On Protection

The American government’s recent rush to offer billions to farmers harmed by the trade war that same government has threatened reminded me, as do all things, of #steez, of the zoning protection that London’s Savile Row tailors keep pleading for and the recklessly rising rents that are causing Savile Row prices to further skyrocket. In essence, the makers of very, very expensive luxury clothing items are begging for protection, in the form of a cheaper zoning classification that would almost certainly frustrate some of those tailors’ own clients, such as wealthy property investors or hedge funders who either speculate in or work out of the same areas of Mayfair that once used to be elegant side streets.

So far, the British government’s been largely unsympathetic, with one member of Parliament suggesting that the tailors up and move en masse to what must be somewhat cheaper neighborhoods outside Heathrow Airport instead, the better to serve their sizeable international clientele. Protection for a luxury in order to keep it from flying even farther out of reach, even more of an inaccessible luxury, is a low priority.

Where government could not, we would hope that it falls to us to protect makers and sellers of unique and wonderful things. Alas, we can’t do so simply through our patronage: some years ago the unique little tool and gadget store G. Lorenzi, whose Milan street, Via Montenapoleone, had become the equivalent of Madison Avenue in Manhattan, the location for every expensive international brand, closed to be replaced by a watch boutique. Only luxury watch shops and large international brands could afford the rents on a street which had originally made its reputation as a location for the best that was locally available. While local is not always better, it can sometimes be more interesting than expensive international sameness. The world did not need another Hublot store, even if Hublot’s commercial team thought Milan did.

Even the French cannot socialize luxury, can’t create some sort of safety net for the expensive, but worthy and vulnerable. Over the last two years I’ve watched multiple of the best, most interesting makers and shops in France close their physical shop, liquidate their merchandise, and abandon their websites, retrenching to only a Facebook page. This is the case with the makers of the wonderful pocketknives that used to be sold at the French shop Arnys before that, too, closed. The Atelier de Sauveterre, based in a town with a half-millennium of knifemaking history, hand made knives with Damascus steel blades and handles in precious materials from wood all the way to walrus penis.

Sauveterre’s history is rather poetic itself: the town is nearly a thousand years old, built as a walled city (a bastide) for protection and organization. While the town does have a long knifemaking history, the Atelier in question is fewer than 30 years old, founded by a former master sommelier who was inspired to open a knifemaking atelier by a French television miniseries about a woman who leaves Paris to take over the family knifemaking business there. Following its founder’s death, though, I watched as the Atelier stopped updating its website, stopped opening its shop on weekends, shortened its weekday hours, and now, finally, is liquidating its remaining stock. Those penis-handled knives are on sale. Without protection.

There are no protections for integrity. We had been hoping that the internet would mean that word could get out about places of quality and integrity that didn’t have marketing budgets, international agents or spiffy brand ambassadors. That’s what I was getting at in a recent piece. On a recent visit to the former Arnys shop, now Berluti’s Paris flagship, I traded reminiscences with one of the old Arnys salespeople, who unbelievably still recalled me. Ah yes, he said, M. Vialis himself, the man behind the Sauveterre knives, died recently. Looking into the dank nightclub-in-the-daytime gloom into which Berluti had redecorated the formerly bright Arnys shop, we agreed all good things pass.

These knives – made as well as they are, as beautifully as they are – are hardly protective. So elegant in my memories of Arnys’ sunny 18th-century décor, always under glass, with their Damascus pattern rippling seductively. At most, they might be pictured next to an apple in the Arnys catalogs, an apple these knives are too pretty to cut. As with everything Arnys, they were performative, meant to suggest a pose rather than be. In this case, a pocketknife picked up for loafing but an unutterably precious kind of loafing and knifing, a blade untested against the sugars and acids of an actual apple and its flesh. The knives are as gorgeously nonfunctional as Arnys’ Srinagar cashmere pocket squares.

Change in inevitable. The Atelier de Sauveterre is liquidating inventory prior to a takeover and change of name which will see its two artisan knifemakers continuing their activity in Sauveterre under a different brand name. Existence will continue, quieter. The same turned out to be true for another French maker who had shut down his web presence and sold off his stock, later reappearing doing quiet private label work to the highest of exotic standards. The only protection we, consumers, can provide is to be aware of what really matters to us (a well-made item, a precious material, an absolutely cracking fit) and to keep aware of changes to what we love. Because we cannot arrest change. The only protection we have is to anticipate and prepare, and follow and foster the good.

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