A man for all seasons

 

MENSWEAR:Milan Kundera, Gerard Depardieu and Lionel Jospin are among the artists, intellectuals and polticians who flock to Patric Hollington's menswear store in Paris for the cut, character and fabric of his clothes. Deirdre McQuillantalks to him

THE NAME MAY be known only to a few connoisseurs in Ireland, but in Paris Patric Hollington's boutique is the menswear destination du choix for the intellectuals, artists, actors and politicians attracted to the cut, character and fabric of his clothes.

Hollington's twice-yearly collections, pithily described and illustrated in excellent pocket- sized catalogues, go to some 18,000 customers, including the writer Milan Kundera, the actor Gerard Depardieu and the former prime minister Lionel Jospin. And there's an Irish connection; although born and educated in England, Hollington's parents were from Clifden, in Co Galway. He is a regular visitor to the Costa del Sod, as he calls it, and has been a customer of Inis Meáin knitwear for more than 20 years.

"Where is Irish tweed today?" he demands when we meet at his Left Bank shop, on Rue Racine, near the Sorbonne. "You are slowly committing suicide in the people's republic of Ireland," he declares with a sweep of the hand. "The Irish, the Scots and the English all made a big mistake: they made fabrics that were heavy and hard. Men today live in well-heated homes, travel in well-heated cars and work in overheated offices. You don't want heavy fabrics."

Today his fabrics come from the best textile manufacturers in the world: hand-woven silk tweed from India, ultrafine Japanese corduroy from Kobe, chenille from France (which he is proud of having revived) and pure merino flannel from south Australia. However, 80 per cent of his fabrics come from the finest mills in Italy.

"I am a fabric junkie. I have a nearly sexual relationship with fabric. I love feeling beautiful fabrics," he says, stroking a spring 2009 sample of corduroy with a self stripe reverse. Dressed in a black sleeveless jacket with raspberry Brisbane Moss cord trousers, a crisp, white shirt and handmade shoes by Lobb, he cuts a figure of studied, offbeat elegance based on comfort and practicality. He hates wearing ties. "Our image is left-wing intellectual, Bobo [ bourgeois bohemian]," he says wryly.

His brand is known for Nehru-collared sleeveless jackets in up to 40 colours and fabrics each season; they come with four inside pockets zipped for security and a back vent for comfort. Features such as carpenter collars ("very much 19th-century French"), 20-pocket waistcoats, horn buttons and prolonged tabs ("rather chic, I thought") show a sharp eye for detail.

"I think about these things in the middle of the night. Ideas come when you least expect them." Workwear is an influence, he says. "Sometimes you will see a detail of a pocket, or a seam, or a pleat, and you think, that's a good way to do it. India and 19th-century France are really my inspiration."

The philosophy behind his garments, he says, is that they are unconstructed. "There is no padding, no interlining and only half-lining, even in winter. So if you are using good-quality fabrics with natural elasticity, men rapidly become comfortable in them. It means we can use relatively inexpensive manufacturing techniques, so it gives me money to spend on fabrics." The clothes are made in France, Portugal and Italy.

He became a designer almost by chance. After graduating from the London School of Economics in the l950s he hitch-hiked to Cyprus, where he landed work as a journalist with the Cyprus Times newspaper. A fluent French speaker who fell in love with France as a student, he returned to Paris with a job at an export company, selling ready-to-wear clothes to US and UK customers. In this way he was thrown into this business. "I got interested in design and started to design and was an instant success," he says.

His shop opened in 1974. Today he not only has a huge customer base in France but a wholesale side to the business, selling to shops in Scandinavia, Australia, Japan and Germany. He has just launched an eau de toilette made in Aurillac, a little town in Auvergne. "Doing fragrances is very complicated and expensive. We did all sorts of tests, and it had to be a natural scent, not synthetic."

This month he will launch a website to sell online. "It's a major step for us, and that is where our growth is going to come from."

His shop is run by female staff, a decision based on his conviction that women serve men better than men do. "One of the big problems of men is that they put on weight, and girls are good at interviewing them and finding that out. Women become their mothers, their sisters, their confidantes. We have customers in Australia, America and, a hell of a lot, within Europe, and you have to have a very good service. We ask everybody for their telephone number, and if we have the slightest doubt we phone them - and they are enchanted."

French men, he says, are very traditional. "The biggest problem is black. I am trying to do colour for men, but it's very difficult with the French. The Italians are the best-dressed men in the world." Currently working on winter 2009, he goes to Italy every three weeks and shows at the menswear fair Pitti Uomo, in Florence. He has a house near the city where he spends the summer. "It is so easy to work with Italians. They are so pleasant and don't spend their life saying no to everything," he says.

Father of two daughters, both married, one of whom makes handbags and the other of whom is a EU lobbyist, he now has five grandchildren. His extended family regularly stay with him at his home in St Maur, outside Paris. "I sit as the patriarch and give instructions that nobody obeys."

With opinions on everything from buttons to socialist-party politics, he is entertaining company, with a wide circle of friends that comprises mostly artists, writers and politicians. Justly proud of his work, he finds that people are often surprised at how complicated it is to make a garment, with all the different elements such as fabric, buttons and zips. But it's a craft he has perfected on his own terms. "We are a little niche operation doing menswear exceedingly well. With men, once you have hit the nail on the head, that's it."

www.hollington.fr/eng/