I’m terrible at recognizing celebrities. Friends who moved to LA quickly learned to pick out any of the A-, B-, C-, D- or Jason Patric-list who become, I am told, part of the furniture of its bars and restaurants. For my part, I didn’t realize who the bum in a Paris wine shop who looked like Johnny Depp actually was until International Man of Mystery Michael Alden asked me if I’d noticed it was Depp himself. And it took me minutes to recognize that the disgusting, gigantically obese man with long, gray thinning hair at the next table at my local café, droning on to two much younger women with him about all the houses he owned, was actually former martial arts movie star, alleged sex offender, and honorary Serbian and Russian citizen Steven Seagal, in town on tour with his band Thunderbox.
And yet, walking near the Odéon one afternoon I recognized one luminary so easily it almost justified his using only a single name instead of two like the rest of us: Floc’h. Not exactly a household name to most of us, but a simpatico figure dressed just like in his drawings in a natty cream-colored suit, a whimsical wavy-haired phantom.
The French young and old do love their comic books. To their credit, they haven’t invented a more grown-up sounding name to justify grown-ups’ love for them the way we Anglophones have with the term “graphic novels.” But long before American magazines did, grown-up French magazines had sections on the newest and most interesting comics. I’ve seen comic book versions of Proust’s Combray and own, somewhere, one of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
Floc’h’s actually been the artist providing fanciful, elegant, decadent and provocative illustrations for the cover of France’s entertaining Monsieur magazine for decades. Left to his own devices, he luxuriates in mid-century Anglophilia, collaborating with the writer François Rivière on a series of detective comic books involving a critic with the ur-British name Francis Albany (a name I’d bet was inspired by the upper-class apartment building in Mayfair), and on another series set in London during the Blitz. Together they also published a novel (in vignette form with illustrations by Floc’h), Les Chroniques d'Oliver Alban, with appearances by a number of figures from British culture of the 1940s through the 1960s, lovingly, ironically described. The fictional interview of an Avengers-era Diana Rigg in one of her John Bates-designed “Emmapeelers” rings true as the homage of a dedicated fan.
Loving homages to pleasant fantasy – perhaps jarring to think of in connection with the horrors of the Blitz, unless we remember the myth created of a stoical World War II London, a legend celebrated across the Western Allies, not least among Anglophilic French, of shopkeepers setting up in the ruins of their bombed premises, of Churchill’s tobacconist making sure that his cigars were safe, and so many other bedtime-story fables used to shield memory from the realities of disaster.
Like The Avengers, Floc’h’s comics and indeed his own appearance suggest a playfulness about what it means to be grown up and dressed up. His personal wardrobe, like Steed’s, is out of its time, similarly ornate even if its touchstone is the 1930s rather than Steed’s 1910s. Indeed, Floc’h’s ghillies, tartan or spongebag trousers and pipe suggest a less fascistic, less idiotic Duke of Windsor, if such a thing were even imaginable. I blame him for some of my more ludicrous sartorial hubris, thanks to a look book he sketched for Monsieur of outfits for every setting (with a bluff caricature of himself as the model, of course). They ran the gamut from a lovely herringbone suit with “Box [calf] Black Alden Brogues” to outfits for “Spring in Venezia” with the inspirational legend “Meet me at Café Florian.” I could never get my shoemaker to locate real antelope to make me the “Made-on-Measure [sic] Shoes” the figure wore with his double-breasted white linen suit – another step too far for me. So I chose the next best thing, literally the next plate over, perfect for someone like me obsessed with “60s elegance: Christian Vadim; Günther Sachs”, a figure in checked trousers, a “white Polo-neck” and a black sport coat, on my early spring honeymoon (well, when else?) in Venice wearing pretty much that outfit, having in fact ordered the black cashmere sport coat in question because of how much those plates and those ethos had obsessed me, realizing after taking delivery that I indeed felt out of time wearing it, rather than timeless. My spouse tolerated that, and the trip to Caffè Florian – as could be expected, expensive and touristy, with the elegance rather in the figures we tourists mentally populated the ornate furniture with than in our real-life fellow customers. The figures we mentally populate, daydreaming a more charming, dashing world. Floc’h makes them visible. I recognize that, and I recognized him.