Combray: Vintage, high-end menswear
I find I’m particularly interested in vintage clothes at the moment.
That may be because of their inherent character, or the fact it seems more sustainable, or just that I’ve had a lot of clothes over the years, so often the things are more unusual or interesting are vintage.
Whatever the reason, it led me to an online vintage store I hadn’t heard of before, Combray, which despite the name and largely French stock, is based in Hong Kong.
It’s run by Simon, a mathematician at a local university, and the thing that struck me immediately was how curated it was. There aren’t too many clothes, and they’re all the highest level of quality - from people like Arnys, Charvet, Anderson & Sheppard and The Andover Shop.
My biggest frustration with vintage is always the lack of curation - the fact you often have to spend a good hour so rifling through racks before you find anything that’s of the best quality and a reasonable size.
It’s why I’ve bought pieces in the RRL shops over the years. They’re always expensive, but what you’re paying for is the curation, the selection. If they have a leather jacket, it will be at the perfect point of worn in but not falling apart, and be somewhere between a 36 and a 42 chest.
The Vintage Showroom in London was almost as good in terms of its curation, but unfortunately it’s now just largely online. And in fact the same goes for Brian’s Wooden Sleepers in New York, now he’s moved out of Brooklyn and up to Yonkers.
Of course, it’s only 35 minutes on the train up to Yonkers, but chances are if you’re a tourist visiting New York, you’re less likely to head up there than go to Brooklyn.
Which I think makes curation all the more important. Shopping vintage is hard enough, but doing so online - when you can’t try things on without shipping back and forth - is harder still. It needs a tight selection and great customer service.
Combray seems to be doing both of those things, which is great. Simon has a clear idea of the kind of clothes he wants to offer, and the photos and measurements on the site are good.
His love affair with French menswear started when he found a Charvet shirt in a local second-hand shop: “It was just so lovely, better than anything else I had, with this beautiful logo on the label,” he says. “Plus of course it was a lot cheaper than getting it new.”
Although Simon appreciates the aesthetic attractions of vintage, his prime driver has always been cost. “Even today, I don’t really buy anything new ready-to-wear,” he explains. “There is the occasional bespoke commission, which is obviously different, but ready-made things always seem nicer and cheaper second hand.”
After the Charvet purchase, he got into other high-end French brands like Sulka, Arnys, Seraphin and Chapal. He liked the fact it was a smaller world, certainly compared to the attention given to English or Italian menswear.
“Within the world of French clothing, I actually find a lot of people trade these old clothes around,” Simon says. “Particularly places that don’t exist anymore like Arnys or Sulka. People buy things and wear them for a while, but might later sell them on, I’ve seen a few clothes go through the shop like that.”
In fact, this is one reason he keeps such a large ‘Archive’ page on the site, showing many of the things that have been sold in the past. “There is precious little information around on old French brands - the occasional blog article, and a StyleForum thread about French tailoring, but that’s about it,” he says.
“I think it’s great that people can see on there a gallery of all these great French pieces, get a better idea of what they are like and even taken inspiration from them.”
It was an unusual French piece that first caught my attention: a Sulka raincoat in navy silk (above). It seemed to tick the boxes of things I like: unusual but subtle, classic but characterful.
Unfortunately, I neglected to read all of Simon’s notes, and didn’t check the measurements on the sleeves. Although the body length was just about OK on me, the sleeve length was a good two inches too short.
Other than that it was lovely though: nice sheen to the surface, good shape when cinched, and with a nice zip-through liner.
The other piece I bought was more of a success: an old canvas backpack made by a German company I hadn’t heard of before called Seil Marschall.
Having read up on them since, they’re a pretty quirky outfit, but the quality of the bag is superb. Great canvas, lovely hardware, and nice details like an antler fitting on the end of the waxed drawstring.
Then there’s the attraction of vintage: the bag is already beautifully weathered and looks like it’s been used for a decades. I love the patina on everything from the canvas to the leather to the brass.
The prices, by the way, are in US dollars, not Hong Kong. It’s not quite as cheap as you might initially think (and hope)!
Combray is, of course, a reference to Proust, and Simon is a big fan of French literature - even if he’s even got far through In Search of Lost Time. “I love the writing, but I never made it any further than Swann’s Way,” he confesses, “I still read it, but I pick it up and enjoy the language, rather than working through the story.”
It’s a good name for a French vintage shop though, given Combray is associated in the book with nostalgia and beautiful times past.
Simon initially started selling his own French clothes, then added those of others, and has recently added a few other brands, when friends have offered them to him. He still wants to retain the French focus, but it’s hard to turn down Loro Piana or The Andover Shop, and that does keep the quality level up - plus new stock coming in regularly.
In fact, he has even sold a Permanent Style product in the past - the first iteration of the Trench Coat made with Private White VC. Ethan at Bryceland’s is always saying the biggest compliment to his clothes will be if they go on to become great vintage. I didn’t realise how true that was until I saw a PS piece on there.
Simon accepts clothing to sell too, of “similar caliber and spirit”. Anyone interested can contact him through the form on the website