Power to the people, and their quality workwear.
Like so many of us, I’ve integrated the workwear obsession from the ‘90s into my everyday wardrobe, to such an extent that I no longer think of it as workwear. Then it occurred to me, as it often does, that in fact I’ve been pursuing a new obsession for the last couple of years, but hadn’t really noticed. This is because it’s an extension of an existing obsession.
It started with the purchase of a reasonably priced, vintage, unbranded French work shirt in Spitalfields market. The faded blue (the French do blue so well) of this old, Sanforized shirt looked and felt great to wear. Then I bought a winter weight Saint James Breton top, followed by an Armorlux summer Breton.
I discovered the Arpenteur brand on the Oi Polloi website and, having acquired the classic smock, quickly went on to live in this amazingly comfortable and versatile top. I’ve since met devout smock wearers so obsessed with these garments that they have them made to measure, and are unable to understand why no one wears them anymore. I agree: they're great.
I still hadn't realised that I was in the midst of another obsession. More classically French items from Arpenteur appeared in my wardrobe. Arpenteur have that knack of taking everyday French clothes and modernising them with tailoring, and high quality materials. The result is that you want everything they make. They use cool, illustrated labels and tags that remind me of Hergé's Adventures of Tin Tin. It's all so very French.
The realisation of the obsession finally dawned on me during a family holiday in Paris. We found ourselves in the Le Mont St Michel store situated in Le Marais. This brand has been making workwear for a hundred years, and has developed a timeless, simple, upmarket range of clothing based on these original designs. Their version of the Veste de Travail is perfect for the current trend of casual suiting; it’s also thick enough to wear in Autumn or Spring, without a top coat.
I get a lot of grief at Christmas: it’s a tough time for my wife and family, as they have to buy me a present. The cry goes up, “What do we buy the man who has everything, and is so pedantically fastidious about everything?" This is usually followed by, "You’re a nightmare!”
So, on the 23rd of December, I’m with my concerned wife, being marched around the shops of Marylebone High Street in an attempt to find me a Christmas present. The high street is packed with terrified looking men, panic-buying presents for their spouses. I overheard one man ask a surprised shop assistant, "Do you think my wife would like this?"
I suggested a visit to J.Simons in Chiltern St. John Simons greets us as we enter the small shop, and above his head is an original poster for Le Mont St Michel workwear. I enquire if it’s for sale, but alas, it’s not his to sell.
“If you like French workwear, I’ve just got some Vétra coats in–just sold one to a guy in Norway.”
Vétra essentially means workwear in French, as the brand name is an abbreviation of les vêtements de travail. Vétra was started in Paris in 1927 by Edouard Breenens. He created a full range of men's workwear garments which proved so successful that he had to move the factory out of Paris to the North of France. By 1939, they were making French army uniforms. However, on the 19th of May 1940, following the Nazi occupation of France, and Edouard’s refusal to make German uniforms, he packed up his prized Reece buttonhole machine, and left with his family.
They settled in the small town of Lude, and Edouard set about making uniforms for the French Resistance. When the war was over, Vétra went back to making tough, durable, quality workwear.
After the General Strike of 1968 (sparked by the student uprising in Paris), the trade unions demanded Vétra clothing in their industrial negotiations. Frankly, you can’t get more 'French workwear' than that.
Edouard’s buttonhole machine was finally retired in 2010, having made 895,000,000, buttonholes.
I slipped the Vétra coat on, and it instantly felt right. John Simons smiled, as he knew he’d made a sale, and my wife sighed with relief that finally she’d found my Christmas present.
Vétra make a great apron too: perfect for rustling up a Beef Bourguignon.