Arnys et moi and Me

How do you remember something you never knew? The orphaned opening words of Arnys et moi, journalist Philippe Trétiack’s memoir of the late and legendary Paris shop Arnys, raise that question: “I never stepped in. I never bought anything there. And now, it’s too late.” This ellipse adds romance to Trétiack’s incomparable book, which contrasts the rise of the family behind Arnys with Trétiack’s own. Like the Grimberts of Arnys, Trétiack’s ancestors were Jews from Eastern Europe who immigrated to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century and ended up the garment trade.  But where the Grimberts’ boutique became, to some, synonymous with a neighborhood, an attitude, a philosophy, and even Paris itself, the boutique tended by Trétiack’s mother stayed a neighborhood mediocrity, a sinkhole of time, money and, in Trétiack’s telling, of lifeforce itself as he describes how his mother kept shop despite the hate she had for the shop, for the clothes she sold and for their potential customers.  A far cry from the supposed intellectual and political salon that was Arnys.

How do we remember Arnys? Despite Trétiack’s professed unfamiliarity with the shop, readers may never encounter a more knowledgeable and measured historical account of the Arnys shop: the implantation in Paris of educated left-wing garment dealer Jankel Grünberg, whose successes across multiple shops allowed him to settle on the very established avenue Foch in the 16 arrondissement; the immigrant’s cultural emphasis on education that led his sons Léon and Albert to pursue studies on the at once more aristocratic and artistic Left Bank; the polio that derailed one son’s medical career and drove both to enter the family trade, this time in a Left Bank shop space close by the colleges and medical schools he had been attending; the burgeoning family success; the horrors of the Second World War, which saw Jankel and his wife die in Auschwitz; the evolution of Arnys the shop and the brand from a neighborhood corner in a sleepy part of Paris to the epicenter of a certain hip bohemia, of a self-conscious rebellion, of a subversively elegant set of limousine liberals (the loose equivalent of the French gauche caviar), and finally of a dated, sated establishment… before communion with luxury conglomerate LVMH forced Arnys’ transubstantiation into the nominal custom tailoring and shirtmaking arm of LVMH-owned brand Berluti. Even the mysterious name “Arnys” itself is finally explicated: the Grimberts (name eventually Frenchified) had moved into the space vacated by a shop named Loris; by coining a similar-sounding name for their new shop Léon and Albert hoped to attract, through confusion, some of the old shop’s former customers. 

Trétiack writes that it was the recent humiliating scandal of former French presidential candidate François Fillon that had sparked his interest in Arnys. Years after the Arnys shop had actually closed, Fillon made the papers for having accepted thousands of dollars in custom Arnys clothing paid for by Robert Bourgi.  Bourgi is a lawyer whose involvement in a shadowy-world of influence and intrigue between France and its former sub-Saharan colonies known as Françafrique has led members of the French political establishment to call him “radioactive.” According to the very entertaining French Vanity Fair writeup of the debacle, Bourgi would periodically drive Fillon over to the Berluti bespoke shop –  at Arnys’ old address -- when Fillon was feeling down and order him clothing, paid for in cold hard cash.  As a result, Trétiack writes, that shop now limits cash purchases to 1000 euros, or less than 20% of the price of a custom Arnys-by-Berluti suit.  Interestingly, Trétiack also suggests that the papers had referred to Fillon’s scandal at Arnys, rather than Berluti, not because they appreciated the academic distinction that Berluti custom clothing was created by the putative Arnys tailors, but because they feared losing LVMH’s enormous ad spend if they impugned an existing brand in the LVMH portfolio, Berluti, rather than the old brand Berluti had absorbed.

As Trétiack writes at the conclusion of his memoir, this exploration of Arnys allowed him to remember things from his own past that he had almost forgotten, yet felt so deeply.  In fact, ironically, Trétiack’s discussions of his own family’s trajectory are far cloudier (and shorter) than his descriptions of Arnys, no doubt because the latter involved researching and interviewing many of the people historically involved with the shop. Certainly, as Arnys et moi progresses, the personal memoir of Trétiack’s family comes to seem more and more exiguous compared to the gusto with which Trétiack describes not only the arrival of the Grimberts and Arnys, but the development of the garments and the ethos that made the shop an avatar of a sort of French exception, a prerevolutionary throwback, a haven for a certain set of the Parisian bourgeoisie as it wanted to see itself: deeply rooted in a timelessly elegant France of Enlightenment thought and local craft; intellectual without being sterile; a cosmopolitan of the fleshpots of the Sixth and Seventh Arrondissements, which at one time were famous bookstores, discreet art galleries and philosophers’ cafés. But today, Trétiack points out, former customers of Arnys also rue the passing of a certain clientele of the Café Flore, too.

How do I remember Arnys? Unlike Trétiack, I was a regular, if only occasionally profligate, customer of Arnys for the last decade of its existence, and knew it well for years before that, having been like Léon and Albert Grimbert a student in that neighborhood.  Like many of the habitués he describes, I used to stop in nearly every weekend. But those were not sufficient credentials to become part of the salon of intellectuals, esthetes and political figures Trétiack is only the most recent to describe. And as a guilty customer of the Flore for well over 20 years, I can attest that the shift in that café’s clientele to wealthy tourists and Eurotrash is by no means a recent phenomenon.  All that time ago, when as a student I would amble from my home on rue de Sevres past Arnys and its lovely windows to a rare treat at the Flore, it was already evident that the cultural landmarks of that area, those that Arnys claimed to be part of, had mostly disappeared in place of the boutiques of international luxury brands. There was very little left of the intellectual or countercultural long before Arnys itself ceased to be.

As a member of another diaspora, I know it is always my lot to be, in some way, an outsider wherever I am. Outsider that I am, I was shocked to find how closely Trétiack’s and my conclusions tracked: I am writing a book on vanished and vanishing French #steez, and occasionally wondered if a mutual friend like rag trader Ammar Marni, whom Trétiack interviewed for this book, had passed him my manuscript.  Like Trétiack, I concluded that Arnys incarnated a sort of French exception, a parallel universe where Beau Brummell had never imposed his modern English clothing style of simplicity of cut and restraint of color on the world. Arnys was a sort of escapism too lovely for we the uncertainly welcome to resist, a France as it would like to see itself, invented by an immigrant family.  

Arnys et moi laudably and interestingly lays out how Arnys constructed its myth, but occasionally strays into too eagerly believing some parts of that myth.  Trétiack spends a chapter or two lauding the 1940s invention of Arnys’ signature garment, the smocklike Forestière, and the cultural inspirations that led Arnys, in the wake of the Forestière, to create dozens of other garments inspired by the workwear and countrywear of France, as well as by classic French and Italian films of the 1950s and 1960s.  It’s only much later, towards the end of the book, that Trétiack mentions that that Arnys actually had remained a staid, Anglophile haberdasher until the 1990s, when the third Grimbert generation, brothers Jean and Michel, realized that ersatz Englishness was on the way out and that a contrived Frenchness (rich linings, beautiful and exotic materials, grandiosely theatrical designs, and a special notch in the lapel inspired by those created by the 1950s new wave of French tailors) could set the house apart. In other words, Arnys’ performative Frenchness, the thing that set it apart, is of quite recent vintage.  Trétiack also expounds in impressive detail on the magnificence and quality of every object Arnys sold, right down to the rarity of its handmade knives and the lushness of its pashmina scarves handwoven in Srinagar.  As something of a collector of artifacts of the places I write about, I’ve actually had the occasion to own and use items by these makers, including a Sauveterre knife and a scarf from Arnys’ supplier Kashmir Loom.  What Trétiack may not have realized is that the Arnys items were not just exquisite and luxurious, but were often incredibly delicate.  In the case of their handmade, hand-rolled seven-fold ties, they seemed to be deliberately more delicately and clumsily made than they needed to be in order to seem more handmade.  This seemed the case with a number of Arnys items.  Like Trétiack, I never became a bespoke customer of Arnys.  But here he and I diverge, as his words praising the current Arnys-Berluti cutter suggest he had not heard the pervasive and insistent words across the rest of the Paris bespoke population about the custom makers at Arnys. I’ll only note that the longtime Arnys cutter had actually left Arnys around the time it became part of Arnys, and is now retired, while their longtime custom shirtmaker died recently. 

Things change. Like Trétiack, I’ve wondered about the futility of writing about places like Arnys, about what it matters to remember. Then I remember that so many of us, so many different individuals with so many different individual histories, have conferred on this place, on this meaningless pair of syllables, so many different meanings, each with its own reverberations. How much can we know about what we remember?


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