FTDF: Can you tell us about the different steps of your career?
Dominique Lelys: It’s a long and beautiful story. After my O-levels, I followed a course at the Académie Charpentier, after which I was was admitted to the École Camondo. I graduated in 1982 as a designer and interior architect. I came to the fashion world by chance, as it were.
I was a fan of the actor Philippe Noiret. One day, in an issue of Officiel Hommes magazine, there was a feature about his wardrobe in which the name Arnys kept recurring. So I discovered this brand and I started to buy a few gorgeous pieces — with my meager savings. Mr. Grimbert noticed I could draw, so he asked me to design some patterns for fabrics. I had never done that, but I found the idea fascinating. I started to work freelance for Arnys in 1983.
Meanwhile, I had been a trainee at Hermès while completing my studies and worked for Ralph Lauren for a year. I also was in charge of several projects in the furniture and interior architecture area. And, gradually, I got a larger and larger clientele in the fashion business. Among others, I did scarves for the Paris Opera and I worked for Daniel Crémieux — still freelancing. Such stints brought me some kind of fame in fabric drawing. Arnys then asked me to helm their creative department. From then on — i.e. since the late 80’s — I have been working full-time for Arnys.
FTDT: How would you define your style?
D. Lelys: Let’s say I’m into classical fantasy, halfway through between the French and English styles. I dress in a very traditional way. I like garments for what they are, I mean I like to wear clothes in tune with the situation. I find it preposterous to wear a hunting outfit when you are not hunting or riding boots when there’s no horse around! I hardly ever wear tweed or corduroywhen I am in town. And, in town, I rather choose shirts with French cuffs while in the countryside I wear barrel cuffs.
FTDT: The Arnys catalogue contains quite a few hunting items.
D. Lelys: Yes, but it’s an endangered species. We still have customers for such items. So we keep some patterns in connection with that, but hunting outfits hardly exist anymore in the Arnys catalogue.
FTDF: How would you define the Arnys style?
D. Lelys: Definitely Rive gauche, but for a man whose culture makes it possible for him not to respect certain codes.
FTDF: Is Arnys the last defender of French chic?
D. Lelys: I do believe so. You won’t find such a style anywhere else.
FTDT: Exactly what are you in charge of at Arnys?
D. Lelys: Fabric design mainly, and silk. I work on the entire Arnys collection, even though such departments as sportswear attract me more than others. But Mr. Grimbert is in charge of 70% of the sportswear models. I am also responsible for the fine leather section.
FTDF: You’ve been working at Arnys for twenty-four years. In such a traditional enterprise, how much freedom is there for really new ideas?
D. Lelys: Much freedom, because creation is vital. Life is movement. Walking is a succession of steps. Admittedly, when you are in a traditional environment, you tend to use what’s already there. But this doesn’t mean you live on another planet. Whether you like it or not, you are influenced, you belong in a general trend. I don’t believe in ‘creative genius’. You are not a genius just because you do just anything out of nothing. On the contrary, you must have an extended culture, stretching beyond any given frontier. Culture prevents you from being impervious to what’s happening around you.
FTDF: Arnys seems to make a constant effort to open up, to communicate, especially with fashion shows, and to look for a younger clientele.
D. Lelys: That’s right. And there’s no alternative. We still have this image of a company specialized in clothes for senior citizens. That was socially true, when only fifty-year old people (or above fifty) could afford to buy Arnys. But our society is not what it used to be and more and more young men are out for quality products. We must take these younger customers into account, while keeping our ‘quality’ label.
FTDF: Where do you find your inspiration?
D. Lelys: There’s no rule. A tiny element can be influential. I once had the idea of a pattern for a tie just because, looking through the window, I saw a wrought iron balcony. Again, no creation without an open mind. Let’s say I am a sensor and everything can be inspirational.
FTDF: What are, of all things Arnys, the most Arnysian?
D. Lelys: Undoubtedly, the veste forestière, so extraordinary, so convenient. It was created in 1947 for a very famous French architect. And I think it was the seminal garment — an expression of freedom and suppleness.
FTDF: What period would be the best reference for elegance?
D. Lelys: If you ask me, England in the years ’20-’30. With the atmosphere you find in such James Ivory films as A Room With A View or Maurice.
FTDF: What are the great figures in style?
D. Lelys: Philippe Noiret was the reference. Now, I think Prince Charles dresses with class, really, and, no matter what they say, he keeps improving. And I also would mention actor Leslie Howard, not so well known, but whom I find particularly elegant.
FTDF: How can you define elegance?
D. Lelys: It’s a state of mind. I know I am rowing against the stream, but you shouldn’t show off simply to show-off. Do it with a pinch of salt. Be discreet.
FTDF: But a defender of classical elegance can hardly be discreet in 2012…
D. Lelys: You’re right. But you would hardly expect me to disguise myself! I am what I am. I dress up first because I like it; then because it’s a way of respecting the people I meet.
Discretion is a matter of behavior. Putting on such or such colour, choosing such or such pattern is another story.
Arnys hasn’t forgotten the XVIIIth Century, when you could unashamedly wear colour. Today, it’s grey or black for everybody!
Many people believe their life is in their clothes. Big mistake! Dressing up well means dressing up so well you end up forgetting your clothes.
I can give you an example of discretion. When Karen Blixen went on safari in Africa, she first had a travelling case made by Hermes. But she did that for herself, not to display it in countries where nobody knew what it meant.
FTDF: What companies or brands do you still pay attention to?
D. Lelys: On the fine leather front, Hermès. Style-wise, Ralph Lauren. Kiton also produces nice items. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s high quality stuff. And I appreciate Berluti shoes, the bespoke ones.
FTDF: We know you are a fan of the traditional, straight metal razor… What can you tell us about the art of shaving?
D. Lelys: Whenever I can, I spend a good half-hour in the bathroom every morning: toothbrush, bathrobe, shaving are important. After getting out of the bathroom, I dress up in front of a mirror, but I never look at myself for the rest of the day. Getting ready is the main thing.
My passion for the traditional metal razor is recent. First you cut yourself, but you learn fast. This passion fits into my old school persona. And I switched to Eau de Cologne thanks to the traditional razor. I don’t use eau de toilette anymore. Eau de Cologne is very masculine — there’s no spray. You rub, you keep a few drops for your handkerchief and basta!
In this connection, I don’t polish my shoes anymore either. It’s become a kind of trend, but personally I no longer do it. Of course, I did it, for a long time, when I was young and I don’t regret it! But I think polishing is superficial. It means using an artificial technique to give some shine to something which does not shine spontaneously. Now I prefer to leave the matter to Time’s patina. Of course, I wax my shoes very regularly — after a few years they’ll shine like a pair of mirrors. But all this is a very personal matter and by no means a criterion of judgment.
FTDF: Which rules would you never break?
D. Lelys: I would never wear brown shoes with a blazer or a dark suit. But you have to evolve: such rules as ‘no brown in town’ probably no longer apply today. However, I’d never put on a tweed jacket, or a sports jacket, or my apron bluchers if I am invited for dinner in town. I did it, but I no longer do it.
FTDF: Conversely, are there rules you always violate?
D. Lelys: No, because it would mean I want to exist by my clothes only. Transgression should be elsewhere. Well, I realize I did some cloth-transgressing today: look, I am in navy blue and in green, and yet I put a red handkerchief!
FTDF: Can you explain why you wear black shoes with a blazer?
D. Lelys: It’s a matter of morphology. When I wear a blazer with flannel trousers, I don’t want people to look at my shoes. That would shorten my silhouette.
FTDF: Some people think — but we don’t — that only the tall should wear cuffs…
D. Lelys: That’s another story. It all depends on the width of the trousers. I wear trousers 17 or 18 cm wide in their lower part. It’s a question of balance and harmony.
FTDF: What kind of shoes do you feel for?
D. Lelys: Here again, my tastes are very classic and very British. I like apron bluchers a lot, penny loafers and Oxfords, which I only wear with suits.
FTDF: Can we say you are a French gentleman?
D. Lelys: It’s not for me to judge. If you ask me, a gentleman is a well-educated man, who knows the codes. He respects women. He knows the value of things and, above all, of people. You cannot call yourself a gentleman if you don’t respect people, no matter how well-dressed you may be. And culture is important too, even though you don’t have to be a Flaubert specialist to be cultured. Education is the main thing. I am convinced you can find gentlemen in popular milieux.
FTDF: What advice would you give to people who wish to dress the right way and aim at this timeless elegance you embody — along the Arnys lines?
D. Lelys: Let them watch old movies and understand there should be no gap between silhouette and character, between cloth and age. To wear a hat or flourish a walking stick when you are young is out of place. I know what I am talking about — I did it! As you get older, you can allow yourself some fantasies.
My most important advice: you must be aware that never will a garment make your personality. The truth is out there: charm, elegance, tactfulness towards ladies, open-mindedness. If, in addition to that, you are well-dressed, fair enough. But first things first.
Thanks to Dominique LELYS for his availability, kindness and expertise.
Interview conducted by VM and PAL for For The Discerning Few, Paris, March 2012.
No part of it can be reproduced without the authors’ authorization.
Translation by FAL.