The Least of All Casualties

I’m thinking, for some reason, of the late Adnan Khashoggi and of a host of dead playboys and nabobs, shrouded in the finest custom shirts money, so much money, could buy. Adnan Khashoggi, who so clearly wanted to be the Basil Zaharoff of the late twentieth century, an international man of mystery dealing arms and other items from the shadows, a figure of luxury legend, a man with whom I have nothing in common, save that life occasionally humbles us… 

Yes, Khashoggi, who nicknamed his Korean bodyguard “Mr. Kill,” who reportedly kept $100,000 cash handy in an attaché case on board his private jet to sweeten any deal or grease any palm, who ordered the largest yacht in the world (Queen wrote a song about it! It was the villain’s yacht in a Bond film!), came undone. Iran Contra, Imelda Marcos, BCCI, a host of 1980s names of tarnished glitz like the hidden grime in a Helmsley hotel… He had to sell the yacht; Donald Trump briefly owned it before Trump’s own financial problems forced him to sell it yet again, to a Saudi prince. 

Adnan Khashoggi, yes, that Khashoggi, uncle of the intrepid journalist Jamal Khashoggi, assassinated in sordid circumstances a year after Adnan died in wealth but not splendor. Assassinated and unavenged.

I am even less Adnan’s spiritual heir than that serious, dedicated nephew. It’s a strange contrast between the thoughtful engagement of one and the freewheeling, flamboyant capitalism of the other, a flamboyance of fairy tales, fairy tales because at their best they make us momentarily forget their foundations of exploitation and graft. 

Like robber baron James Goldsmith (who inspired Terence Stamp’s character in Wall Street), Khashoggi was a famous customer of the bespoke services at Lanvin, the oldest couturier in Paris and for a long time the best shirtmaker there. Stories filter out, unattributed in magazines or relayed by friends in the know, stories that made him the last of the nabobs. He ordered a thousand custom shirts at a time! The workrooms (until a few years ago on-site on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, some of the most expensive real-estate in the world!) were busy for months! Because he only wore his Lanvin custom shirts once! What a way to save on laundry bills! 

What happened to them? Did he hand them down to his sons, or to Jamal? Like the King of Morocco with his Smalto custom suits, once worn did he pass them on to his staff? 

Those days of excess are gone. They were long gone when I pushed the door at Lanvin, curious to try what knowledgeable friends had called the best shirtmaker. The shirtmaker and his staff must have known that, as clients go, I could not be at a farther remove from that man and those days, a gloomy wallflower anxious to make sure that my centimes counted, that what I received would last, gratefully accepting their suggestion to provide extra cloth to remake the collar and cuffs of the one shirt I initially ordered, for whenever those would wear out. For I was interested just in a single shirt from that maker, not thousands to strew in the wake of conspicuous consumption. No matter. They treated me as politely and patiently as they would their most extravagant client, and produced a shirt that fitted closely, marvelously, with handmade buttonholes that a much more famous shirtmaker exclaimed were worthy of a museum. In other words, a gem as precious as the daydreams I had burnished.

I was to be only a sporadic client, sometimes ordering only after an absence of years, surprised at how well they remembered my tastes, at how well my patternmaker carried out the refinements I wanted, indeed at how, over years, we nurtured a polite friendship over shared snark and tastes in old movies and Art Deco.

Art Deco. Lanvin’s Paris men’s shop is an entire building, opened in 1926 dedicated only to custom tailoring and shirtmaking. Prior to that it had been the headquarters of Lanvin Décor, designed with the unmistakable flourishes of Armand-Albert Rateau. A gorgeous luxury. For decades, Lanvin Tailleur et Chemisier retained Rateau’s stylized gilt découpé designs and furniture, before renovation banished those motifs only to tie patterns and other accessories. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Lanvin offered any men’s ready-to-wear. While it had embraced worldwide licenses for garments bearing the Lanvin name by the 1980s (my father has a poly-cotton Lanvin dress shirt from that period), its flagship was one of the only places in the world where – decades before Berluti made this boast – a man could be outfitted in bespoke literally from head to toe, Assiduous hands at  the Lanvin-owned hatter Gélot (magically transposed from the Place Vendôme to a shop-in-shop on the Lanvin bespoke floor) still crafted and fit the finest headwear, while one of the Corthay brothers themselves created Lanvin custom shoes. As for Lanvin custom tailoring? In 1901, Jeanne Lanvin herself had designed Lanvin very first men’s garment, her friend Edmond Rostand’s elaborately embroidered uniform for his initiation into the Académie Française, the first of over 70 such custom-made uniforms Lanvin would make, along with every sort of conventional tailored garment – including suits and sportcoats for certain French politicians who could not patronize their British tailors while in office. 

Those days are gone. In the ’60s Lanvin had advertised its bespoke with elegant cartoons of well-appointed gentlemen’s clubs, yacht marinas, luxury hotel suites and trophy-bedecked hunting lodges, all captioned “For a certain class of men.” Those men are mostly gone. So, too, are their replacements, the rootless international men of mystery like Khashoggi. Even intellectual poseurs (yes, I’ll grant him the “u”) like Bernard-Henri Levy stopped ordering their casually unbuttoned white shirts from Lanvin.  Middle-class punters like myself, in love with the ritual of cloth selection, of fitting, of being escorted to the bespoke floor with its own little escalator, the month-long wait pregnant with anticipation for an elaborately-packaged single shirt, are too few.  No more sprawling bespoke floor but a small if tasteful salon, with what remained of the ateliers on the same floor, behind a discreet door.

The hidden of the hidden: at a time brands all over heavily advertised their custom services (however spurious), not a single vitrine at 15, faubourg Saint-Honoré carried the least hint that one of the finest tailors and shirtmakers in Paris resided there. Resided, for they did not travel – unless a customer flew themout. Even the shop Lanvin opened on Savile Row a few years ago didn’t bring them over, instead offering a sort of customized stock special service on its ready-to-wear designs.  

This is the least of all casualties, to lament the end of something that only the most entitled of us could ever use. For even if I’ll never set foot on a yacht, I recognize how privileged I was to indulge in the affectation of a custom shirtmaker, of the fetish of its product. Of the last days of this particular legend. Ninety-five years after its founding, the custom tailor and shirtmaker defected to another life, and Lanvin bespoke is now dead. Ninety-five years! They could not put up with five more years in the shadowy recesses of their employer, a small, ever-shrinking habitat, where I hoped their remaining an afterthought would shelter them from corporate extinction, and round out a century. 

The least of all casualties, for what ended is just an idea, the idea of a permanence, a waning best, a classic. For those who want the concrete, various lines of ready-to-wear remain. Lanvin was one of the classic old guard of tailors that the legendary Groupe des Cinq, including Camps, rebelled against in the 1950s. Today, whether rebel or classicist, what is left of bespoke rallies together – tailors from the supposed old guard migrate to those former iconoclast hellions, and vice versa.

The least of all casualties, like an arms dealer dying, finally, in a Harley Street clinic. No reason to weep for him, when we live among the casualties he and his colleagues may have wrought, his financial heirs likely preferring fleece vests, athleisure, performative populism. What the rest of us inherit is casualty, this daydream’s passing worthy of no more than a moment’s thoughtful pause in our current nightmares. At least allow it that.

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