Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… a pilgrimage to Paris

Worshipping in a cathedral of exquisite taste

Swellboy on… a pilgrimage to Paris

Image: Brijesh Patel

August 12 2010
Nick Foulkes

The importance of ritual cannot be underestimated, and I am one of those people for whom rituals are vital. I am sure it has something to do with attempting to make ourselves safe amid the toils and travails of life’s turbulent journey. Of course, I know that ritual does not make us any safer; but, like the illusion of self-determination that comes with being self-employed, it is a comforting fiction to which I cling.

Besides, ritual links us to our past. One of the chief benefits of the Catholic faith would appear to me to be that some of the pageantry attendant on the organised worship and communication with the divine that takes place in the Church of Rome is, or at least I believe was, conducted in Latin, the lingua franca if you like of the world of into which Jesus Christ was born and a tongue that would have been familiar to him and his apostles, which is really rather marvellous when you think about it.

And it is for this mirage of permanence that I suppose I am groping when I perform my own rituals. Alternatively, it could of course be because I like them. Take for instance my trips to Paris: I cannot think of visiting the capital of Monsieur Sarkozy’s republic without paying a visit to Charvet, probably the world’s best shirtmaker, on the Place Vendôme. I have Somerset Maugham to thank for the introduction, in that in his novel, The Razor’s Edge, the tragicomic character of Elliot Templeton is a Charvet customer – though in the film of the book this is changed (presumably to suit the American cinema-going public of the time) to Sulka. But whereas Sulka may be gone, Charvet sails serenely on and for the past 20 years or so, every time I have happened to be in Paris, no matter how short the visit, I have always found time for worship in this cathedral of exquisite taste.

For anything from a few moments to a few hours, the quotidian concerns of life are suspended as I wander in mute admiration through the towering walls of shirtings and peruse the polychromatic piles of silk pochettes, each secured by an old and heavy weight from some long defunct set of scales. This is ritual as heady narcotic, as I find complete escape here, discussing with the owners, Jean-Claude and Anne-Marie Colban, the importance of the quarter tone and debating the conditions that permit a fault in a fabric to be considered a “cultural irregularity”. It is always a wrench to leave, but leave I must, as I have to accommodate a new ritual – a visit to the ateliers of Seraphin and its proprietor, Georges-Henri Zaks.

Seraphin is a relatively new discovery of mine. It is one of world’s the most exigent makers of leather jackets and, with a manufacturing headquarters on the Quai de Valmy, it values the maintenance of ateliers in Paris – quite right too: it is a joy to see dozens of skilled men and women cutting, sewing and patinating leather. Here too there is much debate about when an imperfection becomes a mark of character. The discussion as to whether a crease in a piece of leather is a mark of individuality or a fault would take more than the few hundred words of Swellboy to explore.

Georges-Henri is a great character; to hear him rhapsodise about the quality of Ethiopian lambskin is to want a garment in this skin immediately, and accordingly I was measured for a blouson in this miraculous paper-thin, whisper-weight, but incredibly strong hide – I picked it up the other day and I love it and it was my constant companion on a recent visit to the Welsh valleys, where the weather consisted almost entirely of a gentle drizzle. So in a way I suppose it could be argued that, as well as fulfilling an important psychologically protective function, my Parisian rituals also afford physical protection against the elements, which is more than you can say about most spiritually-oriented rituals. I reckon this is probably what Ralph Waldo Emerson was driving at when he said, “The sense of being perfectly well dressed gives a feeling of inward tranquillity which religion is powerless to bestow.”