Charvet: The Vatican of the Shirt

The wonderful world of Charvet
A woman measures a man's size for a shirt at the Charvet store at the Place Vendome in Paris, France on November 13, 2012. Bruno Levy/CHALLENGES-REA/Redux

Charvet, on the Place Vendôme in Paris, is not just one of my favorite shops—it is one of my favorite spots on the surface of our planet. Charvet is the sort of place where you can never imagine anything unpleasant happening. There is an Old World civility and a respectful hush that engenders in me the sort of spiritual calm that others seek in Himalayan monasteries or Indian ashrams.

Charvet is the Vatican of the shirt, where poplins and silks are pondered over in much the same manner that theologians debated weighty spiritual and liturgical matters at the Council of Nicaea. More than a shirt shop, Charvet is central to France's sense of identity: When General Charles de Gaulle, who wore white shirts with detachable collars that he changed three times a day, learned that Charvet was in danger of falling into American ownership, he shared this fear with Denis Colban, a cloth merchant, who understood what was expected of him. Colban did his patriotic duty and bought the famous shirtmaker. Today, his children, Anne-Marie and Jean-Claude, run the business.

I first pushed upon its famous plate-glass door about 25 years ago. I had, of course, heard of it, but nothing prepared me for the sight of an entire upper floor on the Place Vendôme piled from floor to ceiling with lengths of shirt fabric, and there at the end was a wall of white—or, to be correct, I should say whites. Not dozens but hundreds of different shades, cloths, weaves and finishes of white .

I tend to speak of Charvet as having 400 different whites, but Jean-Claude Colban believes there are "rather more," and I suppose the next time I am passing and have a spare afternoon I will just have to count them. It is the sheer variety of white shirts available that makes me boil with anger when some soi-disant commentator on style talks about the basic simplicity of a classic white shirt; that's like talking about the basic simplicity of a white motor vehicle without specifying whether it is a car, motorcycle, delivery truck, tricycle or scooter.

Once you spend a bit of time talking to Colban, as I did on a recent visit, it becomes clear how even 400 is far from being a complete library of white shirtings. Speaking quietly and precisely, he describes a maze of variables that require a mathematical mind as much as sartorial understanding to navigate. "There are different weaves, different yarns, different conceptions of the same cloth," he says. "Take a simple, honest broadcloth; you may wish to have it very fluid and light, or you may wish to have it with a lot of body and very compact. You could give it a silky handle or a cotton-like handle."

Colban talks of the relationship of weight to handle; of the difference imparted by one-, two- and three-ply yarn; and much more besides. Summing up with the open-mindedness of a philosophy lecturer and the evenhandedness of the diplomat, he says, "All these opinions on the same fabric are valid, depending on what you want to achieve."

For Colban, the white shirt is also a playground of pattern. "The introductions of tiny jacquards and Dobby patterns are more elegant and acceptable on white, while in color we found them to be a bit"—he pauses to reflect on his choice of description—"far-fetched." Which is about as close as he will get to saying that a colored shirt in a fancy weave risks vulgarity. Besides, he says, there is more than enough variation in color on a white shirt. Returning to his broadcloth to illustrate his point, he says, "It could be finished with a blue hue or a very yellowish hue—more suitable for Middle Eastern wearers, a pink hue [for consumers in the Far East] or purple hue [for consumers in America]."

Colban can, at times, see the map of the world in terms of its types of cotton. America is the home of Pima cotton, characterized by its pure, almost antiseptic whiteness. "Some people consider Pima cotton is the most suitable to produce white shirts because it is supposed to be very clean and not polluted by external bodies," says Colban. By contrast, Egyptian Giza cotton is "very close to extra-long staple, so-called Sea Island cotton, and produces cotton with more light and elegance — but it can be affected by different bodies [or impurities], as it is hand-picked in Egypt." Personally speaking, I can live with a few "different bodies" if it means the delicious, crisp silken feel of Sea Island cotton against the skin—as long as it is natural, as there is a tendency to coat cotton with silicon to give it an unreal smoothness, and that can lead to imperfections in the seams of a shirt.

The joy of spending time in Charvet is that an hour can pass in this manner, debating the merits of the tiny differences that separate one white cotton from another white cotton. The beauty of the white shirt is that it is a field in which research is ever broadening the scope of human knowledge on the subject—and Charvet continues to pursue something of a shirt holy grail: a white that is whiter than any other white.

"There are two ways, theoretically, to achieve a very white level of white," says Colban, the shirt master. "One is to use a whitened yarn, and the second is to weave a fabric and whiten the finished fabric. Just for our own interest, we decided to do a superwhite that was double-whitened using optical white yarn and, once the fabric was made, whitening that." Alas, he says, the resulting "difference in shade was not sufficient."

Still, looking on the bright—or do I mean white?—side, at least that means there is one less white to count the next time I find myself with time to kill on the Place Vendôme.