There is rhythm in the way Jean-Claude Colban writes street directions for me on a cream-coloured card. A brief, unnecessary smoothening of the paper; the deliberate uncapping of the fountain pen; the deftness of touch as pen meets paper, and a flick of the wrist at the end, maybe to dry the ink.

A genteel manner comes easy to Jean-Claude, for he is cut from a rare cloth. Along with his sister Anne-Marie, Colban owns and runs Charvet, the storied shirtmaker. Joseph-Christophe Charvet, whose father Jean-Pierre was Napoleon’s “curator of the wardrobe”, started the business in 1838. Joseph-Christophe not only opened the world’s first shirt store but also introduced the modern bespoke shirt.

Charvet’s owners Jean-Claude Colban and his sister Anne-Marie. Besides shirts, Charvet makes suits, ties, and bow ties for men; pajamas and cotton robes for women; and bespoke shirts for children.
Charvet’s owners Jean-Claude Colban and his sister Anne-Marie. Besides shirts, Charvet makes suits, ties, and bow ties for men; pajamas and cotton robes for women; and bespoke shirts for children.

Jean-Claude Colban writes street directions for me on a cream-coloured card. A brief, unnecessary smoothening of the paper; the deliberate uncapping of the fountain pen; the deftness of touch as pen meets paper, and a flick of the wrist at the end, maybe to dry the ink.

A genteel manner comes easy to Jean-Claude, for he is cut from a rare cloth. Along with his sister Anne-Marie, Colban owns and runs Charvet, the storied shirtmaker. Joseph-Christophe Charvet, whose father Jean-Pierre was Napoleon’s “curator of the wardrobe”, started the business in 1838. Joseph-Christophe not only opened the world’s first shirt store but also introduced the modern bespoke shirt.

“People like you,” 60-year-old Colban tells me with a smile, “sometimes forget what we, the French, did first.”

Out of the five top French shirtmakers—Charvet, Bouvin, Poirier, Seelio, and Seymous—only Charvet has survived. When in the 1960s, it seemed like the heirs of Charvet were about to sell the shirtmaker of Charles de Gaulle, the French government requested Denis Colban, one of the main fabric suppliers to Charvet, to find a French buyer for the firm. Denis himself bought it in 1965, thereby earning the right to enter Charvet from the front door for the first time because all suppliers were only allowed in from the back entrance.

Charvet produces 600 kinds of just the classic white shirt in a year.
Charvet produces 600 kinds of just the classic white shirt in a year.

The sense of history apart, there’s some rare peer recognition that Charvet has earned over the years. “You know, fashion designers,” Jean-Claude makes that sound like a question, almost as if he himself has heard of that phrase quite recently. “The world buys from them. But when they shop for themselves, they come to Charvet.” Among them are Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, and John Galliano. But the Colban siblings insist that no matter what anyone “speculates”, Charvet never names its customers.

Okay ... what about sales and profit numbers, I ask. “Such trivial questions,” is all he will say. But according to speculation—yes, again—the business is worth at least $50 million (Rs 315 crore). Predictably, the Colbans won’t confirm or deny this either, but if this number appears small, remember that Charvet is mainly a one-shop operation. The majority of Charvet’s revenue comes from bespoke, made-to-measure, and special-order garments made at the Paris store. For bespoke pieces, a customer is measured and a new paper pattern is made, from which a garment is created. Made-to-measure and special orders are variations made on existing garments. Charvet produces up to 600 kinds of white shirts, another 1,000 in various colours, and 5,000 types of ties every year. It also makes bespoke pajamas and robes for women and bespoke shirts even for children.

Some online stores do sell Charvet shirts, and products like socks and ties are available at some 50 shop corners in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, but the one and only Charvet store, in Paris, is the revenue engine. Jean-Claude says that sales on online store Mr Porter are growing in “double digits”, but the store at 28, Place Vendôme is where the pride is.

The original Charvet used to be at Rue de Richelieu but the shop moved to Place Vendôme in 1877 after the iconic opera house Palais Garnier, the focal point of Parisian fashionable life, was inaugurated in 1875 in the vicinity. Charvet shifted to its current premises in 1982. It is the oldest store in the area and even uses the sun logo created for Louis XIV, the Sun King.

An air of elegance pervades the 10,000 sq. ft., the six-storey Charvet shop. The ground floor is for retail sales, and on the upper floors are fitting rooms, including those for bespoke suits, which are crafted in 30 steps. The first thing you notice is the quiet inside the building. It is the sort of place which can put a customer at such ease as to demand that Charvet create a new dye so that he can buy 200 socks of the same colour, as a customer once did.

By sticking to just one brick-and-mortar shop, the message the Colbans are sending out is this: Isn’t it nice to come to the store, to make that trip no matter where you are in the world? “We think welcoming customers to our home is the best way for us to [provide them an opportunity to] experience our products,” says Anne-Marie. “For other luxury brands there are shops all over the world. They try to replicate the same experience everywhere. But there is only one Charvet and it’s in Paris. This makes the experience much more special.” Who wouldn’t want that—especially if they are spending $600 to $1,100 on a white shirt (a suit, depending on the fabric, could easily soar up to $10,000).

Charvet is housed in a six-storey building in Paris’s Place Vendôme.
Charvet is housed in a six-storey building in Paris’s Place Vendôme.

Sales on the Internet, says Jean-Claude, “came as a surprise because we believe that it is important to feel and see our products. But people seem to understand very well what they are buying on the Internet.”

While Charvet hasn’t shunned the Internet, it still follows its age-old policy of not doing any marketing or advertising. “We do not feel that our customers expect that sort of communication from us,” says Jean-Claude. But that should not be mistaken for Charvet feeling smug. Anne-Marie says the 100-employee (two-thirds of them make shirts) company is constantly evolving. This year, for instance, it is trying to create a new shade of white for shirts.

Charvet is different in yet another way. Usually luxury brands make their money selling accessories such as perfumes, shoes, and handbags. The clothes lend glamour to the brand while other merchandise brings the numbers. “Our model is exactly the opposite,” says Jean-Claude. “We sell only clothes. We are not trying to build a brand through clothes to sell other things.”

But the most evolved articulation from any brand or brand owner in my 20 years of writing about luxury is Jean-Claude’s take on the Charvet customer. “The difference between our customers and those buying some other luxury product is that they buy a Charvet for themselves, not for the implied social value,” he says. “You will buy a necktie from a famous brand for someone who will recognise that name... But you will buy a Charvet to use yourself or for someone who you know intimately.”

For Charvet, intimacy is a constant theme. The Colban siblings emphasise again and again that no human body is the same as another and, therefore, no suit or shirt can ever be similar. The wrists of the same person may vary, or if he wants to wear a thin watch by day and a chunkier one by night, the measurements of the cuffs will vary.

Wei Koh, who runs the men’s lifestyle website The Rake, describes the process of buying a bespoke shirt from Charvet as “therapy”. He says an understanding of the mystique emerges only after buying around 10 Charvet shirts.

Koh has written about instances of Charvet making its way into literary works. In Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, natty aristocrat Lord Sebastian Flyte wears Charvet ties. Marcel Proust’s masterpiece In Remembrance of Things Past has mentions of Charvet ties, an item of clothing that also pops up in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full.

Fabrics for Charvet are woven to its exact specifications for yarn, weave, and finish.
Fabrics for Charvet are woven to its exact specifications for yarn, weave, and finish.

“Charvet always had these painters and writers who pushed it to constantly try new things, and they were willing to buy,” says Danielle Grisson, a jazz musician and owner of a café and a recording studio in Paris. Charvet not only created styles like the stand-up-turned-down collar for Edward VII that came to be called the HRH collar, but also collaborated with fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and painter Raoul Dufy in the beginning of the 1900s.

Grisson, who is fond of Charvet bow ties, also tells me that the “secret to Charvet’s success is its customers”. She explains this by talking about the unique position of artists and intellectuals as makers of taste in French society. The iconoclastic philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, for instance, has made a uniform of the Charvet black suit and white shirt, left open at the chest.

As customer stories go, Anne-Marie has an adorable one. “We made a bespoke shirt for a 1-year-old [French] boy who was to attend the wedding of his parents, and had to be properly dressed,” she says. “The father was a jewellery designer, so he designed little cufflinks to wear with our shirt! It was difficult for us to make the French cuffs because we had never made them for someone so small, but we managed.” That was four years ago. Now Charvet has a ready-to-wear line for children from the age of three months.

But Anne-Marie’s favourite story is about a couple who have been coming to Charvet for 40 years. Each year they travel to a new country and get pajamas made with piping and embroidery coordinated with the flag colours of the country they are visiting. “Maybe wearing the same brand of pajamas each year brings stability in a couple’s relationship,” she says laughing. It is also the kind of relationship that many share with Charvet.