Although Dunhill may have shuttered its U.S. stores (with the exception of the New York flagship), the company has not abandoned retailing altogether; it recently reopened the doors of its oldest standing store at 15 rue de la Paix in Paris’ second arrondissement following an extensive restoration that was completed earlier this year. There, Stephen di Renza has been channeling Alfred Dunhill’s spirit and blowing the dust off of the grand homme of bespoke to create a surprise for those who associate Dunhill solely with lighters and pens.
Di Renza’s position is difficult to classify; the title creative director is not quite adequate. Dunhill’s secret weapon is perhaps a better description. “This is the Unique,” says di Renza, as he pulls from his pocket a vintage Dunhill lighter, which weighs as much as a petanque ball. “It was made in 1924, the year this store opened its doors. Picasso had a portrait of his then mistress, Dora Maar, engraved on one like this. But,” he adds, “this store is not about lighters. It’s iconic Dunhill.”
The Parisian shop has worked closely with artisans to restore an iconic element to Dunhill’s offerings. Almost everything is bespoke or one-of-a-kind vintage—a carved bench sourced from a Scottish castle or plush matching Art Deco blue velvet slipper chairs and love seat. Sold or not, the antique pieces remain on hand for only 15 days, perpetuating a continually fresh look for the store.
Alfred Dunhill’s original claim to fame was as a 20th-century shopkeeper who developed luxury attire and accessories for the avid motorist—“motorites,” he called them. Items that speak to the spirit of motorites—such as made-to-order driving gloves—take up more permanent residence than the antiques. Still, only 15 of any new object are produced. From classic cuff links made from single, perfect, 10-millimeter Tahitian black pearls to more cutting-edge designs made from antique doll’s eyes or raw gemstones, all are limited editions.
Di Renza has assembled an impressive group of artisans that includes shagreen master Jacques Robin. Engraver Madame Stern creates gold bevel-edged calling cards that fit perfectly into crocodile holders handmade for the shop by an Hermès-trained craftsman. And master leather crafters custom copy early-20th-century Dunhill motoring leather trench coats.
This is a shop filled with playthings and temptations that are solid, masculine, and rare. Each is reason enough to visit when you are next in Paris, but perhaps the most compelling motive for making a trip is to purchase a truly timeless icon: a custom-made white shirt from pattern maker Marc Lauwers, an earnest young man often seen in the rear of the store fussing over a shirt’s drape. Clients can choose from 100 different white fabrics and several different collar options, and special requests are gladly accommodated. Realizing how easily a shirt can be ruined if it falls into the wrong hands, many owners of Lauwers shirts (labeled not “Dunhill” but “15 rue de la Paix”) return them to the store to be sent out for proper laundering. Don’t bother asking where. The expert launderer’s address is yet another of 15 rue de la Paix’s precious little secrets.