As he crept towards his 40th birthday, Pierre Mahéo looked around and wondered what he was supposed to wear now that he was officially “grown-up”. You might call it a midlife sartorial crisis, except that it was a gap in the menswear market, rather than in his own wardrobe, that troubled Mahéo. He knew what he wanted; he just couldn’t find it.
“I was able to shop almost anywhere,” Mahéo says, in a gravelly French accent. “I had enough money to buy whatever I wanted. Obviously not a crazy crocodile skin jacket or a pink vicuña coat, which don’t interest me anyway, but clothes that looked good without screaming, ‘Look at me!’” Where, he asked himself, were those classic-with-a-twist pieces that would become staples of his wardrobe? Where were the beautifully cut “carrot” trousers, the sleek overcoats, the unstructured blazers with just the right amount of slouch?
The result of this questing was the creation of the eminently wearable French menswear label Officine Générale in 2012. Mahéo is a brave man – and refreshingly honest. While he says that “being normal is kind of fresh now”, he accepts that it looked straight-laced among the more outlandish offerings of the Paris runway. But this only went to prove his point somehow. “People were pretty sceptical when we started,” he says.
Time has proved a great vindicator, however. Six years on turnover has reached €6m and Officine Générale enjoys a growing following among American and British men. Stockists include Le Bon Marché in Paris and Barneys in New York, alongside a handful of standalone stores, the latest having opened in London in November. Heck, even Mahéo’s compatriots finally appear to get him. “At first I got more appreciation from foreign customers, stores and press,” he says. “Sometimes you have to go abroad to get credibility and visibility in your own country.”
It is Officine’s clever mix of the formal and informal that won them over. This spring, there is a subtle military flavour to some of the collection, such as belted khaki cotton twill chinos (£160), and an Air Force‑blue cotton Harrington jacket (£330) and tapered trousers (£170), that could be worn separately or, for maximum Top Gun effect, together.
There must be something in the water in Paris, because like-minded souls, sharing Mahéo’s unease about the chasm between high street and high fashion, have also been busy launching labels in the past 10 or so years, many of which are now making a real, and ever-increasing, impact overseas. The result is a new “French renaissance”, as Mahéo puts it, of menswear marques (some of which have added womenswear), beginning with the somewhat misleadingly named American Vintage, which excels at off-duty statement pieces. This spring it has a smock-inspired overshirt/jacket hybrid in pale‑blue denim (£165) and a light unstructured navy mac (£260) that would look effortless but elegant thrown over jeans and a T-shirt.
Also winning admirers outside of l’Hexagone is Cotélac, an in-the-know label selling artsy casualwear, including, this season, solid transitional pieces such as a casual blazer (€389) in indigo cotton and linen. Come spring and summer, Cotélac can also always be relied upon for good lightweight jumpers – a fine French-navy wool and cashmere V-neck (€230) is beautifully soft and could be worn without a top underneath. There’s also quiet-but-chic label Hartford. Highlights from its latest collection include a paprika-coloured block-print shirt (€130), which is just the thing to spice up an otherwise sober outfit, and a workwear-style gingery linen jacket (€200).
What these brands have in common is not just being French, but their quintessential Frenchness. The individual aesthetics may differ, but they are united by a distinctly Gallic, highly exportable approach to dressing: chic and elegant, certainly, yet also nonchalant. Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter, which carries both Officine Générale and Hartford, describes the look as “timeless and comfortable, mixing tailoring and workwear”. The forte of this new wave of French brands, she adds, is providing men “with the building blocks to create an understated and versatile wardrobe. They allow them to dress with individuality and ease.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fashion industry now has an adjective to describe what these labels do so well. It talks of “wardrobing pieces”, which translates as clothes you will want to wear time and again for years to come. “These French brands cater to the guy who wants to feel elevated and age-appropriate, and who spends money on his wardrobe but is not too avant-garde,” says Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matchesfashion.com. “The silhouettes are loose and less tailored. It’s not too done-up; overall it’s a very relaxed and effortless vibe – and that’s a very French thing. There is definitely a Parisian look. I always think of a poet walking around the streets of Le Marais, with a long coat, open collar and scarf…”
Of course, it would take a Frenchman to demur – with a shrug of the shoulders. “It is very difficult to know what is French when you are French,” says Mathieu de Ménonville, whose label, Editions MR, proved so popular it had to be reordered twice when it debuted on Matchesfashion.com for spring/summer 2017. “I hear from British, American and Asian clients that we are very French, but it is difficult for me to say.”
The intellectualising is perhaps unsurprising, given that de Ménonville was a philosophy student long before he was a designer. For the coming season he looked beyond the Left Bank for inspiration to the east coast of Africa, where he has travelled widely. Spring therefore sees more colour and pattern than usual in sweatshirts (£240), alongside other highlights such as pyjama-stripe loose trousers (£390) and an unstructured belted mac in a broad navy and white stripe (£525). “I take my own desires as an Orient Express to the collections,” de Ménonville says, elliptically.
Season to season certain things in the Editions MR repertoire remain more or less constant, however – namely the silhouette, high‑waisted, tapering trousers being something of a speciality (this season’s in a black, £230, or grey check, £220, are particularly striking). “I do like the very creative men’s fashion, but I cannot wear it,” says de Ménonville. “I believe that garments are meant to be used, eventually to be mistreated and not glorified.”
It is a philosophy shared by Déborah Neuberg, the founder of De Bonne Facture, who is an advocate of slow, sustainable fashion and talks earnestly about clothes gaining “patina”. Quietly luxurious, in beautiful natural fabrics and a restrained palette, De Bonne Facture clothes are certainly keepers. This might have something to do with the year Neuberg spent as a product manager at Hermès, a pivotal appointment that continues to inform her outlook and aesthetic. “It influenced me greatly,” she says. “The way Hermès works with the best materials, promotes excellence in detail… I was working with the best ateliers in the world. It shaped my vision of what luxury really is.” Her favourite piece this spring is an oversized lightweight raincoat (£675) in Japanese cotton, a nod to the grandad coats she sees worn by the venerable but still natty gentilshommes of Paris.
For Neuberg, the nouvelle vague and the spirit of 1968 are rich sources of design inspiration – as indeed they are for Mahéo, who cites film director François Truffaut and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo as style icons, along with his own father and grandfather. Mahéo père was a Breton oysterman whom he fondly remembers wearing washed-out blue smocks and red chinos; his grand‑père, meanwhile, was a tailor who even wore a three-piece suit to do the gardening, though an open‑neck shirt made it that bit more dégagé.
“I think it is in my genes, in my roots, that mix of the washed-out and the smart,” says Mahéo. “It is something that can be very French. Sometimes it is difficult to find something in-between. And with Officine what I am really trying to do is the in-between, giving character to clothes but keeping the elegance.” And men of a certain age everywhere can say merci for that.