest of the book.

Despite its title, Made in Paris includes makers with Paris showrooms but manufactures elsewhere in Ile-de-France, the region encompassing towns 30 to 50 miles outside of Paris.  As you can imagine, that opens up a far broader set of companies than those that actually do manufacture within Paris city limits. It allows Taconnet to list Hermès’ for the facility in Pantin where it makes many of its leathergoods and Louis Vuitton for the Asnières facility where Vuitton’s custom orders – a tiny percentage of its output  are made. Prepared as Made in Paris was with the sponsorship of the city of Paris, it’s likely that the addresses it features are those developed by the city of Paris’ own communications department, without the participation of other towns in the area to suggest honorable artisans of their own, like shagreen craftsman Jacques Robin’s living heritage company (entreprise du patrimoine vivant) Cuirs d’Océan, which ought to have qualified as Robin’s based in Moisson and thus just within Ile-de-France. 

With respect to menswear, there are unfortunately few good surprises.  The tailors Camps de Luca and Cifonelli get mentions, as do Charvet and Lanvin for their custom tailoring and shirtmaking.  While both Charvet and Lanvin may still do their custom tailoring on site, to my best knowledge as a formerly incontinent customer Charvet’s shirtmakers only create patterns in Paris – all of the making up of the custom shirts for which it is famous takes place at its Saint-Gautier facility in another part of France, the same that makes its ready-to-wear.  As for Lanvin, with whom I also have some history, until some years ago all of its custom shirtmaking was indeed done on site at 15, Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which still stuns me.  However, today at least a part of the custom shirt assembly takes place at a subcontractor elsewhere.  

It is too bad that along with the major tailors above, Made in Paris doesn’t mention smaller respectable houses like Marc di Fiore, Kenjiro Suzuki or Brahim Bouloujour.  The Tenth Arrondissement maker of lovely leather jackets Séraphin deservedly gets a mention, but it’s surprising that Taconnet omits Boivin, the tiemaker in the Paris garment district that really does make ties, pocket squares and silk robes on the top floor of a building in the Second Arrondissement.  (While Boivin did at one point make ties and robes for Charvet, by Boivin’s own admission, it has not done so in a long time, nor do its ties in style, weight or construction bear any resemblance to Charvet’s.) Taconnet’s section on the various men’s custom shoemakers in Paris is better populated, but oddly elliptical about John Lobb Paris, which used to make its bespoke shoes in workrooms on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine (one of the Japanese shoe aficionados had a photoblog of his visit there) prior to supposedly moving to rue Mogador. It certainly isn’t made at the rue François 1er address Taconnet suggests customers visit. For a decade, rumors from those in the trade, and customers like the late Philippe Noiret, suggest Lobb has moved its bespoke operation out of town, to Normandy or elsewhere.  

In all, Made in Paris’ limitations are those of a book based on a publicity exercise rather than empirical and verified research. Its truths are the same emotional truths today’s seekers reach for ordering “hand-foraged” local berries on a dessert menu, or romancing a bearded urban lumberjack.  If you pick it up, it is fun, entertaining, amusing, and deeply flawed, like many another short, exotic dalliance.

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