During my recent Summer travels, I had the honour and great pleasure of making the acquaintance of Monsieur Jean-Claude Colban.
Jean-Claude, together with his sister Anne-Marie Colban, are the owners and keepers of Charvet, the French legendary, high-end shirt maker and tailor at 28, Place Vendôme in Paris. They design, produce and sell bespoke and ready-to-wear shirts, neckties, blouses, pyjamas and suits.
Inspired by our conversations and impressed by Jean-Claude’s personality and spiritual calm, I decided to find out more about Charvet. It was a fascinating learning journey!
During my Parisian years, I remember walking by the prestigious shop, located in one of the hôtels particuliers of Place Vendôme. The building has a three-story Jules Hardouin Mansart facade, behind which Charvet occupies seven floors. It is classé au titre des Monuments Historiques and the only store directly operated by Charvet.
The world’s first ever shirt shop, Charvet was founded in 1838 by Christofle Charvet (1809–1870). His father Jean-Pierre, native of Strasbourg, had been “curator of the wardrobe” for Napoleon Bonaparte.
By way of comparison, the first shirt makers in London were created between 1885 and 1895.
Up until then, shirts were traditionally made by linen keepers with fabric provided by the customer. But this store was new of a kind, one here clients were measured, fabric selected and shirts made on order and on site.
It remains to this day, the oldest shop on place Vendôme, which explains both the inclusion of the location into the firm’s name, and the use of the sun device as its logo, one designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart himself to ornate the handrails of the balconies of the Place, and indeed built in honour of Louis XIV, the Sun King.
Since the 19th century, Charvet has supplied bespoke shirts and haberdashery to kings, princes and heads of state. Throughout the decades that have passed, it has acquired an international reputation for the high quality of its products, the level of its service and the wide range of its designs and colors.
Also, thanks to the renown of its ties, charvet has become a standard name for a certain type of silk fabric used for ties.
Its exceptionally long history is associated with many famous customers, some of them even infatuated with the brand. Writers have often expressed their characters’ identity through references to Charvet.
When in 1965 the Charvet heirs sought to sell the firm, they were contacted by an American buyer. The French government, knowing Charvet had been for a long time General de Gaulle’s shirt-maker, was greatly concerned. The French Ministry of Industry instructed Denis Colban, Charvet’s main supplier, to locate an alternate French buyer. What he then did instead of approaching investors was in fact to purchase the company himself.
Until then, Charvet was operated in much the same way as it had been since its foundation: a customer was shown only what he requested, in most cases something fairly conservative. After Mr. Colban bought the firm, things changed. The change started when Baron Rothschild came into the store and asked to see some shirting fabrics, one of which was pink. When M. Colban, following previous Charvet practice, advised against the color, the Baron retorted, “If not for me, who is it for?”. Some time later, Nelson Rockefeller requested some shirt swatches be sent to New York. Bold stripes and unusual colors were sent and eventually selected. Colin had changed Charvet’s policies as well as its role in the design process with the customer.
Colban also brought significant changes to the aspect of the store, having all the venerable furniture varnished in black. He created new lines of products and started ready-to-wear finely made shirts for men and women. A few years later, he was one of the first of many famous European shops and designers to sell ready-to-wear shirts, ties and accessories to Bergdorf Goodman. However, even while developing these new pre-made lines of products, Colban always insisted in maintaining the bespoke aspect of the firm as its core identity. He emphasised that “the essential hardest of all to accomplish in today’s world of quick and easy pseudo solutions, is an atmosphere of ‘yes’ to the customer and, even more, a respect for that commitment”, re-iterating the focus of Charvet on its bespoke business.
Colban refused numerous offers to sell the company, maintaining the single store in Paris and continuing the house as a family business. After his death in 1994, the company has been managed by his two children, Anne-Marie and Jean-Claude.
The goal of the company is to give its customers the option to custom order or customize everything it sells, from neckwear (including bow ties) to underwear, with “the idea that a garment that carries a personal stamp exceeds any other form of luxury”. Bolts of fabric on display throughout the store can be held against oneself to see how they really look. Charvet creates exclusive fabrics for all its collections and prides itself of going a long way to satisfy customers, remaking on request ties purchased years earlier or changing a shirt’s frayed collar and cuffs.
This “centre of the universe for shirt aficionados” could be the largest selection of fine shirtings in the world, with over 6,000 different fabrics, including a “legendary” Mur des Blancs (Wall of Whites) of four hundred different white fabrics in 104 shades of white and another of two hundred solid blues.
The richly colored and unique fabrics are presented in full bolts, not on swatch cards. Most of them are designed in-house by Charvet, for its own exclusive use and woven from specially chosen gossypium barbadense cotton from the Nile delta. About a thousand new patterns are introduced each year, all of them registered. The Charvet stripes are often multicolored, asymmetric, thinner than English stripes, softer and subtler in the matching of shades.
Men’s custom tailoring is on the sixth floor, which has the atmosphere of a men’s club. Some 4,500 bolts of fabric are on display there.
Charvet has been characterised by Newsweek magazine as the Vatican of the shirt.
The “unique” care for precision and symmetry expresses French classicism and is a paradigm of the care for quality in luxury products. In particular, a lot of attention is given to the regularity of stitches and the matching of patterns.
On a typical striped ready-to-wear shirt and unlike most other makes, the placket is matched with the front, the face of the collar with the bottom, the collar stripes line up with the yoke stripes, the yoke stripes with the sleeve stripes, the sleeve stripes with the sleeve placket stripes, and finally the shade of yarn used for the buttonholes is matched to the stripe, the whole process creating the feeling the shirt is all one piece.
The yoke is one-piece and curved to follow the back. The left cuff is made one-quarter inch longer than the right to allow for the watch. The allowance is lower for made-to-order shirts. For men, shirt tails are square and vented for a clean look. For women, they are rounded, with a signature side-seam gusset.
The cuff is made more or less wide, depending if the customer wants his watch to remain hidden under the cuff or to show. According to Charvet, many customers have two different types of shirts: those for evening wear, intended to be worn with a flat watch, and the others for day wear, with a thicker watch. The stitching on a standard collar is four millimeters from the edge. The stitching of the top and the edges are precise and well-planned.
The collar is very clean-cut, made from six layers of unfused cloth for a dressy, yet not stiff, appearance. Instead, a free floating stiffener aims to provide more comfort and a better shape. The shirts are stitched with twin rows of single-needle tailoring, sewn one row at a time for minimum puckering and maximum fit. There are twenty stitches per inch. Buttons are made from Australian mother-of-pearl, cut from the surface of the oyster shell for added strength and greater color clarity. For formal shirts, bibs are hand pleated. Though its traditional ready-to-wear shirts are trim, the company has also introduced in 2009 a “slim fit” line.
In bespoke shirt-making, you are limited only by your imagination. It is an expression of French perfectionism. In this process, an interim shirt in basic cotton will be made for you and fitted before the actual shirt is made. Charvet’s tailors will actually cut the collar directly on your neck while you’re wearing this interim shirt. A minimum of 28 measurements are required. The minimum order is one shirt. There are only fifty shirt-makers working in the Saint-Gaultier atelier and only one person works on a shirt at a time, whether custom or ready-to-wear, doing everything except for the buttonholes and pressing the shirt. Each shirt takes thirty days to complete.
Charvet ties are handmade, generally from a thick multicolor brocade silk, of a high yarn count, often enhanced by the addition of a hidden colour, producing a dense fabric which goes through a proprietary finishing to acquire lustre, fluidity and resilience and achieve the right knot. The company develops its own exclusive patterns and colors. It creates about 8,000 models per year, Jacquard woven on exclusive commission, with silk either alone or mixed with other precious yarns, such as cashmere, camel hair, bamboo yarn or covered with laminated precious metals, such as silver, gold or platinum, with techniques dating back to the 14th century when the popes were based in Avignon.
The ties collection, sometime “unmistakably bold”or “witty and wicked”, often noted for its shimmer and changing colors uses about 5,000 shadesin over 100,000 combinations.
Ties are made from three pieces of silk material cut at a 45-degree angle. They are sewn entirely by handbefore being hand folded into shape. Sevenfold (an unlined construction variant of the four-in-hand) ties are available on order.
Charvet is mainly a one-shop operation. The majority of Charvet’s revenue comes from bespoke, made-to-measure, and special-order garments made at the Paris store. It also makes bespoke pajamas and robes for women and bespoke shirts even for children.
While Charvet hasn’t rejected the Internet, it still follows its age-old policy of not doing any marketing or advertising.
Some online stores do sell Charvet shirts, and products like socks and ties but the one and only Charvet store, in Paris, is the revenue engine and where the pride is!
“The difference between our customers and those buying some other luxury product is that they buy a Charvet for themselves, not for the implied social value” says Jean-Claude Colban.
No matter what anyone “speculates”, Charvet never names its customers. Nevertheless, at one time or another, Charvet has dressed some of the world’s best-dressed men (and women…). Also incredible is the number of times Charvet is mentioned in the world’s great stories!
In 1869, Charvet was granted a royal warrant of “chemisier in Paris” (shirtmaker in Paris) to the prince of Wales and would remain his shirt maker into the 20th century, appointed in 1903 “hosier and glover in Paris”. As Edward VII was considered an “arbiter of masculine fashions” and looked upon “as the glass of fashion for his day”, this patronage contributed significantly to the notoriety of Charvet: an 1874 guide advised American tourists Charvet shirts were one of Paris specialties, “stamped with high approval by the patronage of the Prince of Wales”. The patronage stirred polemics in the United Kingdom, as the prince was “accused of not sufficiently encouraging home industries and of purchasing annually hundreds of pairs of gloves on the continent”.
John F Kennedy wore custom-made shirts from Charvet but kept their origin a secret. He had the labels of his Charvet shirts removed. A Charvet shirt having belonged to Kennedy is on display at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie Museum.
The Maharaja Singh Bhupinder (1891-1938) once placed a single order of 86 dozen shirts. Charvet had to construct special trunks to ship them to him. Each item was embroidered with his crest. The bill for the monogramming alone was $ 67,000.
Bernard-Henri Lévy, often referred to as BHL, is described as a “provocateur”, a “showman”, who “wears the mantle of polarizing intellectual quite happily along with made-to-measure clothing from French house Charvet”. His shirt style has become a signature, but he says he “has no interest discussing the suavely unbuttoned garment that for his fans and his detractors alike has become synonymous with his name.” Nevertheless, his critics consider this unbuttoned white shirt “is an important element of BHL’s TV and public images and it tells a lot about the man. If you tried it with your own shirt, the collar would sag. But BHL’s shirts are specially designed by the famous shirt-maker Charvet, with collars that withstand the unbuttoning and never disappear under his jacket”, also made by Charvet.
Coco Chanel used Charvet ties as belts for herself and as a ballet costume designer. In the early 20th century, Charvet launched a toilet water, in a rectangular beveled bottle. One of the customers for this perfume was Boy Capel, Coco Chanel’s lover. In 1921, two years after his accidental death, the flacon of Chanel’s famous Nº 5 perfume was produced in the image of the Charvet bottle used by Capel.
Christian Louboutin wears Charvet shirts and collects Charvet ties, which he owns in hundreds and considers “the most treasured part” of his wardrobe and a “constant source of inspirations”. “If I go shopping, it might be to buy two or three more ties, which I never wear, or shirts from Charvet on Place Vendome. Here they have the most magnificent colored ties: its like looking at a lovely garden. I have tons of them at home and I am perfectly happy not to wear them”. One of his line of lady shoes had “wicked designs made of Charvet tie fabric”.
Charles Prince of Wales, Jacques Chirac, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Farouk of Egypt, Francois Mitterrand, Aldo Moro, Barack Obama, Pavlos of Greece, Georges Pompidou, Ronald Reagan…
Fred Astair, Cecil Beaton, Candice Bergen, Jean Cocteau, Gary Cooper, Francis Ford-Coppola, Sofia Coppola, Bing Crosby, Claude Debussy, Catherine Deneuve, Sergei Diagilev, Faye Dunaway, Gustave Eiffel, Brian Ferry, Ernest Hemingway, Jeremy Irons, Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Orson Welles, Oscar Wilde, Emile Zola…
Manolo Blahnik, Pierre Cardin, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Thierry Mugler, Paloma Picasso, Carine Roitfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Diane Von Furstenberg, Lapo Elkann, Takada Kenzo…
In conclusion, a white Charvet shirt is on my bucket list of luxuries to acquire, right next to the Patek Philippe Calatrava watch, the Hermès Birkin Bag and the Sevan Bıçakçı ring!