Wardrobe: A Parisian in America

<< Back to Robb Report, October 2003
  • William Kissel

With novelties such as authentic reproductions of 19th-century French army jackets and cashmere pea coats lined in stripes, Arnys has long attracted nonconformist clients, including Lost Generation icons Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, and Ernest Hemingway. Now the 70-year-old Parisian men’s haberdashery is exporting its unconventional fashion concepts to the United States.

The first step was last year’s introduction of limited edition seven-fold silk organza neckwear at Wilkes Bashford in San Francisco, George Green in Chicago, and a handful of other American retailers. This fall, the brand’s owners, brothers Michel and Jean Grimbert, are adding handpicked pieces from their sportswear collection. The items will debut at 17 top U.S. specialty stores, including those mentioned above. Silk-lined shirt jackets, washed tweed herringbone jackets with suede pockets, and herringbone car coats with attached neck scarves are all destined for American shores. The collection also boasts one of the most ingenious fashion ideas of the year: a cashmere golf sweater that reverses to water-resistant Gore-Tex.

While the recent political tensions between the United States and France might prompt one to question the timing of Arnys’ strategy, Jean argues that his targeted high-end intellectual client is seldom swayed by mass sentiment. “In Paris we have many American customers, particularly among the literary and arts communities, who are from this [rarefied] world,” he says. “These are people with a certain attitude and way of life who are not driven by convention. And there are many more people with this sensibility living in the United States than in Europe.”

This year’s venture is not Arnys’ first foray into the U.S., says Jean, who cites a short-lived debut at Bergdorf Goodman in New York four years ago. Hampered by limited production, Arnys withdrew from the U.S. market. “In the past, we were not able to produce the kind of volume [required for] the American market,” he says.

Although the initial samples are still meticulously hand-constructed by a team of tailors on the shop’s second floor, the clothing is produced in two small factories in France and Italy. The company is better prepared to meet U.S. demand this time, having test-marketed its export capabilities in Japan, where Arnys operates five signature stores. “Japanese customers like beautiful things, but they also want perfect quality,” Jean explains, noting the challenge of creating artisan-quality clothing in volume. In meeting the Japanese standards, Arnys has earned praise from Western fashion aficionados. In his book Style and the Man: How and Where to Buy Fine Men’s Clothes (HarperCollins, 1996), New York designer (and Arnys client) Alan Flusser writes that Arnys sportswear “is so well made and costly that one imagines the only sport you can wear it for is shopping.”

Indeed, the moneyed leisure set has historically been Arnys’ targeted clientele. The Grimberts’ grandfather, a Russian Jewish tailor named Jankel, opened Arnys in 1933 as France’s first ready-to-wear store and focused on bespoke-quality vestments patterned after those worn by the landed gentry of 18th-century France. Decades earlier, Jankel had chosen to immigrate to France rather than follow his six brothers to the United States. “We are the only members of our family still living in Paris,” says Jean. “The majority of them are U.S. citizens.” Perhaps this explains why the Grimberts believe the quintessentially French retailer has roots, as well as a future, in America.

Arnys, +33.1.45.48.76.99, www.arnys.fr

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