Parisian businessmen should not be a barometer of men's style in France's chicest city. The majority of office workers slog through the streets in poorly made, ill-fitting black suits, too big across the shoulders and baggy at the ankles. Instead, you have to look to the dandies, those who dress up because they want to, not because they have to. These men wear large, puffy cravats and scarves along with bright, colourful shoes and subtly flamboyant suits. They have to, if they are to keep up with the supremely fashionable women that fill the city's streets and runways.
"I am inspired by haute couture," says tailor Lorenzo Cifonelli, "not threatened by it." Despite sounding Italian, Cifonelli is a cornerstone of Parisian tailoring and one of the best-known names in bespoke. And while Cifonelli is synonymous with classic suits, especially double breasted and featuring a 1940s-style low buttoning point, there is a flare to their design you won't find on Savile Row. One any given day, for example, Lorenzo might be wearing his own creation: bespoke sweats. From a distance you'd think it was a classic single breasted suit. But take a closer look and you'll see that it's made of soft grey cotton with barely any padding or structure and while the trousers feature traditional cuffs, they also include cargo pockets. And Lorenzo is apt to wear his "sweat suit" with a pair of super bright running shoes from Japan. "Being in the shadow of haute couture gives us freedom," he says, "freedom to express ourselves."
You can certainly see a burst of sartorial freedom nearby at the Berluti bespoke shoe atelier. Here, a small group of artisans craft shoes by hand, one pair at a time. But this is not a dark, dusty workshop of old. Almost every shoe that comes out of this atelier bears a colourful patina Berluti is known for the world over. There's bright green, deep pink and the Berluti signature, literally: fanciful calligraphy carved right into the leather. Interesting to note that this flair – the "scritto" script and the colourful patinas – was introduced to the company by fourth-generation owner Olga Berluti, a woman.
But where you may be most surprised to find feminine flair in men's style is on tony Rue de la Paix. Lined with the biggest names in international luxury, there is an old-world feel to this street. It certainly seems like you are stepping back in time as you enter Charvet, the world's first shirt store, opened in 1838. But once you are through the glass doors built into the building's French Baroque facade, what greets you is an explosion of colour. The first floor is packed with ties, scarves, pocket squares and ascots (or more appropriately "cravates") in every colour of the rainbow. The onslaught is somewhat jarring, especially in contrast to the various shades of drab grey of the street outside. And while the custom and ready-made shirts on hand stick to more traditional whites and blues – with a few pinks and yellows thrown in – it is in accessories where Parisian men, like its women, express their flair and personality.
And yet the biggest surprise may lay just north at 16 Rue de la Paix. Camps de Luca is Paris's other big name in bespoke tailoring, currently run by Marc de Luca and sons Charles and Julien. You will not find Cifonelli's flamboyance upon entering Camps de Luca. Instead, there is an understated elegance that suggests the more sober British approach to men's style. But even in this bastion of classical elegance there are hints of French flair, whether it is in their signature "fish mouth" notch lapel or their tear-drop shaped interior pocket – features that serve no real purpose other than personal expression and style.
"We feel like we are in the shadow of haute couture," says Julien de Luca, adding with a smile, "but we are very busy so it doesn't frustrate me." The fact that Camps, like Berluti, Charvet and Cifonelli, are thriving can come as a surprise, considering they are based in a city known for women's wear. "We don't have the budgets that these haute couture houses have," Julien explains, "so it's been hand to mouth." Their success, however, is clearly connected to the fact that they are overshadowed. It is the influence of French women's fashion that allows Parisian men's wear to stand apart from neighbouring fashion capitals in England and Italy, which usually receive all the attention. They embrace the shadow. As Cifonelli is fond of saying, "We are men's haute couture."