We are proud to present to you an interview with François Ferdinand, founder of J.Keydge.
For the Discerning Few: Can you sum up the different steps of your career?
François Ferdinand: I started in Sales, first for a women’s underwear brand, then for a ready-to-wear company. However during this period, I sometimes played to my creative side. I took pieces I thought would fly, and had them manufactured. Because of my sense of style, I had no difficulty finding the appropriate retail outlets. Making a comfortable commission, I proved to myself that I could design and negotiate.
After 1974, I shifted to menswear. I became the French representative of Peyton a Spanish firm specialized in casual clothes. It was I who introduced their collection to key retailers in Paris such as Old England, Burberry, and Arny’s.
I began meeting people such as Bernard Marras, the art director of Cerruti, who asked me to make two models based upon his sketches.
I then felt like developing my own collection, in a ‘casual chic’ spirit. A rue des Archives dressmaker I had met suggested he could produce such a collection.
This first collection, branded Veyrandes, included cashmere & loden jackets, military-styled worker’s jackets in Harris tweed, bush shirts and trousers suits in serge.
Orders came aplenty, at least in Paris, from the customers I just mentioned as well as from Marcel Lassance, who had just launched his own business.
Unfortunately, my partner was unable to produce the collection in his own workshop. We had to use subcontractors — which considerably increased the costs. This venture lasted just through winter.
A friend of mine in response to this setback suggested the time had come to be an entrepreneur. I knew he was right and took the plunge. So, I set up my own company, purchased the fabrics I wanted, and dealt with subcontractors. My products were sold under my own brand.
FTDF: What was the first brand you really developed?
FF: I first developed “Sunny Side”, a collection of trousers. Thanks to my previous work, I had the opportunity to meet a rather remarkable manufacturer.
Pleated pants were just coming into fashion, and I was one of the first to bring back this style along with Saint Laurent “Rive Gauche” and Renoma.
Although some Parisian shops required that the products sold on their premises bore their brand, Sunny Side developed nicely. Berteil flattered me by placing an order for +3,000 pieces, including trousers and Bermuda shorts for the Spring/Summer 1979.
That was when I started to show my collection at SEHM. To make a bigger impact, I enlarged my product ranges starting first with shirts, then adding ties, and finally jackets and suits.
At the same time, I opened a shop in the Eighth, at the corner of the rue Pasquier and rue Chauveau-Lagarde. I had taken up the lease of an old-fashioned English tailor named Lockwood. Although the store did not speak to the style trends of the time, it had a good reputation. Among Lockwood’s regular customers were some famous peoples as well, the Hemisphere crew.
Once in possession, I renamed the store, Veyrandes. The shop rapidly developed a following in the Madeleine quarter, which has a reputation for being menswear focused.
I must add that I never ran the shop myself. Three years later, the manager died in an accident. I was unable to find a suitable replacement and resold the business in 1986.
I carried on displaying my VEYRANDES collections at the SEHM. The show was perfect for nurturing a growing clientele with people overseas such as John Simons in London with whom I still work.
It is thanks to John that J.Keydge appears in that Ivy classic book by Graham Marsh and J.P. Gaul, The Ivy League. I am honored that we are on the Ivy short list of must haves.
FTDF : You are also famous for your shirts…
FF: Jean-Marie Ménard was one of the best shirt makers in Paris, he was my subcontractor. After a trip to Mauritius for a professional trade fair, I suggest him to set up there a shirt workshop, noticing that all Mauritian factories was working on mass market products, a niche was left for high end product.
In partnership we opened a small factory called “Chancery shirts”, simultaneously, in order to provide orders with regularity, I opened a wholesale shop in the marais, under the name of “Selective” and I gave the management to one of my former employees.
Four years later, Jean-Marie Ménard died. I went back to Mauritius with the intention of reselling the plant. I did not receive any decent offer, However, I discovered two weaving factories on the island, which were able to supply excellent shirt-fabric, even develop special ones.
Fortunately, Jean-Marie Ménard previously recruited and trained a competent professional, Mr Busguth, who worked under him and who could now step into his position and nicely developed the business.
When, in 1994, I introduced the slack jacket to the “selective company”, the product proved to be a sensation. Turnover from this one item quickly exceeded the shirts ones and we needed larger premises. So we moved to the 18° district. At the same time, Riverwood, a Belgian company, who wanted to buy Chancery, approached us.
From that moment, I have spent all my time and efforts developing the slack jacket.
FTDF: How did you come up with this slack jacket concept?
FF: During the Seventies, I would buy American jackets in secondhand shops. I loved their style, the absence of canvas, and their natural unpadded shoulders.
I was not the only one to be attracted by this ‘unstructured’ type of jacket. In France, in the late Seventies, Marcel Lassance had a shot and Marc Miller also made an investment. However, the market was not ready, and their efforts came to naught.
Ten years later, I felt the time was ripe. The ‘morphological’ shoulder, fully natural, without any padding is hard to get right. The Neapolitans were the masters of this cut for bespoke. With the help of an excellent pattern maker, I managed to get the shoulder just right.
Contrary to my predecessors, I did not want a formal jacket. I wanted mine to make another kind of statement: to the give the impression that the jacket was built like a pair of jeans. Hence, I used double stitching, underlined edges, lapels, pocket and flap frames.
For the pattern, I was inspired by the sack style made famous by Brooks Brothers and JPress. Such jackets are comfortable in the chest and waist. Although, the classic sack is a two-button affair, I opted for the more serious three-button design.
Apart from that, I simply used the concept of patch pockets with flap and one back vent. If you examine the Preppy style, you will see this signature as a style statement. I called my model Ivy.
It is my belief that the cultural metaphors around the jacket certainly contribute to the jacket’s continued success. It is as some style pundits state, “The Standard”.
For many seasons, this style was the only one in the J.Keydge collection. As treatments of fabric progressed, we too would add to our ranges with other fabrics and garment dyes and washes.
I knew that the jacket was in need of a name to distinguish it from anything else being sold on the market.
The press picked up the phrase ‘veste molle’. Many trendsetters were rallying around this name, but it was during a dinner party that, I had a revelation when asked about the product. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: “slack jacket.”
It had the perfect ring in tone and insouciance. The next day, I registered the name as a trademark.
FTDF: What year exactly was this jacket created?
There was no precise year. It really evolved over a period of time. Time and development lead to its birth.
The jacket made its first public appearance at the SEHM in September 1990. It was featured in a fifty-square yard stall where I displayed my more ‘conventional’ collections.
To deliver the slack message, I decided to display the jacket impromptu, hung on a Thonet portmanteau, in a corner of the stand.
People were intrigued. When I saw their reactions, I immediately realized I had hit the bull’s eye. When a customer picked up the jacket to examine it, I would say: ‘Try it on!’
Each time this trigger device worked. Looking in the mirror, the guy was surprised to discover there was no padding, but more surprised yet to see the jacket flattered his figure, giving him an air of authenticity.
FTDF: How did you develop the J.Keydge brand?
FF: SEHM made a major impact. At the September fair, I displayed to people in the trade the following summer collection. At this point, I was firmly of the belief that this was a summer product.
However, one of my customers asked if I could do him the favor of making a fall/winter version in tweed or corduroy. I complied and realized this jacket was perfect for all seasons.
By 1997, the SEHM was no longer what it was, and so I attended the Pitti Uomo in Firenze. It was if I hit pay dirt. I was solicited by both Italian and international customers. Even other exhibitors asked if I would produce for them as well.
The Pitti Uomo is a great place to network. I met two excellent agents one from Milan and the other from Rome. After working with them for several seasons, the Italian market grew to represent 60% of my turnover.
The other 40% was divided between France, Spain, Belgium, Japan — and a dozen other countries where my products sold in few specialized shops.
FTDF : Where did the name J.Keydge come from?
FF: From my fascination with American culture and all things vintage. At a shop in Sausalito, I stumbled upon a used shirt with Keydges, printed on the chest. I dropped the “s” and that’s how J.Keydge was born.
FTDF: Who were your first customers?
FF: The Italians were the first to blow my trumpet. Clothes and style in Italy is genetic. It’s in their DNA. They know how to wear clothes with élan, and are enthusiastic consumers. It’s no wonder that Italian menswear industry has conquered the world.
French brands on the other hand have lost their soul. I shouldn’t be too hard on my fellow countrymen. We do have many advocates of our style here.
While I have been to Japan and have 12 key clients, the product has not had the success it has had in Italy. The Japanese in my view are either too formal or trendy. Perhaps, my biggest mistake was to take on a local agent when clients preferred to deal with me directly.
It didn’t take long to realize there was a worldwide market for this type of jacket.
At one trade fair, I met an American who was struck by our product. “Brooks Brothers in the mid-1950s did something like this.” I nodded.
Since the Slack has the nonchalance of jeans, its appeal is quite universal. Given a choice many people now prefer its construction to that of more formal lounge suit jackets.
FTDF: What products are to be found in the current J.Keydge catalogue?
FF: Traditionally, the “Ivy style” represented 80% of sales. It’s appeal as collegiate, sport-oriented and comfortable made it uniquely attractive.
With the advent for slim fit craze, I had to be careful on which path I would walk. An abrupt change in model could be a turnoff. So I designed a more fashion-conscious style. The body fits tighter and the length is shorter. It is a type of Rat Pack redux.
When both Michel Barnes and Albert Goldberg suggested I do more dressy styles. I took their advice although these lines took time to find their niche. Retailers were attached to the Ivy style.
As you know however, people change and so does their taste. Thanks to our own in-house workshop, we are better equipped to accommodate different styles for both men and women. Although jackets are still our specialty, we do matching trousers, (slack-suits) riding coats, safari jackets, trench coats, and military capote.
I should add, all models are not offered in any one-year’s given collection. We change fabrics, colors and adapt to any given trend. The thing I like most is the pieces should be seen as “classics”. That is to say, stylish and beyond any one fashion.
FTDF: We take it you were a role model for many people. Do you have many competitors?
FF: Where leaders dare walk, others will tread. This is particularly true in Italy. Competition they say is the best form of flattery. Many firms manufacture that type of jacket today. Some are expensive and some really cheap. I like to think of myself as a role model in this field where I have built a great deal of expertise.
However as Coca-Cola once said in one of their adverts, “it’s the real thing”. Likewise, if you want a Slack Jacket, there’s only one.
FTDF: How would you define the J.Keydge style?
FF: Design-wise, I always tried to give my models some cultural and functional relevance. I am attached to sobriety. I avoid frills and useless details. I pay specially attention to patterns. I also select fabrics very carefully and often work on them with the suppliers.
Dressing up in one’s Sunday best is on my blacklist.
J.Keydge style is best defined as Nantucket & Portofino shaken not stirred.
FTDF: What is the profile of the J.Keydge customer?
FF : First, he’s a connoisseur. He has a certain je ne sais quoi. Certainly loves clothes, but is not a fashionista. He is rugged in spirit and unafraid to express his authenticity. He lives life with gusto.
FTDF: Is the slack jacket a green product?
FF: Yes. Moreover, they are easy to maintain. Toss them in the machine and wash. Organic soap lets the fibers breathe.
FTDF: What is your personal style?
FF: My personal style has three reference points: Italian, English and American. Not in any particular order. All three cultures have shaped style and men’s habits when it comes to good taste and that certain La Dolce Vita attitude.
I think at the end of the day, I love the American approach best with their effortless way of being causal and chic as best embodied on the East Coast, and particularly in New England, the home of preppy chic. This is also the homeland of the original slack jacket.
They’ve taken the best Europe has to offer and made their own mash. Clothing innovations adored worldwide were born here whether we speak of selvage, jeans, oxford button-downs, the sack cut, and moccasins. Causal chic is an American style forte. Just think of the natural shoulder. It’s not for nothing that certain Italian firms have chosen “American” names to codify their brands.
FTDF: And your definition of elegance?
FF: If I had to choose one word, it would be simplicity. Simplicity embodies integrity and respect for self and others. Circumstances dictate what to wear and when. Never dress for show; it’s so false.
An elegant man knows the rules. Better still he knows when to break them. He also understands the glory of color without being a peacock.
You know, often I come across complete strangers in my travels wearing my Slack jacket. It makes me proud because each was wearing it with “allure”, turning this simple garment into a personal statement of who they are. Sometimes it’s a Hermes Vintage Square causally stuffed into the breast pocket, sometimes worn over a black turtleneck or an incredible colored polo shirt.
However it’s done, I enjoy their unique style.
Many thanks to François Ferdinand for his knowledge and kindness.
Interview conducted by PAL and VM. Paris, July 2012. All rights reserved.