In this tie, and in my reasons for tracking down and buying it 20 years after it was made.
Atavism is, loosely, a reversion to ancestral traits. What do you do when you have few memorable traits to draw from? That was the conundrum the menswear line of Christian Dior faced for decades. M. Dior was a commercial visionary, having sold the right to use his name on everything from women’s stockings to men’s ties. This move anticipated the rise of massive fashion companies who create their images based on elaborate, extravagant couture lines but are supported by sales of their branded accessories. But Dior, who himself dressed with discreet sobriety, died in 1958, leaving the designers of the menswear line that bore his name to mine a very narrow field of inspiration.
Because just as women’s ready-to-wear and accessories claim inspiration from a couture line, a designer’s related menswear line often follows a boutique line. That boutique line might be barely more than for show, made for the brand’s flagship stores in a few parts of the world, while the bulk of items bearing its name are created and sold elsewhere under lucrative licensing agreements. This strange, nearly invisible halo effect was the case for a number of French couturiers until at least the 1990s: while discount shops in the United States would sell their socks and factory-made shirts, their Paris flagships would sell conservative but sumptuous Scottish cashmeres or kimonos made out of the same silk as their women’s scarves, printed in Lyon.
Attempting PCR on their brands’ menswear DNA must have been a thankless task, carried out mostly by assiduous but forgotten names, like Patrick Lavoix, who designed this tie in the early 1990s for Dior’s boutique menswear line. Earlier collections had taken less inspired themes, such as “l’esprit chevaleresque” (the knightly spirit), which manifested as a cartoony print of knights on horseback on ties. In contrast, this design is based on the décor created by Christian “Bébé” Bérard, a decorator and set designer of genius, for Dior’s first showroom, itself inspired by 18th-century toile de Jouy motifs. The theme of the print, hot air balloons, seems like another nod to the 18th century, since France claims that the Montgolfier brothers were the first to go up in hot-air balloons they invented at the end of that century. (To this day the French word for hot-air balloon is “montgolifère.”) And the material, shantung silk, is unusual (particularly as a print) and luxurious for a tie.
What these boutique lines shared was a certain absence of irony. Today, toile de Jouy prints seem grandmotherly. The designer Paul Smith used them for kitsch effect on ties years ago. Looking at my 1990s Dior tie, and at pictures of the matching waistcoat Lavoix designed to go with it (it was the 1990s after all), I have no doubt that sincere obeisance to the past, to perceived brand heritage, was all that Lavoix intended.
And I love it. Having seen a picture of this tie and its paired waistcoat in François Chaille’s The Book of Ties, a 1994 monograph on neckwear, I had to search for it, and was lucky to find a new, unsold example, still with its tags, carefully handmade in France by Anthime Mouley. The waistcoat still turns up on French vintage sites. Finding it was my own homage to the blinkered old Dior menswear and its boutique line’s studious elegance. Because the first “nice” piece of clothing I owned, the item that first made me interested in clothing, was a Dior overcoat I had as an adolescent. It was licensed, mass-produced, and of no particular inspiration or special level of quality, but to me it meant exoticism, dash, mysteriousness, all of the things that brands attempt to convey and so rarely do. It set me off on a quest to discover what it was in that coat, in that brand, in clothing itself, that made me feel that way, a quest that’s taken me from Mouton à cinq pattes and Marshall’s to Savile Row, rue de la Paix and the Faubourg Saint-Honoré… and, of course, eBay, which is where I found this tie. In the end, I realize that the joy we feel might be based on how little we know to adulterate the feeling.
I mention DNA above. Today there are famous menswear designers at Balmain, Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, in fact most of the old couture houses whose menswear lines had plodded through the 1990s. At the end of that decade, Dior replaced the dutiful Lavoix with Hedi Slimane, who became a fashion supernova with revolutionary tightly tailored suits and ascetically sharp cuts and colors. That had very little to do with M. Dior himself or with any vision, beyond financial success, that Dior had had for his menswear. But today’s designers often mention returning to the brand’s original DNA as a sort of cargo-cultism, alluding to everything from a designer’s personal wardrobe to his childhood vacations, to the sort of art he liked as touchstones. Personally, I think it’s better that these designers have found a path out of the narrow constraints of bland propriety that used to limit them. Nonetheless, I’m glad to wear this little link to a past, a tie to an origin story.