Chapal, Paris. It’s not something I’ve consciously considered a great deal, but perhaps the most important thing to me in writing is in identifying authenticity. This comes in two forms, both in the craftsmanship of products and in the individuals behind them.
In regards to a product, this means how it is made and its subsequent sale – is it made to a high standard? Are shortcuts taken? Is it being presented as something it isn’t? In practical terms, a family owned and run company such as Cedes Milano are the perfect example of a company I admire. They are thoroughly authentic in what they create. An example of in-authenticity would be (and, unfortunately, has been) a shoemaker who claims a Made in England label (and, sadly, a Royal Warrant) but only do the basic finishing of their shoes in England, after they arrive, largely completed, from China.
To the second point on the authenticity of the people behind the brands, this speaks of their passion for their given craft, their motivations for doing what they do and their character in general. Shoemaker Pierre Corthay (article coming soon) whose love of his craft and a lifetimes dedication is so evident it’s as if he could never have been anything else. As Emerson wisely said “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears, I cannot hear what you say”.
Finding individuals and makers who embody both attributes of my definition of authenticity is difficult, but they do exist. In addition to the examples above, Chapal and Jean Francois Bardinon are proof of this.
Started in 1832 and now in its 6th generation of family ownership, the business is best known for its leather jackets, having made jackets for the French and American military’s during WW1. In the early 1980’s Chapal’s current owner, Jean-Francois Bardinon took the reigns and has since steered Chapal to continued success, expanding the range to cover a more complete wardrobe, from shirting through to footwear, with a predictably strong focus on leather. A lot of the items are more “fashion” focused and not to my taste, but the jackets are timeless. Additionally there is a strong undercurrent of Jean-Francois’ love of vintage motoring (something we have in common) which comes out in many of the designs, as well as the motoring specific products like driving glasses and helmets. Whilst these additions add further range to Chapal’s offering, their leather jackets remain the cornerstone of the business.
The quality is superb, on par with the best leather specialists and all products are still made by hand in France. Rarer still is that Chapal own their own tannery and fur factory (in France). Most of the tannery’s in Italy and France have been bought up by the luxury behemoths (LVMH etc) so it’s inspiring to see Chapal still taking care of its own leather production from start to finish.
Typically I find it very difficult to find an A1 jacket in a slim enough cut (the A1 is my preferred style of bomber [named after the bomber pilots they were originally designed for], as I don’t like the collars on A2’s/A3’s). Most are cut too wide and billow out at the sides. This isn’t incorrect by any means, just not my preference as I prefer jackets to be fitted. Interestingly, Valstar are famous for their slim fit A1 jackets, but they’re currently dormant, having been acquired by Fratelli Fila last year. Chapal offer numerous RTW (ready to wear) options, but the overwhelming majority of their jackets are made to order (MTO). Impressively the made to order jackets (made specifically to your measurements and in your choice of leathers, lining etc) cost no more than ready to wear (2,900 Euros). Whilst you can buy a Chapal ready to wear jacket, the MTO option is the best choice. A Chapal jacket is purchased for a lifetime; leather of this quality and durability will easily take a lifetime of wear and, with a clean and a fresh dose of leather conditioner, will be ready to hand down to your children, when the time comes, decades hence.
When I’m next in Paris, I plan to have either an A1 or motorcycle jacket made, in the slim style I prefer. It’s an investment, even more so than a suit, given the decades of constant wear it will get, and one where it makes sense to have it made exactly to your preferred measurements. Additionally, the A1 style will never date and the leather only becomes softer and more beautiful with the years.
Instantly likable, Jean-Francois has a boyish energy, mixed with an unmistakably relaxed elegance which is uniquely Parisian. There is no sense of pretentiousness or judgement from him, simply a sense of someone who loves his work (the creative elements, at least) and is having fun. Many of Chapal’s offerings are from Jean-Francois’ sketches and there is a feeling that the designs aren’t ones he creates simply to sell more products, but they’re things he likes and wishes to create for others to enjoy for themselves.
He is a patron of the arts, commissioning French artists to create paintings and sculptures for the showroom on rue de Rivoli, which had been his family home for generations until it was converted to become the company headquarters. In fact we were speaking in the same spot where he used to have afternoon tea with his grandmother when he was a boy.
Chapal goes against the grain of other French luxury businesses, with no stores to speak of, only a showroom (by appointment) and a small number of selected retailers around the world carrying its products. Chapal would comfortably sell countless more of its products if it were to follow the now common formula of expansion, big marketing spend and new store openings, but I got no feeling that it holds any interest to Jean-Francois. The business does well, they make beautiful things, he is happy, what else is needed?
Where many (most) “luxury” brands are so particular about every element of their image, trying to delicately craft how they want the market to see them, I would describe Chapal under Jean-Francois, not as a luxury business, but as a business which knows who it is, has fun with itself and just happens to sell a luxury product. Which makes it all the more endearing…. authentic, even.