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
I believe that the Seil Marschall backpack was a special model offered by Kaufmann Mercantile in and around 2012 – I certainly remember wanting one then. Seil Marschall’s own backpacks invariably have the branding on the outside of the flap. Glad to learn of Le Combray – I only wish that I had known about it before you so that I could have bought the bag myself! It has aged beautifully.
Thank you, and really useful information too, thanks
Ah, another piece about vintage. They’re all lovely (pieces and clothes), but so annoying at the same time! I’d love to save some money and buy vintage, but everything is just too short… Please Simon, don’t make me sad, stop writing about it!
Sorry about that Robert!
I’m surprised if these are all too short and you find ready-made that’s the right length though, given these are pretty recent models?
Oh no, no ready-made for me either 🙂 At least nothing of high quality. Some cheaper brands (like, say, SuitSupply) have a big enough customer base to offer long sizes, but even then jacket sleeves are too short for me. And with the brands you normally cover, no such long sizes are ever available anyway.
Completely agree with you, every time I see a lovely vintage piece and check the measurements, I find that the lenght of the body and particularly the sleeves is just so short, while often times the waist is too large.
Simon, is there research in menswear regarding evolution of the average morphlogy over decades ?
Good point PA, I don’t know, though you’d think brands and makers would evolve. Just as a one-off example, we’ve done so with products when people have commented about things like that – just a centimetre here or there – and the makers then often build that into their standard patterns
A vintage dealer once explained to (I think it was Sean Crowley) that smaller sizes tend to survive longer and in better shape simply because they’re unusual. A more average size will be circulated more widely, donated and worn and donated again, whereas very few people would need a, say, 36 short.
“A vintage dealer once explained to (I think it was Sean Crowley) that smaller sizes tend to survive longer and in better shape simply because they’re unusual. A more average size will be circulated more widely, donated and worn and donated again, whereas very few people would need a, say, 36 short.” This may be true but I think it glosses over the fact that smaller sizes were the norm up until a certain point in time, at least until the 1950s? I know that in vintage menswear forums, belted back suits with pleated pockets or pleated back always command very high prices. But the reason you see so many 38Rs in those cuts isn’t because that was an odd size so someone decided to take care of it a little better. It’s because there were more 38Rs made in the 1930s and 1940s. You see a good example of this in quartermaster reports from the US Army during WWII: they made more uniforms in 36s and 38s because those were more common sizes. There were less 42s made but of course that is the more common size today. So if you find a vintage M41 jacket in a size 38, the odds are more likely because there were a million more jackets made in that size than a 42. Of course it also depends on what you consider “vintage” – I believe that term covers anything over 20 years old, although some collectors point their nose up at anything made after 1970, and vice versa. . .
“ Shopping vintage is hard enough, but doing so online – when you can’t try things on without shipping back and forth – is harder still”
I’ve wondered about this before and I think there is an unfilled gap in the market for a well curated trunk show/bazaar type of pop-up that could be done on annual basis or so in a central location e.g London West End. There is (or used to be) an annual week/end sale in Munich for used Ski gear held in a big showroom/warehouse. I always thought that this is a great way for both buyers and sellers to interact and trade, allowing buyers to see and feel items in the flesh and try for size and for sellers to have a ready and hungry market they otherwise wouldn’t have easy access to while keeping costs to a minimum.
The sheen of online only shopping has worn off for me. The whole shipping back and forth has just become a real pain. It can work if you’re 100% certain about sizing, but that doesn’t take into account what something looks like close up, the texture and the feel of it. The last item I bought at the the Vintage Showroom when it was open on Earl St was a North Sea Clothing cardigan (not vintage mind, but they are online only now). Since then a couple of items I’ve ordered online I’ve had to return due to sizing which has simply put me off ordering online. Even though detailed measurements are given, it doesn’t compare to trying on in the flesh.
Good idea Con.
If it helps, of course there is our pop-up coming soon, which will allow you to try on anything you want, before buying online any time you want. And I am also trying to organise a second-hand sale along the same lines too. A small start along that road perhaps.
I’m hoping I can get in to London for this year’s pop-up; and a second-hand sale sounds fantastic…
Cool, good to know Ant
Nice to know my PS trench (v1) is already vintage.
They won’t be getting mine.
I’m wearing it ‘till I drop !
I think buyers of vintage online have to appreciate that the perfect item comes around maybe once every third purchase. For every perfect gant suit, pair of ray bans, or Ralph Lauren penny loafers, there are 2 x awful slim fit suits that can’t accommodate 225lbs at 6 foot 3 no matter what the measurements say, plain toe toe bluchers that look like battleships and other disasters. The mailing back and forth is all part of that game.
Yes! It also turns you into a bit of a pest because you’re always asking how much is left under a hem, or whether there’s an allowance in the waistband.
I’ve also found you get unexpectedly wild styling every now and again, which is much more fun than something which doesn’t fit you.
Great find for French vintage. Also recommend Au Drole De Zebre, based in France, for similar pieces.
Hadn’t heard of them, thanks Brett
Chato Lufsen has a selection of vintage Arnys items, as well as their own rendition of the original Forestière. I have not tried the latter but would definitely avoid the new Forestières made by Berluti. Very different cut and details despite the “Berluti Arnys” logo. The Combray archive is great, and it is nice to see the Saint-Germain-des-Prés style being promoted in Hong Kong.
Thanks Paul, and yes I’ve been meaning to see the Chato Lufesn selection for a bit
I’d be nervous about buying some of the more tailored stuff online but it seems like an awesome place to get high-quality accessories and even knitwear for cheaper than you otherwise might.
Simon, do you know someone who can alter knitwear? I have your Dartmoor sweater but due to my straight shoulders it‘s creating a neck roll, same as most RTW sport coats. I absolutely love the sweater but the neck fold is pretty huge and strangely enough got bigger after a wash. Thanks
I have used people to do that, like Love Cashmere and Cashmere Circle, but that’s too complicated an alteration really. They will shorten body or sleeves, or narrow the body, at the most.
Hey Simon, just love the breadth of your coverage … never knew I’d find so much niche topics such as this on PS. I have always loved the way clothes and leather age. Like matured wine. Did you ever come across a label called ‘Marlboro Classics’ in the 80s and 90s? It was in the mould of RRL and they felt like vintage items even when new. I still have some of the items from cotton scarves, leather satchels to cowboy belts/buckles and brass neckerchief bands. And all still intact with a certain patina to them. Bravo for this feature!
Thanks, and interesting to hear about Marlboro Classics – I’ve seen imagery but never owned anything
Thank you for this information. Le Combray is a lovely shop, indeed. And its website is also nice.
Unfortunately, the website is not well designed, 1) The visitor is forced to click on an image without even knowing what the size is – huge waste of time. 2) There is no way to filter by size. Again, huge time wasting…
Good points David, but this is one guy doing it in his spare time. I think those points could be put more constructively
People really under estimate the complexity of websites. Having clickable pictures is easy to do, having a full database to search is a big build job.
I asked them some questions and they were super nice. And have an eye for unique things so I’ll forgive some features.
Simon, on a related point, they have a beautiful cord jacket, but in 46. Could this be tailored down to a 39/40? I’ll also ask Pinas and Needles.
That’s a big change Paul – I’d think it unlikely.
It’s easier if you think about the specific things that need to be altered. It’s easy to slim the body, for example, but very hard to alter the shoulder width, particularly if it’s not a bespoke garment. So see if you could live with the shoulder width
I love some of the classic styles of vintage especially if they were well made& not of a throw away nature. My problem is the uncertainty of sizing & condition no matter how well the retailer tries via the internet & the hassle if not right. Much better to try in store but I suspect these vintage stores have moved on in their pricing structure since the days of army surplus stores – Lawrence Corner. In terms of sustainability it may be fine unless you have to fly to NY or HK;-)